There was no shortage of gardening books in pennypinching 2009, but who wants or needs to buy them all?

Seriously. Do you really want to shell out $25 for a book about green flowers? It's informative and pretty, but unless you're consumed by the topic, I'd read this one at the library.

Here are some sensible, highly subjective, ideas for books worth buying this holiday season. Some are good to have around for reference. Others you'd just like to have in your library, which at this rate will be a dinosaur museum before you know it.

For reference: The American Horticultural Society's New Encyclopedia of Gardening Techniques: The Indispensable Illustrated Practical Guide, edited by David J. Ellis, Fiona Gilsenan, Rita Pelczar, and Graham Rice, published by Mitchell-Beazley/Octopus Books USA, $45. That was a mouthful, but here's a book you can digest in small bites over time.

You'll find step-by-step instructions for pruning, watering, propagating; information about all categories of plants, from lawns to fruit; directions for creating patios, water features, effective lighting; sections on organic techniques and recycling; and how to treat pests and disease.

There's plenty more, the point being that this is not a trendy or single-topic book. Consider it a plant-lover's mutual fund - a little of this and a little of that, in a dandy investment.

Here's another, for the beginner: Homegrown Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs by Jim W. Wilson and photographer Walter Chandoha, published by Creative Homeowner, $16.95. Between the two of them, Wilson (in Missouri) and Chandoha (in Hunterdon County, N.J.) have a century of experience in the garden. So, OK, your eyes may glaze over when they reminisce about the Great Depression or wax cranky about "the current infatuation with all things organic," but there's lots to learn from these two. They tell you - and show you in beautiful photographs - how to grow 36 vegetables, 12 fruits, and 13 herbs. Straight up. Good stuff.

For the curious: The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf, from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, $35. This is a rarity - an entertaining history of those plant-crazed founding fathers of horticulture, as we practice it today. Two of the most interesting are London cloth merchant Peter Collinson and his New World business partner botanist John Bartram of Philadelphia. If I can get sucked into this book during my summer vacation, you'll definitely enjoy it over the winter.

I suspect, too, that as we learn more about gardening, this book will be worth reading again and again, each time offering new insights because we grow more receptive with experience.

For the curiouser: Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty An Illustrated Time Line by Catherine Herbert Howell, National Geographic Books, $35. This will add substantially to your botanical knowledge. It's a truly fascinating history of plants, and how certain ones have changed the world.

Think about the influence of black pepper, sugarcane, corn, rubber, cotton, tobacco, opium poppy, potato, cacao, and coffee. I'm putting this book under the Christmas tree myself.

For the single-minded: Anna Pavord's Bulb, published by Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Books USA, $39.99. If bulbs - and corms, tubers, and rhizomes - make your heart soar, this book will be transforming. Through 544 pages and 600 images, you'll span the lot from Acis to Zigadenus, bookends of what Pavord calls "the most glorious group of plants on earth." Trust me. If you're a bulb person, this book will be a drug. It has everything you'd ever want to learn, with astonishing photos by Andrew Lawson.

These books all came out in 2009, but there are many others published over the last few years that are worth buying for your own or another gardener's dinosaur museum.

Top of the list: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, $17.95, first published in 2007, updated this year.

This is the "it" book in certain gardening circles. It's really struck a nerve.

That's because Tallamy, chairman of the University of Delaware's entomology and wildlife ecology department, has taken a hot topic - habitat destruction - out of the theoretical and, literally, brought it home to the backyard. Especially in the suburbs, but the lessons apply to urban gardeners as well.

"For the past century, we have created our gardens with one thing in mind: aesthetics," he begins. And off we go.

Tallamy lays out how overdevelopment has harmed wildlife, how our alien landscapes offer no food or shelter for native birds and insects. And he argues persuasively that to restore biodiversity, every backyard in the country needs to be planted with native plants as a "last refuge" for native species.

After so much serious stuff, here's a book to put you in a lighter mood: The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander, published in 2007, Algonquin Books, $13.95.

This is one of the funniest gardening books ever. Just to keep things in perspective.

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.