I’ve been hankering over a greenhouse for years, even though I plainly have nowhere to put one. Turns out I am in luck and that Christmas has come early. Santa’s secreted this miniature marvel amongst the boughs of our tree, complete with besom, water butt and roses in full bloom. The dusting of snow along the glazing bars is an especially festive touch. I am not certain whether this model comes with heating, irrigation system or automatic ventilation, but think I will need to be selective about what I grow in it. Micro greens perhaps?
A little tongue twister for you on this chilly Saturday afternoon! I refer to a certain magenta marauder that’s found its way into a bowl of pure white cyclamen on our garden table. The vermillion villain must have crept in as a wayward seedling, biding its time before surprising us with a daring dash of flaming fuchsia. Given the scarcity of flowers outside in December I am loath to cleanse the arrangement of our scarlet scoundrel, so will leave him be. A drop of blood-red does, after all, feel symbolic given the rapid approach of Christmas.
This is Percy, one of our neighbourhood parakeets. He’s far from sick, in fact he’s in rude health, preparing to overwinter in sunny Broadstairs. His shrieking call will replace the herring gulls’ squeals until the New Year. It’s me that’s sick as a parrot, having taken a turn for the worst in New York. I don’t half choose my locations to go down with gastroenteritis. Bloomingdales and a Boeing 747 are not great places to be when feeling off colour, hence my state of collapse on arrival back in the UK. I hope to be on the mend soon and back with festive posts of a more healthy nature.
For those of you resident in the UK, you might like to tune in to Kirstie’s Handmade Christmas on December 9th at 8pm on Channel 4 to see yours truly doing a little turn. More on that shortly….
As Christmas approaches, I find myself rapidly running out of time to do all the wholesome, festive projects I promised myself I would tackle. Fairisle baubles remain unknitted and card-making materials fester in the bottom drawer. Anything that can be bought ready-made will be snapped up and, as on other occasions, I may shamefully fail to divulge their lack of handcraftedness. I remind myself that I am not some kind of Christmas superhero (I’d be called Captain Spangles due to the permanent slick of glitter on my face), and try to manage my own expectations of myself better. But, when handed the opportunity to move a little closer to festive godliness, I am not going to turn it down.
I haven’t been invited to many blogger events before, but this one, organised for telecoms company Three, was right up my street. On a blustery Thanksgiving night six of us assembled at Angel Underground station in North London, ready to take part in a very special wreath-making masterclass. We were each presented with a spanking new Samsung Galaxy Alpha with which to take photos, then trotted off to Amwell Street and the perfumed environs of Scandinavian florist Flor Unikon.
I should not have been surprised, but apart from resident floral designers Pasi and Paul, I was the only man taking part. It was only after quite a lot of squeezing between buckets of milky white Avalanche roses and magenta lilies that we all managed to fit in, huddled with cups of mulled wine beneath the warm light of an antique chandelier. Here I encountered my second challenge with the phone (the first being my total ineptitude when it came to even finding the camera function) which was getting a decent picture in low light conditions. The Samsung performed reasonably well versus my beloved iPhone 6, and perhaps slightly better in well-lit spots.
Founder of Flor Unikon, Pasi Jokinen-Carter, explained that when he first started making wreaths in his native Finland there were no such things as glue guns, and that everything was finished using florists’ wire. This is how we were to construct our own wreaths, building on a base of straw, which is traditional in Scandinavia but quite unusual in the UK. Pasi showed us how to get maximum usage out of our boughs of noble fir (Abies procera) and how to attach each silver-grey sprig to the base using a special type of black wire that holds everything firmly in place. It was a lot more difficult than it looked, involving a lot of fumbling about on my part. By the time we had all completed our ring of greenery the air in the tiny shop was heavy with citrussy-fir scent and our hands were black with sticky resin.
Through trial and error we all managed to achieve a good foundation for our wreaths, although there was much innuendo regarding some being bushier than others. Personally I liked mine on the bushy side: all the better for decorating. At this point glue guns were permitted and Paul showed us how to arrange and then apply a smorgasbord of dried fruits, nuts, berries, cinnamon sticks and baubles to personalise our creation. His top tip was to position decorations so that they appeared to emerge from the foliage, rather than sitting on top.
I was feeling fruity, so went with a tasty arrangement of fruit slices (apple, orange and lime), pert crab apples, ilex berries, pinecones, spongy white moss and the odd, unshelled almond. I learnt the hard way that moss is not a very good barrier between hot glue and one’s fingers!
Wreath completed, I tried the phone’s camera out again and was very happy with the results – good clear resolution but with a few highlights that needed sorting out on the computer later on. It was probably the way I set the handset up, but the photos were much longer than I am accustomed to. I am far too entrenched in the world of Apple to find alternative gadgets instinctive, and for this reason alone I am not about to change camps, but the Samsung is a smart, clean phone with a really bright screen and lots of fun little sounds and vibrations which amused me on the night, but might irritate longer term.
Pasi assured us that our wreaths would last a couple of months, even if displayed indoors. Mine is already up, just in our hallway where I can admire it every day on the way out of the door. Perhaps I can aspire to Christmas greatness after all, just not clad in lycra and flying through the air to the cry of “Up, up and away”.
Flor Unikon will be running one more wreath making class before Christmas, on December 7th 2014. Click here for more details.
You may think I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey, but in my head I am still in my teens so I hope you’ll forgive me for writing this letter. It’s been a while, so I hope life is good and that you’ve had a restful summer. Like you, I am horribly busy at this time of year so I thought I’d get in early and give the elves plenty of time to track down everything on my wish list. If you do happen to be in a certain department store over the next few weeks I hope you like what I’ve done with the seasonal fayre – you’ve been a big inspiration yet again. Despite the popularity of Click & Collect I think you’re job’s pretty safe, that is unless you’re privatised. Fortunately you move rather faster than Royal Mail and even Amazon can’t catch you. Thank goodness for those turbo-charged reindeer, they deserve a medal.
I have tried to be good through 2014, but admit I have fallen some way short of perfect. I have not, hand on heart, pilfered cuttings or seeds from anyone’s garden and have carefully nurtured any plants I’ve been gifted. Some of them even have names. My eyes are still bigger than my stomach when it come to nurseries, and so plants are one thing I really don’t need this year, or any other year for that matter. I fed the birds until they made such a mess of the terrace that I had to stop. In return we’ve been rewarded with a burgeoning population of collared doves and sparrows. I have been easy on the insecticide but a little gung-ho with the slug pellets. What can I say? I am sure if you have a garden you will understand. On occasion I have been a bit grumpy, overtired and not as kind as I could have been, but promise to make up for it next year.
At this point in my life I want for very little. (You will have guessed by now how far from teenage I really am.) Consequently my list is full of luxuries I would never buy for myself, but would genuinely cherish. First of all tools – anything made by Sneeboer would be much appreciated, but I am flush for Felco secateurs right now, thanks all the same. One can never have enough trowels, especially when Him Indoors treats them like plant markers and leaves them dotted around outside in all weathers.
I would love a flashy camera, as I am under the delusion that better equipment will mean I take better pictures. I should really take a photography course instead, but just don’t have the time. I’m a Canon man, just in case you were wondering. Might I ask that a memory card is included, as I have a habit of leaving them plugged into the side of my laptop?
A greenhouse is top of my list. I am sure everyone’s fed up with me banging on about it, but having had one at the age of 14 I feel I have taken a backward step at the point when those numbers have been reversed in order. That first greenhouse, a temple of propagation, was metal-framed and covered with polythene. I’d want this one to last, so would prefer teak or cedar if you can run to it. On second thoughts, put this request on hold for a year or two when hopefully we’ll have moved somewhere with more space. I guarantee I will have sorted out my grumpiness by then.
I hope you don’t feel I am being greedy, but I am known for being a man with expensive tastes. One must maintain standards at all times, although I have been known to let things slip on Boxing Day. Those photographs are safely out of harm’s way lest my impeccable reputation be tarnished.
Do please let me know if you have any special requests for Christmas Eve. Him Indoors is a dab hand with shortcrust, mincemeat and icing sugar, and I like to keep a very comprehensive drinks cabinet. We had eleven different gins at the last count, which even concerns me slightly. We don’t have a chimney, but will leave the back door on the latch. I hope you like what we’ve done with the garden since you dropped by last year – it’s been long overdue – although alas no carrots for Rudolph to munch whilst he’s waiting (we don’t allow bare hooves indoors).
Wishing you all the very best for the festive season
The Frustrated Gardener.
P.S. Him Indoors would like a new garden bench, but we can’t agree on one we like or where to put it. I usually get my own way, but as I’ll never get time to sit on it I’ll let him explain what he’d like.
“She can’t be unhappy,” you said,
“The smiles are like stars in her eyes,
And her laugh is thistledown
Around her low replies.”
“Is she unhappy?” you said —
But who has ever known
Another’s heartbreak —
All he can know is his own;
And she seems hushed to me,
As hushed as though
Her heart were a hunter’s fire
Smothered in snow.
Snowfall, Sara Teasdale (August 8, 1884 – January 29, 1933)
As far as flowers are concerned the pickings are fairly slim in our London garden at this time of year. Because of this I am loath to turf out pots of white Begonia semperflorens which are still plodding along outside the French windows. Likewise I am clinging on to Salvia patens, steadfastly sending up new spikes of extraordinary blue flowers despite the cold and wet. And still covered in tiny pink bells is Fuchsia microphylla, its elegant stems arching gracefully over a rough terrain of fallen magnolia leaves. What troupers they all are.
One plant that looks better than it ever did during summer is Clematis ‘Madame Julia Correvon’ AGM (top of post). Mme Correvon, a 114 year old Grande Dame of exceptional breeding, is a viticella type clematis, which I always find tragically prone to mildew. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s because every garden I have ever owned has been enclosed, but even with regular fungicide treatment the old lady is covered in a debilitating white bloom by mid-July and rarely recovers her looks until Autumn. From October to December, when damp air is guaranteed, we look forward to a repeat display of her luscious, magenta, windmill-sail flowers. Très Bon.
Fairly new to cultivation is Anemone ‘Wild Swan’, a perennial which has quickly achieved star status. It was first spotted by nurserywoman Elizabeth MacGregor growing in a batch of anemone seedlings. That was twelve years ago and by 2011 her discovery had been named Chelsea Plant of the Year. Anemone ‘White Swan’ can still be a little hard to get hold of, but once you’ve tracked it down you’ll be rewarded with elegant white flowers from May until the first frosts. The backs of the anemone’s petals are a moody lilac shade, as if dusted with sultry eyeshadow. I suspect the star qualities of Anemone ‘Wild Swan’ will guarantee its place in plant catalogues for at least as long as Mme Correvon.
We never have a great deal of success with Nerine bowdenii, mainly because we can’t give the bulbs the baking they need during the summer months. This year has been an exception. New bulbs planted in deep gravel at the foot of a wall have produced tall flower stems topped with explosions of pink. They look completely out of place against the drab detritus of the late-autumn garden, but I find myself thrilled to see them. I hope they’ll be back again next year, bigger, brighter and more plentiful.
I’d love to hear what’s still giving you pleasure in your garden and your tricks for brightening up these gloomy days.
One of the things I love most about Christmas is festooning our London flat with greenery and flowers. I adore the smell of fresh-cut pine and white lilies, and the idea of bringing the outdoors in. Decorating our open-plan space is a much-anticipated event. To get it all done I like to start as advent gets underway with a few simple, not overly festive arrangements. In an ideal world I’d use only fresh material cut straight from the garden or bought from a good florist, but time and funds rarely allow, so I mix fresh foliage and flowers with artificial elements and rarely is anyone the wiser.
For now, I am doing my research. One place I always look for inspiration is Williams Sonoma, an upmarket American retailer best known for its beautiful cookshops and moreish peppermint bark confectionery. All through the year they offer a lovely selection of wreaths and garlands made from dried flowers and foliage, but at Christmas they come into their own. Americans like their decorations large and luxurious, which suits me just fine. I love the simplicity of this bay leaf wreath, which would look great in my kitchen all year round.
This year I ordered Amaryllis from Living Colour Bulbs and was staggered by the size of the bulbs that arrived. Each one, the size of a cantaloupe melon, had at least two flower stalks emerging from its papery crown. I chose a variety called ‘Royal Velvet’ which has lustrous flowers of the most decadent opera-house red. When they start to flower in a few weeks’ time they will outshine every other decoration in the flat and will be worth the minimal cost and effort. I’ve planted the bulbs tightly in deep ceramic pots (glazed a rich forest green) so that the heavy heads are well supported when they bloom.
To match these sumptuous blooms I am sorely tempted by John Lewis’ Vibrant Vintage Amaryllis Wreath which is artificial, but who cares when the flowers look this realistic? At £25 it’s cheaper than just three good quality bulbs and much easier to care for.
As I write this post I have a generous bowl of Cyclamen persicum ‘Sterling Wine’ on the kitchen counter beside me, a reminder that Christmas really is coming. The deep magenta flowers are held proud above beautifully marbled foliage and will last for months if watered sparingly and given good light.
Back to Williams Sonoma and a sumptuous wreath combining cedar, eucalyptus, pinecones and berries reminds me of the days when I could pillage my parents’ garden for winter foliage. There’s nothing like getting out in the garden with your secateurs and harvesting great bundles of aromatic conifer and glossy holly to bring indoors. This swirling arrangement celebrates all shades of green with just enough touches of red to make it festive.
We have a lot of brown tones in the flat, which draws me to another wreath made up from one of my favourite foliage plants, Magnolia grandiflora, humble box, fir, pinecones and a white berry known as Texas tallow berry. It turns out that this invasive tree, otherwise known as Triadica sebifera, is an Asian infiltrator and the third most productive vegetable oil crop in the world, after algae and oil palm. Who knew? In any case the white fruits look very pretty against the coppery indumentum of the magnolia and the organza ribbon.
I hope this post has got you thinking creatively and feeling Christmassy. I’d love to hear how you plan to dress your home this season and if you have any top tips to share.
In my world it’s Christmas every day, but there comes a point, around now, when the rest of the nation starts to wake up to the imminent arrival of the festive season. I was lucky enough to spend the whole day on Friday touring the best garden centres in the North West, looking at what they buy and how they display it for their customers. It was quite an eye-opener, especially for someone more accustomed to London department stores. The likes of Newbank, Bents and Barton Grange take Christmas very seriously indeed, giving over huge amounts of space to this lucrative but short-lived commercial opportunity. And it works, their carparks and restaurants are jam-packed from the start of November, attracting coach parties from far and wide, customers clamouring to see their extravagant displays.
Autumn bedding done with, real plants play second fiddle to artificial trees, sparkly trims and dazzling lights. Anyone who knows the area well will be familiar with Bents, a huge set-up in Glazebury, Cheshire. It’s a family business with a lovely story behind it. In the 1930s Alfred and Margaret Bent started to cultivate roses in their front garden and it wasn’t long before their garden became the talk of Glazebury. After WWII Alfred was advised by his doctor to take an outside job, so he bought 16 acres and began growing on a larger scale. From those modest beginnings has grown a significant business which has made a name for itself when it comes to Christmas. Despite the disruption of a new, and not entirely attractive extension, the darkened interior has been transformed into a winter wonderland, displaying no less than 15 decoration themes. Pictured above is Botanique Jardin, replete with prowling panthers and pround peacocks. Display trees, which could only be described as exuberant, were decorated with great professionalism by a lady called Angela. She can come and shape my spruce, primp my pine and fiddle with my fir any time! However Bents is all a little over-the-top for my personal taste.
Outside in the ‘Open Skies’ glasshouse I greatly admired the colour-themed displays of plants selected for winter interest and was sorely tempted to buy.
On the outskirts of Bury, Newbank Garden Centre was more my cup of tea. The complex of old farm buildings and modern greenhouses has a lovely atmosphere and a slightly more restrained aesthetic. This is another family business (and how much better for it) where attention to detail, sharp pricing and customer service still counts for a great deal. Shoppers are treated to some very accomplished displays, which gave me lots of ideas for my own home this Christmas. My favourite themes were the pared-back green and natural collection….
…. and homely ‘Claret and Candlelight’. All those rich colours made me feel instantly festive – a look that would never date.
At the other end of the spectrum, Urban New Year was a range composed of natural wood, zinc, denim-blue and copper decorations – achingly cool and sophisticated. I loved it. Outside, Newbank have a great selection of larger trees and topiary as well as a Christmas grotto, opening later this month.
I came away wondering why garden centres in the south can’t hold a candle to their northern cousins. Perhaps their relative proximity to London means that customers seek their inspiration in department stores such as Liberty, Fortnum and Mason and Harrods rather than local retailers but, surely, there must be an opportunity for quality garden centres to do more. I’d love to hear where you shop for your Christmas decs and whether I’m missing something right on my doorstep. Meanwhile, I’ll definitely be heading up north again for my seasonal inspiration next year.
Bents Garden Centre, Warrington Road, Glazebury, Cheshire, WA3 5NT. Phone: 01942 266300
Newbank Garden Centre, Bury Road, Radcliffe, M26 2WW. Phone: 0161 724 5050. (Also in Dobcross, Halifax and Royton)
Tonight I am greatly in need of a happy pill. The best I can muster from the depths of the medicine cabinet is a dusty asprin and some anti-acid tablets, so as an alternative I am resorting to the best therapy of all, looking at flowers. Even as a toddler I contented myself for hours looking at brightly-coloured seed catalogues and this primitive remedy still works wonders for me to this day.
Wine glass in hand (a nicely chilled Viognier being the second best therapy I know of) I am thumbing through the spring editions of the Chiltern Seeds and Seeds of Distinction catalogues, lapping up the silky deliciousness of their varnished pages. How far these publications have come in recent years: no longer the garish tack-fests that one still receives from Messrs Parker, but filled with carefully colour-coordinated images that wouldn’t look out of place on the walls of a gallery. Look at this mouthwatering shot of Centaurea americana ‘Aloha Blanca’ and tell me you are not sorely tempted.
After bulbs and fancy shirts, seeds are probably my greatest vice. That’s the rock-and-roll life I lead. Fuelled by wine and bankrolled by my credit card I am known to be pretty dangerous, hence tonight, at my most vulnerable, I am keeping both hands occupied by typing this post. But I will succumb before spring to those luscious little postage stamps of colour that are viagra for my soul. Tequila, it makes some people happy, but for me I need nothing more than good old-fashioned flowers.