In the garden

LILY, the supreme illustrator, always has flowers in the house, and whenever I return to Shetland after staying with her I vow to do the same, rushing out to pick a bunch or two for the principal rooms.

The new regime usually falls by the wayside after a week or two, sometimes sooner if the subjects have a short vase life.

Little unseasonal treasures sometimes make it into the house, to save them from the elements, and to allow them to be admired at close quarters for a bit. Apart from that, indoor floral decoration hardly plays a role – until Christmas.

After getting my first taste of English country house festivities when visiting James’s extended family in Surrey, I followed suit and lavishly decked the halls with holly, ivy, and any other greenery I could lay my hands on.

Mantlepiece garlands, door wreath, candle bases, arrangements for every shelf, ledge, niche and bit of furniture were de rigueur from the third week of December onwards – embellished with fir and pine cones, dried and lacquered fruits, gilded walnuts and cinnamon sticks, and yards of artistically and complicatedly tied and curled ribbons.

To keep the whole lot going until Twelfth Night called for a rigorous daily regime of misting, watering and spraying. There was even a time when I earned money from fresh and dried seasonally slanted floral decorations sold at Shetland craft fairs.

Those days are gone forever and I don’t mourn them. Apart from a little vase of twigs and a bit of fir for advent, the greenery stays largely on the trees and shrubs it belongs to, and that is how I like it.

Still, one must have flowers. Flowering houseplants are a good standby at this time of year, and for me Cyclamen in all its forms and shapes always comes top of the list. The ones generally available for indoor display are Cyclamen persicum or the slightly robuster C. hederifolium, and there’s something incomparably fresh and endearing in those backswept flowers, heart-shaped marbled leaves and clusters of buds nestling beneath them. When faced with a selection of colours I’ve yet to manage walking away with just one plant – it has to be at least three, preferably half a dozen.

Cyclamen are not the easiest plants to grow, but kept cool and in reasonably good light, these little gems usually outlast the festive season and continue to flower well into spring. Dried off afterwards by placing them on the top shelf of the greenhouse staging, they can be re-potted and revived in summer to coax them into another perform-ance.

The Christmas cactus, Zygo-cactus truncates or Schlumbergera truncate, is one of the easiest to grow and flower well, provided it, like the cyclamen, is given a resting period over the summer. It is capable of living in the great outdoors from May to August, if you protect it from slugs, full sunlight, and too much moisture. Mine spent the summer months dotted around the garden – which creates one problem: finding them all in good time can be difficult. This cactus is an epiphytic forest dweller by nature, which means it grows on the bark of trees and leads a frugal existence. I have ancient plants that flower their hearts out every Christmas yet have never been re-potted or fed in their lives.

Make sure you put it where it’s meant to flower before the buds form otherwise it might abort them, and don’t forget to reward it with a tepid shower after its display. Some of mine, forgotten and left outdoors, or following retrieval from the compost heap, perform on cue. This plant doesn’t hold grudges, and if you manage to kill it, then I’m sorry to say that there is absolutely no hope for a gardening career in your case. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a Euphorbia pulcher-rima, better known as poinsettia, the plant world’s equivalent of scarlet, velvet ribbon.

Give it warmth, plenty of water, and good light and, to secure a long flowering period, make sure that the actual flowers, at the apex of the coloured leaves, are still in tight bud when you buy your specimen.

It is possible to keep a poinsettia going, and to coax it into flowering for a second, even a third time; however, giving it alternating and precise periods of light and darkness, is a rather laborious process. You probably have to give up your day job to achieve success.

Hippeastrum doesn’t roll as easily off the tongue as Amaryllis, but that is what we should call those flamboyant flowers that rise on stout stems from a very large bulb. Amaryllis belladonna is quite a different plant, with smaller, more numerous flowers, produced in late summer or autumn. Some wonderful new Hippeastrum hy-brids have come on the market of late, and a few species, such as the delightful green, brown and cream concoction H. papilio.

All are easy to grow and well worth the effort of keeping them going for several years. Once the flowers have faded, and the leaves have grown to their full length, start feeding your plant to help it build up strength.

When the leaves start to die down, stop watering and allow your Hippeastrum to dry out completely before its summer resting period. Pot into fresh compost in late August and prepare yourself for another spectacular show.

One flower I adore used to be freely available from Shetland florists, but is harder and harder to get it seems.

For me Christmas just isn’t complete without a bunch of mimosa blossom, and since our Acacia dealbata has been banished from the temperate/semi-tropical Temple to the Arctic greenhouse, it is on a go-slow, and never opens a bud before the end of March.

Next year I’ll have to write my letter to Santa early in order to secure some of those canary yellow pompoms with the incomparable scent, and as the shops are brimming over with the most wonderful cut flowers just now, there’s no need to fret.

Rather than popping them all into a vase or sticking them into oasis foam, some shall be arranged to float on water. This works particularly well with single flowers, even single petals, and flat greenery such as individual leaves rather than shoots or twigs. It’s a great way to play with flowers, and lends itself to a wide range of approaches, from large table centres to individual finger bowls. I have a wide black bowl made from coal, which is perfect for the creation of Oriental flower pictures.

Unfortunately, the striking golden elder foliage I like using isn’t available in winter, but the individual pinnae, stripped from a frond of Polystichum acrostichoides, make a good substitute.

This plant is known as the Christmas fern because it remains evergreen, and is used for seasonal decoration in its native North America. Every gardener should have one.

By the time you read this, I’ll probably be out there snipping away at my Christmas fern, and scanning the garden for a hellebore that shows a little colour.

I’d love to put one on the bedside table for our house guests. They’re in Shetland already, but I’ve no idea how to contact them about the all-important German Christmas Eve dinner party. Just in case they read my column: “Dear Ali and Si, 24.12; 7.30pm; evening dress. Please bring boiler suits, sou’westers, and wellie boots for bestial post-dinner rituals.”

Wishing all my readers at home and abroad a merry Christmas and happy gardening in 2009.


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