Gardening: Deck the halls with amaryllis

A bit of chicken-wire, a length of ribbon and a skilful way with apples can transform your decorations.
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The Independent Culture
I have just bought some new ribbon, which entails a massive shift in decorative style this Christmas. The children, whose eyes, after any absence, flick over the house like federal agents, checking that everything is in place, will not miss this daring innovation. They will notice that the old ribbon has moved on to trim the bucket of the Christmas tree. And that the new ribbon is decorating some circular swags that they have never seen before. Oh shock! Oh horror! Will they ever recover?

It all started with some circular plastic rings filled with Oasis that a friend saved from a wedding and passed on to me. It's sad to have such a reputation as a junk junkie, but there we are. It's too late to fight it now. These rings are about 18in across, with the Oasis packed into a 2-in-thick band round the outside. They were originally used flat, as table centres. In their new life they will be hung, wreath-like, against the walls of the dining-room.

The only wreath we generally have at Christmas is the one that hangs on the back door - sprigs of holly jammed into a round, crumpled sausage of chicken wire. The Oasis rings give a firmer, flat-backed base to build on and I've used ivy rather than holly for the greenery. You need both at Christmas, but ivy is so much more forgiving to work with than holly. It is at its best now, with the fine, triangular leaves topped with dark bunches of berries.

Once all the foliage is firmly jammed in place, decoration can be a matter of whatever you have to hand. I like proper glass baubles, because the surface reflects the light more crisply and brightly than plastic ones can ever do. The wreaths look better with clusters of small baubles than they do with big ones. But you could use fir cones, sprayed silver (left plain they disappear into the background), sprays of hips from roses such as `Kiftsgate', allium or leek heads sprayed and frosted, or gilded and burnished walnuts. There are not many occasions when I could in all seriousness burnish a walnut, but Christmas does funny things to us all.

The ribbon was to give the finishing touch to the wreaths which are to hang in the hall. When I was buying it, I meant to tie it in a bow at the top and let the ends hang down in two (I hoped) elegant fishtails, high enough for the cat not to swing on, low enough to cover some dodgy bits of wall, which is what had given me the idea of doing the wreath- disguisers in the first place.

By the time I got home, I thought instead that I would try binding the ribbon loosely round and round the wreath. It didn't work. I needed wire- edged ribbon, not the soft stuff I had got. Even in my Christmas-befuddled state, it wasn't worth a 300-mile round trip to VV Rouleaux.

Life's not like that if you are a professional florist. Paul Thomas has a flower shop like a grown-up Santa's grotto in Mayfair. It's tiny, with a narrow path winding towards the counter between buckets of pink amaryllis, gilded twisty willow, sacks of fir cones and outrageously butch roses. When I arrived, he was building a miraculous decoration (one of many) for the chairman of Unilever's Christmas party.

The container was a tall, frosted glass vase, shaped like the galvanised French flower-buckets that interior designers use as a passport to the land of Style. Silvered twisty willow wound its contorted way up from the mouth of the vase to touch the bunches of dried flowers hanging upside down from the ceiling. Brilliant amaryllis were ringed round the rim of the vase, with sprigs of blue larkspur pushed into the gaps. Ethereal see-through baubles hung from the willow, like vast soap bubbles caught in its branches. "That's the whole point," said Paul. "Unilever. Soap. Bubbles. They own that famous painting. Boy in a velvet suit..." It was shaming that he had to spell it out, but he did it very kindly.

I'd gone there because of a new book, The Art of Floral Design, which features his flower arrangements. In fact, "arrangements" is far too wooden a word. These are creations. Happenings. Theatre. I loved them. Especially one that showed a plastic urn (not a very big one), covered in moss, then piled high with green apples. A spider plant made a quirky, pineapple- like finial on the top. Not being selfish about his secrets, he shows, step by step, how you can make these creations at home. And if you've never wielded a stub wire in your life, this book is a real revelation.

If I wanted to pile an urn high with apples (and I do, I do), I would simply heap them up until they began to fall down. The disadvantage of this approach is that you can't build a very high pile. And the pile is very unsteady. "Oh!" responded Mr Thomas with horror. "I couldn't risk a collapse like that at Claridges."

So this is how you do it. You half-fill the urn with gravel, to stop it toppling over top-heavily. You ram a dome of crumpled chicken wire on top of the urn (the shape is important, as this is the underpinning for the final form) and wire it firmly into place. Then you pack loose sphagnum moss (florists call it sack moss) into the chicken wire.

This is where the stub wires come in. You push one horizontally across the base of each apple so that you can twist both ends of the wire together, giving the apple what looks like a long, thin stem. The wire makes it easy to fix the apples to the chicken-wire. Work in layers round and round the urn, from the base upwards.

Before you get to the top, tip a well watered spider plant out of its pot, wrap the rootball in black plastic and cut away enough of the chicken- wire at the top of the dome to ram the wrapped rootball firmly into place as a topknot. Then finish fixing the apples and push bits of moss into any gaps between them. I'm planning to use clementines instead. The colour is warmer and the fruit makes the urn more Christmassy.

I've missed out the bit that really divides professionals such as Mr Thomas from muddlers like me. He had covered the plastic urn with moss - real moss. "Oh, just stick it on with a glue gun," he said airily. But that's what they always used to say on Blue Peter and there never seemed to be any "just" about it. My moss will be crawling with woodlice and heaving with damp. It's not what they are used to in Mayfair. But I'm going to try anyway. Obviously, the mossing needs to be done before the rest of the work starts.

What with urns and indoor wreaths, Christmas is becoming dangerously innovative. The whole point of it, as far as the children are concerned, is that each year should be exactly the same as the year before. It took years to wean them off paper chains. Making them used to be their first job when the Christmas holidays started.

I myself always found them curiously depressing: memories of church halls and WI socials. The children did not share this antipathy and spewed out paper chains with manic ferocity. Fixing them when all your plaster is soft lime and horsehair is a problem. We never got through a Christmas day without a chain breaking loose and draping itself dismally over the cake.

But while they were paper chain fetishists, I was at the start of an antithetic addiction to candles, which continues still. Candles are great allies. In their mendacious light, nobody can see all the things you haven't done in your preparations for the great day. Happy Christmas.

`The Art of Floral Design' features floral decorations by Paul Thomas (Ward Lock, pounds 20). Paul Thomas's flower shop, The Greenery, is at 4 Shepherd Street, Mayfair, London W1Y 7LN (0171-499 6889)

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