Gardening: The darling buds of December

Young trees, designer pots and those seasonal favourites, poinsettias: Anna Pavord chooses gifts for green-fingered friends
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The Independent Culture
In shopping malls, Christmas starts with recordings of "The First Noel" and, in delicatessens, with the building of pyramids made from jars of mincemeat. In garden centres, Christmas is marked by the arrival of poinsettias. Of the pounds 12m likely to be spent on house plants between now and Christmas, poinsettias will claim the lion's share.

I write about them from duty rather than love. There is a built-in obsolescence about poinsettias; like balloons, they slowly deflate after Christmas, leaving you, by February, with a few red rags on top of bare stems. For years I supposed that I must be doing something wrong for them to drop their leaves in this way. Having seen them growing in the Windward Islands, I now realise that this unfortunate trait is natural.

In Dominica, poinsettias are used to make informal hedges 5ft to 6ft high. By January, they are coming to the end of their flowering and look gaunt and leafless. There, they are cut down to the ground in February to encourage new, leafy shoots. Here, you have to cheat to give them the sequence of 12-hour nights they need to prod them back into flower.

If you want to try, cut the plant back hard when flowering has finished. Allow it to dry out for three or four weeks, then begin to water again. This should encourage new shoots to sprout. Pull them off, together with a heel of the old wood, and throw the old plant away. Root the cuttings in pots of compost mixed with sand, then cover the pots with a polythene bag and keep them warm and moist. Pot on the cuttings as they grow, and pinch out the growing tips to make the plants bushy and compact. Commercial growers use dwarfing hormone sprays to keep their poinsettias in check.

Around September, cover the plants with a black polythene bag for 12 hours every evening. This is meant to fool them that they are back in Mexico, where they belong, or Dominica, where they have become naturalised and where 12-hour stretches of darkness are the norm. Continue this routine for a month, by which time flowering buds should have sprung into action. If not, garden centres have plenty of fresh plants to give as presents.

Bright red is the most popular colour, though apricot, pink and white versions are also available. Expect to pay pounds 4 for a smallish red poinsettia, and pounds 7 for one that will make a decent present. The pale varieties cost up to pounds 7.95 for a pink plant with bracts edged in cream.

When buying, check the condition of the small, bead-like flowers in the centre of the heads. The red (or pink) bracts are not true flowers, but specialised leaves. The true flowers are yellowish, and in the freshest plants will be unopened. Do not buy plants that have been standing out on stalls and pavements. All house plants hate chill winds but poinsettias are particularly fussy, and like to be cosseted in temperatures of 55- 60F. Give them plenty of light.

Now for some ideas for Christmas presents I really fancy: pots, plants and surprises. Surprises are best. I've sometimes complained about having three fashion victims as daughters, but this worked in my favour when they bought me a pashmina shawl of staggering softness and extravagance. Bajra pashminas for off-duty gardeners come in 80 different colours, and are available by mail order for pounds 195 from Pickett.

Catriona McLean imports garden pots, glazed in dark green, a golden honey colour, straw, and deep blue, from the St Jean De Fos pottery, high up in the Herault valley, near Montpellier in France. They are rugged and classic, simple urn shapes with pastry twists of decoration. The biggest are 80cm across, the medium 60cm, the smallest 37cm. The glazes have an attractive, aged look, which comes expensive. Expect to pay pounds 170 to pounds 430 at the General Trading Company or Clifton Nurseries, or direct from Catriona McLean.

Nomad Pots is the brainchild of Jonathan Simon, who is writing a film starring a bath that belonged to Rudolf Nureyev. This is irrelevant to his role as pot provider, but may explain why there's only an answering machine on the end of his phone line. He imports hand-thrown terracotta pots from North Africa and the Sahara, and delivers to customers in London and the home counties. Use these pots as decoration only. They have narrow necks, having originally been made as storage jars, and may not be frost-proof. Two- or four-handled pots, 2ft high and 16in across, cost pounds 85 each.

The garden designer Fiona Stephenson fills pots and baskets to order, for custom-made presents. You can also order a Mediterranean herb collection - four aromatic herbs packed in a willow basket - for pounds 30 including delivery, and she does Winter Berry, Frosted Silver and Winter Gold arrangements. Gift baskets are dispatched to arrive whenever you want, but Christmas orders must be in by 21 December.

From Neal's Yard you can order a gardener's box of goodies: bath oil made from seaweed and arnica, warming oil made from ginger and juniper to massage into chilly knees, hand-made soap scented with rosemary, and elderflower hand softener to banish sandpaper skin. This set costs pounds 24.95, plus pounds 2.50 p&p.

Trees Direct describes the business Diana Beamish runs from Ludlow in Shropshire. Young trees are sent as a florist might send a bunch of flowers, beautifully packed, and with a message. Choose from Christmas trees, blue spruces, Scots pines, Italian alders, silver birches, flowering thorns, Norway maples, crab apples, bird cherries, English oaks, rowans, small- leaved limes and eucalyptus. Do some homework first, though; alders like damp, and blue spruces, Norway maples and oaks will grow enormous. For small gardens, restrict your choice to the thorn, the crab apple or the rowan.

Pickett, 32-33 Burlington Arcade, London (0171-493 8939); The General Trading Company, Sloane Street, London SW3 (0171-730 0411); Clifton Nurseries, Little Venice, London W9 (0171-289 6851); Catriona McLean, Sanquhar House, Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire DG4 6JL (01659 50282); Jonathan Simon's website is at www.melloworld.com, or 0800-328 2001; Fiona Stephenson at Flower Pots ( 0500 80 1234); Neal's Yard (0161-831 7875 for mail order); Trees Direct (01584 856689).

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