Gardening: If in doubt, give them something green ...

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The Independent Online
In a panic about last-minute Christmas presents? Anna Pavord offers some green-fingered suggestions.

Yes, of course I should have started planning Christmas in June, but I didn't. Once, I did try to be ahead of the game. From a museum shop, I bought some Christmas cards in October. I put them in a safe place until I should need them - so safe that they have still to emerge. That put me off pre-planning. So here is a list of last-minute presents for gardeners. With only five days to go before the presents will be handed over, there is far less chance of mislaying them. Make a virtue out of necessity.

Gardeners around London should head for the Fulham Palace Garden Centre in Fulham Palace Road, run not for profit but to raise money for the charity Fairbridge. This supports 3,000 young people in the inner city areas of Glasgow, Middlesborough, Salford, Liverpool, London, Bristol and Cardiff, and was described in a government report on education as "the single most effective charity working with and training demotivated and disadvantaged young people".

The plant sales area outside the garden centre is currently jammed with Christmas trees. Go inside the big glass building with the rounded roof to find the following:

A wicker basket planted with five hyacinth bulbs just coming into flower, price pounds 14.95. Or make up your own baskets. There is a huge selection here, with prices around pounds 6.95 for a basket 12in across and 5in deep. Single hyacinth bulbs, rooted in small pots, cost about pounds 1.75 each.

Curvy shanks of proper garden string, ready cut into convenient 3ft lengths, price pounds 9.95.

Narrow-shafted bulb planter, made by David Madgwick. The blade is stainless steel, the handle made from the wood of an acacia tree felled at Kew during the Great Storm, price pounds 21.95.

Small, basketwork cloche, about 12in across, price pounds 7.95. This would be no good for plants that need light while they are growing, but would protect newly sown seeds from the attention of marauding cats, or remind you where you had planted the crocuses.

Purely for its looks, an antique Mexican pottery jar of comfortable, bulbous shape, with a narrow opening and three finger-holds arranged around the top, price pounds 37.50. Half-hide it among ferns, or let it settle among the hostas.

A white-flowered, sweet-smelling Jasminum polyanthum, price pounds 8.95. Thank Lawrence Johnston of Hidcote in Gloucestershire for this gift. In 1931 he brought the jasmine back from Tengyueh in the Yunnan, where he had been botanising with the plant collector George Forrest. It is a tender plant, so he grew it in his French garden at La Serre de La Madonne, distributing cuttings to his Riviera neighbours. One of these, Captain de la Warre, sent a spray of flower and leaf to Curtis's famous Botanical Magazine. They published a picture and a description of it in 1938, and then everyone wanted it.

There is so much spare central heating swilling around in the London air, that gardeners there can get away with growing this jasmine out of doors, when it will climb to 10ft-15ft. In a sitting-room or a conservatory, it needs to be kept well watered. Misting the leaves helps to create the right environment. Give the jasmine plenty of light, and keep it well away from radiators.

Amaryllis, price pounds 5.95 a bulb. These are often sold as kits, with the amaryllis bulb in a box together with some compost and a nasty white plastic pot with a perforated lid. If you buy a bulb on its own, you can choose your own pot to put it in; anything you choose will be better than the kit pot. Buy a plain terracotta pot (it only needs to be big enough to fit just comfortably round the bulb). Or buy a pot sleekly glazed in dark green or ultramarine. The style gurus say that amaryllis this year must be bright, pillar-box red.

Birch-twig besom, price pounds 9.25. Infinitely preferable to a garden vacuum cleaner, which reduces gardening to the tedious level of housework. And think what you will be doing to reduce noise pollution.

Watering-can. The cultural divide between Britain and France is nowhere so marked as in the business of their design. At the Fulham Palace Garden Centre, you will find oval-shaped watering-cans with huge brass roses, made by Guillouard of Nantes. Like ours, they are made from hot-dipped galvanised metal, but the shape of the can and the size of the rose are giveaways. Price pounds 29.80.

Shallow basket of English willow, with a flat, rectangular base about 2ft by 18in, price pounds 49. For picturesque excursions to the cabbage patch.

If you can't get to Fulham, any garden centre should provide the following at this time of year:

Mini-cyclamen at about pounds 1.75 each. These are my favourite flowers of the season. Rather surprisingly, the ones I planted out in the garden after last Christmas are still thick with delicately veined leaf. When (or whether) they will come back into flower remains a mystery. I would have expected the leaves at some stage to die away and the corm to go into a rest period, as, for instance, Cyclamen neapolitanum does. But the breeding of indoor mini-cyclamen is complex. They are not species, but hybrids. Perhaps their parentage condemns them to a life of endless activity. Like bulbs, they look good packed in a basket, but if you do this, leave them in their pots. If you plant them out in compost in a container, it is difficult to water them correctly.

Orchids, either white, waxy phalaenopsis, price pounds 23.95, or browny-pink cymbidiums. These are quite intimidating plants; they look at you in the supercilious way that camels do. But they are extraordinarily beautiful, if you can master the knack of growing them. Phalaenopsis have long, wiry stems rising 3ft high from six boat-shaped leaves at the base. In their natural habitat (the Philippines) they are used to more humidity than we get here. Stand the pot on a tray of damp gravel to make them feel at home. Once a week, set the pot on the draining board of the sink and dribble a pint of water through it. That way, it will not dry out. Nor will it get waterlogged - a more frequent cause of death.

Violas in shades of blue, purple, yellow or cream, price pounds 1.25 a strip, so cheap that you could think of presenting them ready-planted in a window box. Not a plastic one, but a wooden one stained blueish green with one of the excellent range of wood stains now on the market.

Other useful sources of presents:

The Traditional Garden Supply Company, which generally sells by mail order, has opened its warehouse for Christmas shoppers who have left it too late to order by post. As an incentive, and in recognition of the fact that you will have saved them the bother of packing and posting, there is 10 per cent off all goods. Galvanised florists' buckets for pounds 7.50, glass bell jars for pounds 19.50. Glazed earthenware garden pots, made by Arnold Rose and Dale Butroid, are for sale at Kemptown Terracotta, 5 Arundel Road, Brighton (01273 676603). The current exhibition of work includes stoneware by Andrew Glass and antique pottery from Spain and France. The pottery and gallery are open every day until Christmas (10am-6pm).

The Fulham Palace Garden Centre, Fulham Palace Road, London SW6 (0171- 736 2640) is open tomorrow (10am-5pm) and weekdays (9.30am-5.30pm). The Traditional Garden Supply Company, Unit 12, Hewitts Industrial Estate, Elmbridge Road, Cranleigh, Surrey GU6 8LW (01483 273366) is open tomorrow (10am-4pm) and weekdays until Christmas (9am-5.30pm).

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