A waxy crassula isn't just for Christmas

Anna Pavord suggests presents for the green of finger
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The Independent Online
Perhaps it is the lack of chimneys in modern homes that has forced Santa to transfer his attention to garden centres. At this time of the year, garden centre grottoes spring up faster than mushrooms. Stranded between the compost and the chemicals are hasty constructions of picket fences, borrowed from the outdoor leisure department and scantily disguised with plastic snow. "Last grotto session 2.15-4pm" said a notice stuck to the hovel in our local garden centre. It made Santa sound like the local MP, doing his constituency surgeries. He arrived here (S not MP) in a flurry of helicopter blades on 18 November. The helicopter is a fair enough trade-off for the sleigh, given the price of reindeer feed, but November! They had scarcely got rid of Guy Fawkes.

I was there swooping up a few plants to turn into Christmas presents. It is one of the miracles of modern life that you can still buy a steely blue echeveria, a kalanchoe with leaves as furry as a teddy bear or a waxy crassula for only 99p. Planted up in old bowls or baskets, which you can pick up in junk shops and charity shops, these make remarkably settled little worlds. You can do desert (in which case go for the three above) or damp. Damp displays do well in bathrooms, or any place where the light is rather diffuse. Use ferns, ivies and some of the superb begonias in garden centres now, with lopsided leaves painted in bronze, pink and silver.

Twig brooms or besoms are good value too - only pounds 3.99. Difficult to wrap, I know, but you could do what Gardens Illustrated did in a recent feature and turn them into scarecrows. For arms, tie a crosspiece under the broom bit, which becomes the head. Then you could dress the scarecrow in a sacking shift, decorated with packets of seeds and bags of small bulbs. Twenty Anemone de Caen Single Blue cost only pounds 1.49. There's another staggering bargain. Christmas is late to plant them, but they are used to growing at odd times and will oblige.

For the more severely practical gardener, you could buy a DIY mushroom kit for pounds 3.99. I have a sneaking desire to have one myself. The way mushrooms grow, swelling quietly at dawn out of the damp, dark blanket of compost around them, is intriguing. Think, too, of a bacon breakfast in the New Year and the pleasure of being able to gather a handful of your own mushrooms to sizzle in the pan.

Ned Trier does something rather more glamorous. He offers a Truffle Lovers' Kit: an oak sapling (oak is the truffle's preferred haunt), a chocolate truffle-hunting pig to help you root out the truffles (if you can ever encourage any to grow, which is doubtful) and half a pound of the best chocolate truffles to help you get over your disappointment if you don't succeed. The kit costs pounds 25. For the same price, you could order That Old Chestnut, a slatted wooden box containing a sweet chestnut tree, a box of succulent marrons glaces and recipes for your own chestnut harvests. Available from Ned Trier Gardens, 82 Wandsworth Bridge Road, London SW6 2TF (0171-371 0775). They can send presents for you for an extra pounds 6.

Touch Design can send a flat-backed glass wall vase, 17cm tall, 13cm wide at the neck (it is gently cone shaped) and 8.5cm across from the flat back to the curved front, price pounds 20.50. This is just the right size to drop in the stray handfuls of flowers that the garden provides at this season: marbled arums with spikes of jasmine, the first freckled hellebores, some spikes of smelly viburnum. They also do a glass flowerpot, 11.5cm tall for pounds 10.35. This is severely impractical, but there is a certain fascination in seeing how the roots of things are coming along. The pot is too small for amaryllis, which look stunning in glass containers, but you could squeeze in a few Iris reticulata. Touch Design is at PO Box 60, Andover, Hampshire SP11 6SS (01264 738060). Fragile orders will be hand delivered at an extra cost of pounds 5.50.

Verdigris make copper plant tags soft enough for you to write on with a ballpoint. Ink fades, but this impression is fixed permanently. You can buy fat T-shaped labels, 5cm high by 3.5 cm across, which are ideal for herb gardens, pot plants, window boxes and vegetable gardens. They cost pounds 3.49 for a pack of 15. Tie-on copper plant tags, 11.5cm long by 2cm wide have a hole at one end, threaded with copper wire, pounds 4.75 for a pack of 15. These can easily be fixed on roses, climbing plants, small trees and shrubs. They are widely available. In London, try Fulham Palace Garden Centre, The Conran Shop or After Noah, Upper Street, London N1. For other stockists call 01438 869346.

Sussex trugs, shallow curved wood baskets, first took off at the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Queen Victoria ordered several from Thomas Smith of Herstmonceux to give as presents to members of the Royal Household. Smith was so proud of the order that he walked the 60 miles to Buckingham Palace with his handcart, to deliver them personally.

I use one to carry garden tools about, another as a kind of In Tray - except that nothing ever goes out of it - and a third for gathering potatoes. Trugs are like that. You can always find a reason to have another. The original Sussex trug, as invented by Thomas Smith, with a handle and rim of sweet chestnut and boards of cricket bat willow, is available from Thomas Smith's Trug Shop, Hailsham Road, Herstmonceux, East Sussex (01323 832137). Prices start from pounds 23.60 (including p&p). Other styles, made from Finnish birch ply with coloured trims, are also available.

For less than pounds 20 you could order the Christmas Collection of plants from the nursery Wootten's of Wenhaston. Given the right weather, these four might even be in flower on Christmas Day. The collection includes Veronica peduncularis 'Georgia Blue', recently introduced from the Caucasus by Roy Lancaster. I had this plant from Roy and it is a very good doer, spreading rapidly to make a prostrate mat, covered with blue flowers. Sweet box, Sarcococca confusa, has insignificant white flowers among its dark evergreen leaves but smells like a scent shop. The Christmas rose, Helleborus niger is an old favourite, as is the fourth plant in the collection, Iris unguicularis. "Suppose a wicked uncle who wished to check your gardening zeal left you pots of money on condition you grew only one species of plant. What would you choose?" asked the Edwardian plantsman, E A Bowles. He chose this iris. Wootten's of Wenhaston is at Blackheath, Wenhaston, Halesworth, Suffolk IP19 9HD (01502 478258). The collection costs pounds 14.80 if you collect it, or pounds 19.80 by mail order.

Books to look out for include A Handful of Flowers, an anthology of verse and prose with wood engravings by Yvonne Skargon, pounds 9.95 from Colt Books, 9 Clarendon Road, Cambridge CB2 2BH (01223 329059) and harvesting the edge by g f dutton, who does everything in lower case like e e cummings. This man, scientist, gardener, poet, has spent most of his life among what he calls the "passionate austerities" of Scotland, balancing on the knife blade between nature and culture in his marginal garden on the slopes of the southeastern Highlands. His book is published by the Menard Press, pounds 8.99.

A book that you'll need two copies of, because once you've seen it, you won't be able to give it away, is A Corner of England, North Devon landscapes and people photographed by James Ravilious (Devon Books/The Lutterworth Press, pounds 19.95). Here is a ruined cob barn, looking like a prehistoric adobe shelter. Here is Archie Parkhouse surveying his pig, knee deep in her trough, with the quiet pleasure of a Lord Emsworth at Blandings. Here is the churchyard at Shobrooke, the gravestones standing stark as sarsens in the cold winter light. Avoiding nostalgia, embracing stoicism, these are powerful images.