The shopping clock is ticking rather fast now, just four days before Christmas. And cash may be running out. But if this weekend, you suddenly remember friends who’ve been left off the list, here are some suggestions, none of which costs more than a fiver. There is still time to pick up presents from your local garden centre. Or make them from things you might have growing in the garden. ‘Make’ doesn’t necessarily mean assembling a tableful of kit: glue guns, double-sided Sellotape and all the other stuff you’ve suddenly run out of. One of the nicest presents I ever got, when I was living garden-less in a London flat, was a little box of homemade bouquet garni.
A traditional bouquet garni is made from bay, rosemary and thyme. These are all easy herbs and most people who like cooking will already have plenty of all three in the garden. Snip a small piece of bay with three or four leaves, a sprig of rosemary, and a sprig of thyme. Tie them tightly together with thin brown string. Then, for the ‘added-value’ effect, add a bow of ribbon, bright shiny red for a traditional Christmas look, or narrow black grosgrain, if the present is going to a minimalist style queen.
Cover a small box with brown paper and put three or four of the bouquet garni into it, with perhaps a twist of dried orange peel. Job done. A small basket would make an equally good container.
Again, for friends who like cooking, but don’t have a garden, you could assemble a window-ledge herb garden of bay, thyme and rosemary, all of which you can pick up in a supermarket for £1.25 or £1.50 a pot. For £2.99 you’ll be able to get an even better pot of rosemary from a garden centre: bigger, bushier and generally more sturdy. The supermarket plants are made to be demolished as quickly as they were grown. They’re not designed for the outside world. A potted herb picked up from a garden centre will have grown less quickly and, if necessary, will adapt without a hiccup to a berth outdoors.
Either way, the trick of transforming the mundane into something better is to repot the herbs into pleasing containers. These might be old clay pots (I buy these whenever I see them – the small ones are still quite cheap) or the small shiny galvanised tubs you see in garden centres. Spike holes in the base of the galvanised containers to guard against over-watering.
Repot the three herbs and stand them on a green plastic tray (to catch the drips) inside a long thin bread basket. You can find that kind of thing for no more than 50p in a charity shop. Charity shops are also good places to look for bowls that you can use as plant pots, although watering is trickier, as there are no drainage holes. More plants die of over-watering than under-watering. Stick a finger in the compost from time to time and hold back on the watering can until the compost feels almost dry.
Those with cool window ledges, but no garden, may like an indoor plant as a pet. Again, the trick is to repot them into something more pleasing than the plastic container – often a bilious pink – in which you will have bought them. Small cyclamen cost only £1.65 (they need to be kept somewhere cool), African violets in a sumptuous range of colours from royal purple to palest pink, cost just £3.99, a begonia with > leaves fabulously mottled in silver and pink can be got for £4.99. Begonias grown for their foliage do well in bathrooms. They like the damp atmosphere and the often-filtered light.
Indoor gardeners might also welcome a pack of hand-painted ladybird clips (£3.99 for six), ideal for clamping the stem of a wayward orchid on to its stick. Pale plastic butterflies (£2.10 for six) do the same job, but without quite the same charm. A lollipop-shaped watering globe from Hozelock (£3.49) has only to be filled and stuck on its stick into the compost of a plant pot. The plant sucks up just as much water as it needs. Ideal for the absent-minded. Although you do need to remember to refill the globe occasionally.
For vegetable gardeners, you could put together personalised packs of seeds. I’m mad on Italy, so I’d love a little bundle from Seeds of Italy: chicory ‘Grumolo Verde’ (£1.49), pepper ‘Marconi Rosso’ (£1.99), the beautiful, rounded aubergine ‘Prosperosa’ (£2.49). Tying the three up with velvet ribbon gives them the pizzazz they deserve. For a committed tomato grower, you might choose a trio of unusual tomato varieties: ‘Essex Wonder’ (£1.70), ‘Bloody Butcher’ (£1.70), and the amazing orange ‘Bolzano’ (£2.20) all from Simpson’s Seeds (01985 845004, simpsonsseeds.co.uk).
Salad grazers would welcome a selection from Thompson & Morgan’s wide range: wild rocket (£1.99), Herby Salad Leaf Mixed (£2.09), and Bright and Spicy Salad Leaves (£1.99). These are ideal for a cautious beginner as they can be sown in pots and will not fail to produce a crop that can be cut more than once. Combine them with a well-made pair of scissors for a practical, good-to-go parcel.
New allotmenteers may still be working their way through a list of vegetables they want to grow. If they haven’t got to cardoon yet, present a pot of pale-leaved ‘Bianco Avorio’. The leaves are like an artichoke’s but it’s the blanched stem you eat, not the heads. A potful of Jerusalem artichokes is another possibility (though it’s not much to look at). Yours (or rather theirs) for just £3.99.
For an optimistic whiff of spring, pot up a few hyacinth bulbs, which you can buy already growing for £1.50 each. These look particularly nice planted in baskets. Line the basket with plastic before you plant, so damp won’t seep through.
Even better value are pots of three hyacinths, £3.50 with the buds just beginning to show, or £4.99, for bulbs even closer to flowering. Where else but in a garden centre can you find presents imbued with such promise? And that represent such extraordinary value for money? Plant yourself a very Happy Christmas.
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