Deck the halls!: At this time of the year, the garden offers a bounty of decoration ideas. All you need is a sprig of inspiration, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online

When, in a rush of blood to the head, we got rid of our twisty willow, Salix x tortuosa, I didn't have Christmas in mind. I resented the willow's rate of growth, the way it was taking over the space meant for apples and pears, and the disfiguring disease that affected its summer foliage. Now that I am cruising round the garden in a predatory frame of mind, sizing up what is likely to be useful for decorating the house this Christmas, I miss it. It was always better in winter than in summer, when the bare twisty branches made good shapes against the sky. Silvered, the branches can be stuck in a bucket of sand, and splayed out in a corner of a room to support silver rain, or lights, or very small baubles.

Beech is good for that too, with its elegant pointed buds, but over the years I have cut all the beech within reach on our old trees. Perhaps I should kidnap a tractable passer-by in the lane outside. Instead of, Miss Haversham style, commanding 'Play, boy, play', I could shout 'Climb, boy, climb' and be rewarded with a cascade of twiggy branches. The cruise round the garden is usually followed by a snoop around Paperchase to pick up a few new shiny bits to stitch into decorations that we can make at home. Most of what happens is the same every year, because that is the point of Christmas, but now and again I need to remind myself that there is a world beyond ivy.

For a while, red chilli peppers seemed to be the thing, wired on to wreaths, woven into garlands, clustered under ribbon ties to make Christmas tree decorations. Signs that the kitchen cupboard was the in-place for ornaments intensified when dried orange slices at outrageous prices, and restrained sticks of cinnamon tied with red ribbon, began to oust gaudy baubles on Christmas trees.

Christmas colour, instead of being bright and glittery, red, and silver, gradually wound down several notches to a subfusc spectrum of rust, ochre, oxblood and tan, with perhaps a discreet smudge of gilding to go with it. Our shambolic style could never live up to that, but this may be the year of the pomegranate, which is a pleasing shape to use in decorations, rounded, but not too perfectly so, with the little dry tufted calyx at the top, which is where its flower once was.

If you don't mind wasting the pomegranates, leave them as they are, spray them over lightly with gold paint and before the paint dries, sprinkle a little sugar over them. It gives them a pleasingly frosted look. If you want to use the seeds, cut a hole at the base of the fruit, scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon and pack the centre with tissue to mop up the moisture.

Stand the fruit in the airing cupboard to dry out before you spray them.

They look good heaped in a bowl with clementines and the dark green leaves of holly, bay or camellia. Or you can wire them on to a wreath. First find your wreath. Garden centres sometimes sell pleasantly simple ones made from vine trimmings twisted round in a circle, then sprayed with gold. If you haven't pruned your vine yet, now is the moment. Anyway, it should be done this side of Christmas, before the sap starts to rise. If your Virginia creeper has found its way into your attic, as ours has, then those leafless growths, up to 20 feet long in our case, are also ideal.

Before they dry and get brittle, you can easily twist the stems into a wreath shape, wiring the loose ends to stop them unravelling. Lay it flat on newspaper before spraying it. The advantage of using this kind of base is that it is beautiful enough to show through whatever you put on it. And the vine stems make easy anchoring points for wired-on pomegranates, nuts, sprigs of evergreen, little red apples or whatever else you want to put on them. Fir cones, or the small clusters of cones that larch produces, can also be sprayed lightly and dusted with glitter. Both look good with pomegranates.

You can also make wreath bases from chicken wire rolled up to make a sausage and then bent round into a circle. Proper florists stuff theirs with moss. I don't usually bother; you can disguise the wire by poking in evergreens all the way round the wreath. If you push hard, some of the leaves go through the holes in the chicken wire which anchors the sprigs quite firmly. The good thing about Christmas decorations is that they don't have to last too long.

When the wreath has its green background in place, take some wide wire-edged ribbon and bind it loosely round and round the wreath, crinkling the edges as you go. Wire-edged ribbon is fantastic stuff, because it stays where you put it. When you have worked all the way round the wreath, fix the end of the ribbon onto the beginning - a pin will do - and start filling in the spaces between the swathes of colour. Use walnuts sprayed silver, baubles, cherubs, stars, whatever takes your fancy. Nuts have to be fixed on with florist's wire. Bend the end of the wire into a little right angle and stick this to the bottom of the nut with some glue.

A wreath such as this also makes a good table centre. Fill the wreath with greenery, as before, using holly, dark green box or ivy and adding a few bunches of variegated leaves, either holly or ivy, to relieve the darkness. The seedpods of the stinking iris or gladwyn ( Iris foetidissima) work well in a wreath of this sort. So do the showers of small hips from a rose such as 'Kiftsgate'. Add plenty of glittery stuff.

Lay the ring in the centre of the table and arrange gilded pomegranates, if you have made them, in a ring against the inside edge of the wreath. Then you should put some tall candles in the middle, anchored either in their own holders, or stuck with plasticine to a tin plate. It is a wise precaution to pick greenery before you want to use it or the Christmas table will be alive with woodlice and small spiders making determined assaults on the brandy butter.

Candles are your greatest allies at Christmas. That's not just because they look good. In the gentle, diffuse light they cast, nobody will notice that you have not dusted the bookshelves or fully removed the scars of last year's Christmas from the carpet underfoot.

Hologram paper is a great investment if you are doing Christmas in a hurry, as most people will be this year. The holiday starts today, only two days before lift-off. A sheet of hologram wrapping paper will make two place mats. Give each setting its own night light to set the holograms dancing. These little beacons are invaluable as they are enclosed in their own aluminium holders. There is no molten wax to worry about and because they are so squat, they do not wobble or fall about.

Set a night light on a beer mat covered with silver paper (or a disc of hologram paper if there is enough). Build a small wreath of bits and pieces around each light, using a combination of dark greenery and tinsel, with bunches of fake holly berries if you cannot get hold of the real thing. The birds have stripped ours already. I do not begrudge them. It is better than upsetting their stomachs on supermarket bread. Happy Christmas!

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