Deck the halls: The best Christmas decorations are to be found in the garden
Saturday 18 December 2010
The most startling snow is the kind that sticks to twigs and branches so that everything in the garden is etched in an unusually graphic way. Along with the rest of the country, we had that snow in the early part of the month and it made a landscape that wasn't completely monochrome, but almost, with thick white lines marking the tracery of the hazels and small scoops of snow piled like ice-cream in the upright, open seedpods of the Regale lilies.
In our garden, at this fag end of the year, many of the seedheads that designers go into rhapsodies about are lying flat on their backs on the ground. But the lilies have strong stems and set magnificent heads of seed. I silver-sprayed a few of them to liven up a darkish arrangement of winter stuff I made for the hall: holly, red-stemmed cornus, the silvered seedheads of the lilies and some outrageous allium heads, also silvered.
One year, I saved the tall bleached flowering stem of our Crambe cordifolia. It was at least five feet tall, but standing, silvered, in a corner of the dining room, it made a wonderfully ethereal Christmas tree, draped with the stuff the children called silver rain – incredibly fine strips of tinsel. Draughts howled through that house despite the wooden shutters and the heavy curtains hanging in front of the doors. But the draughts made the rain on the tree move the whole time, so the whole thing became a shimmering mirage.
The trick is to stick to candlelight. Everything looks better by candlelight, especially the decorations that you never have quite as much time for as you think you will. Teasels are winners, the whole stems cut, silvered and jammed into chicken wire in a big pot. While they are still damp from the spray, you can sprinkle them with extra glitter or wind very small white fairy lights in and out of their branches.
Beech has the same natural ability to hold itself well. Cut branches four or five feet long and spray them silver both sides. Then tie the branches together at the top. It's best if you do this while they are lying on the floor so that you can splay them out into a flattish, two-dimensional fan shape. Hang the beech stems upside down against a plain piece of wall (make the hook a strong one) and tie fancy wired ribbon in a bow at the top. Then decorate the hanging bunch with small baubles or bells or silvered cones.
Of deciduous trees, beech works best for this because the habit of the branches, when cut, is naturally quite flat. And the tracery of the twigs, dividing and sub-dividing, until the twiglets end in elegantly narrow buds, is finer than that of other common trees such as sycamore or oak. Among evergreens, cedar is good, the blue cedar Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca' perhaps best of all – more obviously Christmassy – but I've never lived with a cedar. Cedars command respect and you'd have to be careful where you cut. You scarcely notice a raid on a beech tree.
Wandering around a wintery garden gathering booty concentrates the mind on what is looking good. The evergreens, of course, come into special prominence. Best are the big box balls (I grew them from slips) lining the path up the bank.
In the snow, they became plump plum puddings, topped with a particularly rich and snowy sauce. The tall Irish yews looked good, too, zig-zagging between the crumpled clumps of herbaceous stuff under them. They've remained satisfyingly slim, though we have helped that svelteness by corseting them with bands of nylon fishing line.
The berries that are supposed to be such a big part of a winter garden all disappeared before the end of November. We have plenty of holly trees, but there's not a red berry anywhere when you want them for Christmas. The haws on the thorns are all gone, too, as well as the hips in the hippery. Of the three groups of roses up there, all chosen for their hips, by far the best has been 'Eddie's Jewel'.
It's not so easy to manage as its neighbour Rosa moyesii 'Geranium' because it makes much longer, laxer growths, but I'll forgive it that. It's a Canadian rose, bred from R. moyesii, which is famous for its flagon-shaped hips. 'Eddie's Jewel' has rounded hips, but they are huge and just as brilliant as the double red flowers. In the semi-wild setting of the hippery, it has settled well.
Even here, though, I need to be able to get in among the rose bushes and clear out the weeds that tangle in the roses' lower branches. And so, each December or January, I prune out some of the growths that seem most in the way. The roses don't need this treatment, but it makes the patch easier to look after.
The big evergreen griselinia in front of the house looked good in the snow, too. We inherited it with the house and it's not a shrub I would ever have thought of planting – it has broad leathery leaves of a yellowish-green but not much else to recommend it.
When we first arrived, I thought we'd get rid of it. It was very tall, very broad and blocked off the view. Kevin, who comes here a day a week, suggested instead we sculpted it and it's now a big ball, 10 feet high and wide. At the time, I wouldn't much have minded if it lived or died. Now I'm very glad we've got it.
Kevin's success with the griselinia started me thinking about the big old bay tree that grows at the edge of the yard. Most old houses in Dorset have bays. They keep away witches. But the growth is quite lax and branches tend to splay out from the centre. Although each year we've been taking out some of the most spreading growth, it's still an ungainly thing. I think we'll chop its head off this coming summer and do a griselinia on it.
Winter is the time to think thoughts like this. Stripped of its clothes, the garden's bones (or lack of them) cannot be ignored. In winter, it's easier to assess whether the different spaces in the garden are well balanced; whether there's enough mass to go with the voids that open up when the froth of perennial plants has subsided; whether it might be a good idea to replace a sagging larchlap partition with a proper hedge; whether it might be possible to construct a better view from the window you most often look out of. Now's the time to unlock your mind and let it float.
Anna Pavord's new book 'The Curious Gardener', a collection of her columns for The Independent, is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy at a special price, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
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