Gardening: All branches of the family: With a little imagination and foliage from the garden you can transform the home for Christmas, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online
When there were only two habitable rooms in our house, Christmas decoration was easy. The tree went in a corner of the first room, where it could be raised high enough to prevent crawling babies from ransacking the lower branches.

Nothing, though, could stop the lunatic cat from launching itself at the decorations from the back of the sofa. Come Christmas, the cat used to get ideas beyond its station and start acting like a jaguar; we got through a lot of Christmas fairies that way.

As we gradually fanned out from these rooms to take over other bits of the house, Christmas spread with us. Tradition, imposed with fascist ferocity by a growing band of children, demanded that the tree stay in the same corner of the same first room. But something had to happen in the rooms and passages that we gradually patched up and took over between one Christmas and the next.

More than one 'proper' tree would have been confusing. So we started to invent other sorts of Christmas tree for other parts of the house. The first was a kind of lollipop tree, decorated with foliage from the garden. The trunk was a broomstick stuck in a bucket or a large pot; wet sand was the simplest way of keeping it upright. On top of the broomstick was wedged a large block of Oasis foam, soaked overnight, round which was moulded a ball of chicken wire, at least 9in across. The bigger the wire base, the bigger the head of the 'tree'.

The idea of the lollipop tree is that, when you have moulded the wire framework into the right kind of shape and checked that it is firmly attached to the broomstick, you begin to fill in the mesh with greenery. What you use depends on what there is to hand. Holly is my favourite, partly because it is traditional, partly because the gloss of the leaves is so cheering. Conifers, such as Leyland cypress and juniper, look duller and more saturated.

Ivy works well, too, particularly if you include pieces with berries on. It is bulkier than holly, and helps to complete the top more quickly.

Whatever greenery you use, keep the stems quite short, so that the overall effect is dense and compact. When you have finished, use secateurs to clip off any stray leaves that are spoiling the outline. Do not forget to fill in the underside of the framework to obtain a complete globe of green.

Now the tree can be decorated. Keep the decorations in scale with the size of the tree, otherwise it will have the rather exhausted air of a porter with too much luggage. Small baubles will do, or nuts sprayed silver and gold. You can tie the nuts on like parcels, or hang them from ties stuck on with a blob of glue. Walnuts look brilliant when treated in this way - and you can eat them after Twelfth Night.

The final touch is ribbon. There are stupendous ribbons around now, especially at V V Rouleaux, 201 New King's Road, London SW6 (and 10 Symons Street, SW3). Buy enough to tie a bow with long floating tails round the neck of the broomstick, just under the head of greenery. Finish off the ends of the ribbon with swallowtail cuts.

I have bought some new ribbon this year, and this entails a massive shift in the state of play this Christmas. The children, whose eyes, after any absence, flick over the house like Federal agents checking that everything is in place, will not miss this daring innovation: the old ribbon has moved on to trim the bucket of the third tree.

This one needs several branches of something airy and light. Beech is ideal, since its twigs are elegantly angled to each connecting stem, and end in finely pointed buds. But as we have just felled a twisted willow, Salix babylonica 'Tortuosa', which had become too big for its boots, I shall probably use that.

This willow had branches that wandered around in different directions as if they had forgotten what they came out to do. Curious rather than beautiful, it was at its best in winter when the madly twisting twigs were silhouetted bare against the sky; in summer, the equally contorted leaves made the tree look as though it were suffering from a terminal disease. Twisted willow twigs sell for extraordinary prices in London's more minimal flower shops.

Do not feel you have to use beech or willow: you can use the skeletons of cow parsley, if they are sufficiently branched, and one year I used the massive dried heads of crambe, which happened to have lasted particularly well outside until December. Lay the branches flat on newspaper, and spray silver paint over them; then turn them over and spray the other side. When they are dry, stick them in a bucket of sand and arrange them into a wide, almost two-dimensional fan shape.

Such a tree is useful for corners where space is tight, because the branches can be arranged almost flat against the walls. The twigs can be draped with silver rain (always more effective when used sparingly) and fairy lights. The lights are a relatively cheap way of decorating an arrangement like this, and they look good in an area that is not brightly lit in the evenings.

Paper chains, fortunately, are no longer part of our Christmas kit. Their construction used to be the children's first job when the Christmas holidays started. I always found them curiously depressing: memories of church halls and WI socials. The children did not share this antipathy, and spewed them out with manic ferocity. Fixing them to ceilings and walls plastered with soft lime and horsehair was a problem. We never got through a Christmas day without a chain breaking loose and draping itself dismally over the cake.

But the children grew out of their paper-chain fetish, which avoided a confrontation - and enabled me to indulge more safely my growing addiction to candles, which continues still. Candles are great allies. In their mendacious light, no one can see the tasks you have neglected to perform in your preparations for Christmas.

For window ledges, candles are unbeatable. Use them between mounds of satsumas, built into pyramids, with bay leaves or laurel between each layer to mimic the fruit's own citrus leaves. Fill the spaces in between with more greenery: sprays of spruce or yew laid flat, strands of ivy. If you want more glitter, scatter baubles on top of the greenery.

Another element which helps you to see Christmas in the right kind of light is booze. The advantage of making your own decorations is that you can splurge all the money you have saved on champagne. Oddbins has Henri Harlin Brut selling for less than pounds 9 a bottle. Happy Christmas.

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