Is it the lack of chimneys in modern homes that has forced Santa to turn to garden centres instead? From the end of November onwards, garden-centre grottoes spring up faster than mushrooms. Stranded between the compost and the chemicals (in the space that the garden furniture usually occupies) are hasty constructions of picket fences, borrowed from the DIY section, scantily disguised with plastic snow.
"Last grotto session 2.15-4pm" said a notice stuck to the Christmas hovel in a garden centre I was in this week. It made Santa sound like the local MP, doing his constituency surgeries. He arrived here in West Dorset (Santa not MP) on 18 November in a flurry of helicopter blades. The helicopter is a fair trade-off for the reindeer-drawn sleigh, given the price of hay this winter, but November! They had scarcely got rid of Guy Fawkes and his fireworks.
I was in the garden centre swooping up a few plants to turn into Christmas presents. It is one of the miracles of modern life that you can buy a steely blue echeveria for £2.45, a kalanchoe with leaves as soft as a plush teddy bear for £2.25 or a waxy crassula for only £2.99. Planted up in old bowls or baskets which you can pick up for less than a pound in junk yards and charity shops, these make remarkably settled little worlds to take a window-ledge gardener through winter.
You can do desert (in which case go for the three plants above) or damp. Damp displays do well in bathrooms or any place where the light is diffused rather than direct. Use ferns, ivies and some of the superb begonias in garden centres now, with lopsided leaves painted in bronze, pink and silver.
Most gardeners I know would be the despair of the average marketing department. The f truth is, we don't consume very much. We grow plants from seed and cuttings, we swap them for free, we make our own compost, re-use our pots, furnish allotments with cast-offs from skips. But occasionally I see something that, although I can't make a case for needing it, just catches my eye. Like the metal stools, rather like the vintage French Tolix stools of the Fifties, featured in Plumo's mail-order catalogue.
The stools (£79) are finished in carefully beaten-up paint, either red, cream or blue. They are 29cm square and 46cm high, just right for perching on when you are potting up seedlings. Go to plumo.com, or call 0844 557 3590.
From the same source, you could get a hand-made tufted rug (65cm x 90cm, £29) made from remnants of bright cotton, much more cheerful than the classic jute doormat. And a solidly utilitarian but very handsome clamp light (£89), which I'd like for my greenhouse. It gets dark very early now and the light would mean I could fiddle around in the greenhouse in the evening, setting mousetraps, clearing up leaves, setting more mousetraps…
Always useful are presents that protect your plants from all the things that want to eat them. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that we are surrounded by fields, our garden is regularly invaded by rabbits. They particularly like the big mounds of pinks that lurch out over the path at the front of the flower garden, and will eat plants right to the quick.
To protect the choicer plants, I use big semicircular bamboo cloches, available in a range of sizes from 30cm (£4.50) to 70cm (£16.50). They are good-looking things and easily anchored with tent pegs or a few pieces of bent wire. To protect a row of young seedlings, you can get similar tunnel-shaped cloches of bamboo. The bigger one (1m long x 40cm high x 45cm wide) costs £19.50, the smaller (90cm long x 34cm high x 40cm wide) costs £18.50. All these are available from Andrew Crace at andrewcrace.com, tel: 01279 842685.
Handsome rabbit-proof cloches are also available from Crocus. These are made from powder-coated wire and are available in two sizes: small (height 44cm and base 40cm x 40cm, £19.99) or large (height 52cm and base 45cm x 45cm, £29.99). Go to crocus.co.uk or call 0844 557 2244. For woven willow cloches (diameter 20cm, £9) go to ancientindustries.co.uk.
Plant supports are another must-have, and Leander makes very good-looking ones from rusted iron. I use half hoops (semicircles on legs) for many herbaceous plants such as thalictrum and these are available in several sizes from standard (300mm x 500mm, £7 a pair) to large (450mm x 900mm, £12 a pair). Leander also make elegant vase-shaped supports which could be used around tulips (height 500mm, £20) or roses (height 900mm, £43.50). Go to leanderplantsupports.co.uk or call 01773 550495.
For a present to give a town gardener, with big ideas but not much space, Rocket Gardens might be the answer. You give the voucher, which might be for a Compact Herb Garden (£24.99), a Children's Garden (£34.99), or a Patio Container Garden (£36.99).
When it's redeemed, Rocket Gardens deliver – at the right time – plug plants of all the necessary vegetables and herbs. The ultimate gift is the Constant Allotment Garden (£299) which guarantees a supply of plug plants to keep your allotment filled year round – though it's a pricey way to garden. For potential Good Lifers, a course at Mumbley's Farmhouse might be the answer, either Hens for the Garden (£40) or Bees for Beginners (£120). Visit mumbleysfarmhouse.co.uk or call 01454 415296.
Occasional tables in the garden need to be sturdy as well as good-looking, which is why I like the untreated wooden table (height 80cm x width 24cm x length 35cm, £50) supplied by Cox and Cox (coxandcox.co.uk, tel: 0844 858 0744). It's made just like an old-fashioned mahogany butler's tray, with fold-up legs and a top that lifts off with hand-holds either side. It can be easily packed away in winter, but it's tough enough to be left outside too.