How to make your own Christmas decorations: Nothing beats the festive properties of ivy

Anna Pavord reveals how to turn twigs and greenery into eye-catching displays

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The Independent Online

You don't have to go on a course to learn how to do Christmas decorations. Nor do you have to spend a lot of money. But it is useful to have a garden that you can raid for twigs and greenery and also a drawer where through the year you stash away odd bits of crinkly ribbon, special candles, bundles of florist's wires and a roll of Oasis Minifix. This makes me sound like a regular flower-arranging type. Nothing could be further from the truth. But this Minifix is fantastic. It sticks as fast as chewing gum, but is less antisocial.

You also need a couple of spray cans of silver paint. I like the shiny silver much better than the matt. You can't have Christmas without glitter. Glitter is the whole point – a defiant stand against the shortest day and the darkest night. Tell yourself before you start that the spray can will jam. They nearly always do. We can send a man to the Moon but we can rarely find a can of silver paint that sprays without seizing up. If you get to the end of a can without it blocking, you can look upon this as a bonus. If you start with the premise that it will work, you'll get bad-tempered when it doesn't.

The materials you gather from the garden will depend entirely on the season. This year, we had a fabulous stem of Crambe cordifolia at least four feet wide and high, that I was eyeing up as an ethereal Christmas tree, sprayed silver and draped with silver rain. I did this one year, and the crambe, standing in a pot in the corner of the dining room, was the star of Christmas. But we were away in Sikkim for three weeks this November and by the time we got back, the crambe in the garden had been blown to bits.

Teasels are always good, as they are robust enough to stand up to any winter weather. The seedheads of allium are gorgeous, but there comes a point in the gardening year when you have to decide whether you are leaving the allium heads to decorate the garden or whether you are going to collect them to use inside. I do half and half. Cardoon heads look beautiful when dried and sprayed. So do cardiocrinums, if you are lucky enough to be able to grow them.

What our garden can never supply is holly with berries on. We have some wonderful old hollies along our boundary, nearly all female (so berry-bearing), but the birds always strip them before the beginning of December. But we do have masses of ivy, old ivy that has got into flowering mode. That is absolutely at its best at Christmas, the swarms of insects that work the blossom in autumn having done a terrific job at pollinating them.

The leaves of ivy, when it has got to flowering mode, are rounded, rather than lobed, but twice as shiny as the foliage of clinging ivy. The berries are borne in rounded heads, 20 or 30 small green beads, beautifully arranged to make a globe. Sprayed, or green, it looks fantastic.

When we were in our old house, I used masses of green flowering ivy for swags to hang either side of the downstairs windows. To hold the swags, you need heavy-duty hooks screwed in either side at the top of the window. Measure enough thick twine (I use the soft brown string you buy at garden centres) to hang in a double length from the hook to the bottom of the window. Tie knots down this double length of string at roughly 30cm/12in intervals.

For the best swags, you need bushy pieces of ivy with plenty of round, berried heads on it. A swag has to look sumptuous. If you want silver swags rather than green, lay the bunches of ivy on newspaper and spray them over quickly with silver paint, so that they are dusted rather than drenched with silver.

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Orange slices can make pretty tree ornaments (Alamy)

When the ivy is dry, wire it with twists of plastic-covered wire up the length of the string. If you start at the bottom and work up, you can disguise the bare stems of one lot of ivy with the foliage of the next bunch. Tuck the ivy in between the two lengths of string. The knots will stop it sliding down the swag. When you have covered the whole length of the swag with silvered greenery, arranging it so that it is well furnished and well balanced, start to prepare the decorations.

For this you need oranges, lemons and a bunch of florist's wires. These are stiff wires about 30cm/12in long, rather like the stuff they make sparklers with. Push a wire down through the centre of each lemon and do the same with the oranges. I find the lemons stay safely on the wire if you push it through to the centre of the fruit. The oranges don't, being heavier, so you need to push the wire all the way through and out the other side, then twist the wire at a right angle to hold the fruit at the bottom.

Then wire the fruit on to the swags, using them in groups of three – two lemons and an orange – or the other way around. Right at the top, fix a larger group of five fruit, and if you want, add some ribbon. Use a single fruit at the bottom as a pendant. The wires are strong but malleable, so you can get the oranges and lemons to sit in whatever position you want.

Using the same ingredients, but horizontally rather than vertically, you can quickly conjure up a Christmas mantelpiece. Arrange lightly-sprayed bunches of ivy along the mantelpiece. Then take half a dozen big oranges and, with an apple corer or a knife, bore out a hole in the top of each one. Stick a belt of Christmas ribbon, something bright and glittery, round the middle of each orange, and jam a red candle in the hole you made at the top. The candles sold for angel chimes, thinnish and about 11cm/4in long, are ideal. If the oranges wobble, lodge them in place with Plasticine or the fabled Minifix.

Depending on your greed, these candles should last the length of a Christmas meal, the whole construction melting hazily, in rather the way that I do by the time the nuts and the raisins arrive. If you are a really serious browser and sluicer, you will need correspondingly serious candleholders to light your way to the next bottle.

Old-fashioned clay plant pots, measuring about 11cm/4in high, and slightly less across the top, are ideal. Resist the urge to spray them. They look better plain. To stick in each pot you need a fat, cream, church candle, 23cm/9in or 26/10in high and at least 4cm/1½in wide. You can get seconds cheaply at the Ethos Candle Company's factory shop at Mere, Wiltshire, just south of the A303 (open Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm, 01747 860960).

Anchor the candle in the pot by filling it up with sand or fine, creamy gravel, both of which you can buy easily and cheaply at garden centres. Tie a bow of red ribbon round each pot near the rim (or if you are the cool, restrained type, fix a small curl of baby ivy leaves around the rim instead).

These holders are heavy, not easy to knock over even at the orange-lobbing stage of a Christmas dinner, and the pot holds the candlewax as it melts. Have a good Christmas.

WEEKEND WORK

WHAT TO DO

* If you sowed sweet peas back in the autumn and the mice haven't already eaten them, pinch out the growing tops of the young plants. This forces buds lower down into growth so that you end up with a plant that has three stems rather than just one. Pinching out is best done when the plants are about 8cm/3in tall.

* Bring bulbs such as 'Paperwhite' narcissus and bowls of hyacinths into the warmth in batches so as to get as long a flowering succession as possible.

* Complete any pruning of vines before the end of the year. Vine sap starts to rise very early in the New Year. If you cut canes then, they bleed copiously, which weakens the plant.

WHAT TO BUY

* The Christmas trees of Victorian Christmas cards were Norway spruce, but Fraser fir, Noble fir and Nordmann fir all hold on to their needles more firmly, and are bushier and more compact. Look for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified trees for a guarantee of sustainable sourcing. To find a grower close to home go to pickyourownchridtmastree.org.uk. Or try the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (bctga.co.uk) which lists suppliers by postcode

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