Step white up: Narcissi are starting to raise their heads above the ground
Now's the time to bag a bargain at your nearest garden centre, says Emma Townshend
Sunday 04 December 2011
There comes a point in early December when we've been discussing Christmas ads and eating turkey-and-cranberry sandwiches at lunchtime for what feels like about two months. And frankly, yuletide fatigue sets in. It's like the famous wall in marathon running: you hit it just at the moment when you've already come so far, yet there's so much further left to go before we're done. (Or I imagine that would be the case, if I'd ever run further than a mile-and-a-half.)
If that time comes, and you feel you might retch if you're forced to converse about another Heston Blumenthal mince pie, turn your mind to matters horticultural. Outdoors, narcissi are already poking their green leaves above the ground, and indoors, amaryllises are heading towards a brilliant display. It's worth having a nose around your local garden centre, which by now will be selling off some bulbs cheaply. Many are really worth avoiding – tulips, for example – but sprouting Paperwhite narcissi are a better bet. If the price is right, get them straight home and into a bowl of water. Use little stones to keep the bulbs just above the water's surface – they shouldn't be getting soaked – and to angle the bulbs so growth isn't too wonky.
Narcissi, daffodils and hyacinths growing in pots outdoors are another real garden-centre bargain. Look out for crowded little parties in black plastic for best value, then either repackage at home into vintage tea cups and glass dishes or plant straight into outdoor containers and windowboxes. Crowd together for best effect: you will not be expecting these bulbs to flower again, so essentially you can take the mickey a bit. A hyacinth is just for Christmas, not for life.
Cheap "bargains" worth avoiding include, I regret, cut-price amaryllises. As a huge fan of these splendid luxurious flowers, I have tried growing them from every source, from Co-op to Jager (the posh Dutch flower company, not the posh ladies' outfitters). My problem with the cheaper amaryllises is not the bulbs themselves (though they will produce far fewer flowers than a big fat £12 bulb from Holland) but the supplied growing medium, which is likely to be a pop-up circle of peat. This doesn't anchor the bulb sufficiently and, heavy with flower, they will topple sideways while you're out, wrecking paintwork and soft furnishings with bright pollen on the way down. Spend more initially, provide adequate support, and don't leave any of them alone with your white sofa.
Finally, if you don't have some already, pick up some horticultural wire. Not the stuff covered in green plastic, but the heavy-duty galvanised kind (£5.99, screwfix.com). Twisting this into a neat double or triple circle, you have the perfect base to compile your own Christmas wreath. Use ivy as a base, weaving long fronds around the framework; then add details, focusing them at three main positions on the garland, in a neat triangle.
And now I really do fancy one of those mince pies...
Three do-it-yourself seasonal decorations
1. The basic wreath
Slice oranges into neat roundels, drying on a baking tray in the oven at 100C/225F for an hour or two. Go for a fir-cone hunt in your local park, and on the way back buy cinnamon sticks. Now combine the lot.
2. The bird feeder
Buy Faringdon heart-shaped moulds (£7.34, amazon.co.uk). Mix gelatine and boiling water till dissolved, then add three cups of birdseed. Pour into the mould, adding a ribbon to hang. Leave to set completely.
3. The minimal touch
Add white roses to your wreath for the plainest, simplest sense of seasonal joy: 22 Fairtrade roses from Marks & Spencer go for £25, including delivery.
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