Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Christmas Colour

Florist to the stars Judith Blacklock tells Hannah Stephenson about the garden gems that make fantastic decorations

by Hannah Stephenson

You may be tempted by expensive, fancy table decorations and wreaths in the shops, but, if you look in your garden, you'll find some brilliant indoor adornments for free.

All you need for an effective table decoration, for instance, is a few uniform-sized small glass holders into which a single cone can be placed, topped with a flower such as an orchid, as demonstrated by Judith Blacklock, principal of The Judith Blacklock Flower School, who has taught celebrities including Kirstie Allsopp, Gordon Ramsay and Keeley Hawes.

"It's such a wonderful time because gardens and hedgerows are full of wonderful things you can use at this time of year, including bare stems, fir cones and berries. Just use your eyes and if you see something exciting, you can make something wonderful with it," says Judith.

Garden foliage can form the base of a cornucopia of decorations. Take clippings from evergreens including conifers, box, holly and ivy, to make a base for wreaths and swags to which you can add berries, fruits, baubles and bows.

Common plants which are ideal for indoor decorations include Skimmia japonica, which has glossy red berries and leaves which are much easier to handle than holly because they don't have the accompanying spikes, Judith says.

"Variegated holly is another great choice because of the wonderful variegated foliage, while berried ivy, Hedera helix 'Arborescens' produces black fruits which are at their best at Christmas.

"Fruiting ivy can be found in virtually every garden hedgerow and placed in a vase with flowers like anemones threaded through," she explains. "Spray the leaves with gold for a really festive effect."

Add skimmia and bay from your garden to traditional wreaths. If you want to add bits of dried fruit, cinnamon sticks, berries or baubles, make sure you have plenty of them because, if you only have a few, they are much harder to place.

Judith says: "Go natural - collect, use and spray leaves, berries, seed heads and cones. The best way to spray is by placing your finds in a small box. Spray once, close and rattle the box, then open and spray again.

"Smooth textured plant material takes spray much more effectively that those with a rough texture such as teasels."

I personally always buy a real Christmas tree because the clippings go some way to creating an impressive wreath or table decorations.

Even if you have an artificial tree, you can clip a few branches of your own conifer or pine to make it look real, Judith notes.

"Place them at intervals on the fake tree's branches, pushing the stem ends to the trunk. You'll find it hard to tell the difference. You can also use Christmas tree off-cuts or conifer branches on your mantelpiece, window ledge or for a long-lasting centrepiece. Cut branches into short pieces and insert in foam, add a few roses or gerbera to complete."

Achieve more scent with a room spray or an unobtrusive scented stick such as the newly launched Scentsicles, biodegradable dark green or brown sticks, which you can easily add to a festive wreath or decoration (£6 per pack of six in a choice of four fragrances, from John Lewis and leading garden centres).

Judith has even developed a design featuring a Brussels sprout base topped with skimmia berries and anemones. Just cut a piece of foam (keep it dry) into a vertical column that is sufficiently wide and tall to hold a container.

Press the container firmly into the foam to mould the shape and depth of it and then remove the container and with a knife cut out the piece of foam so that your container will fit. The rim of the container should rise just above the foam.

Cut some cocktail sticks in two. Trim the spouts so that they have a smooth base and insert a stick into the base of each sprout, positioning them in the foam. Repeat until the foam is covered. Pour water into the inner container and evenly arrange your foliage, berries and flowers.

Plant of the Week

Ornamental cabbage

Well, you can eat it, but I prefer to look at it as the ornamental cabbage is quite a glamorous candidate for pots and at the front of beds and borders in winter, with its colourful mauve, pink or cream hearts with green frills around the edge. It does well as the focal point of a pot and can stay colourful all winter, running to seed in early spring. Ornamental kale is similar, but with shaggier leaves. Both thrive in reasonably well-drained soil or in pots, in sun or light shade.

Good Enough To Eat

Shallots

I think that shallots are tastier and crunchier pickled than regular pickling onions, but you can pay a premium for them in the shops and it's easy to grow them yourself and impress your relatives at Christmas having pickled them as well.

Simply prepare your site in early spring by forking it over to loosen the soil and work in a little general fertiliser unless the area has been manured for a previous crop.

Push individual bulbs (sets) into the soil so the tips are still covered, 15cm apart in rows 30cm apart, in March or early April, weed the area regularly and by July they should be ready, as soon as the top starts to dry off. The original bulb will have multiplied into a dozen or so shallots. Lift the clumps out of the soil to leave to dry in the sun, or bring them indoors if it's wet.

Fully ripened shallots should store well into the following winter and early spring. Spread them in a single layer on wooden trays and keep them in a cool, dry place. Good varieties include 'Delicato' and 'Topper'.

What to do this week

  • Cut down the tops of pot-grown late flowering chrysanthemums to their base. Store them in a greenhouse or cold frame
  • Place forcing jars over clumps of rhubarb to encourage early stems
  • Fork over bare patches between plants to relieve soil compaction, working compost into the soil as you go
  • Prune birch and acers when dormant, removing any dead or diseased growth and cutting back to a healthy bud
  • Look out for bargain bulbs such as Tulipa 'Queen of the Night' and Allium 'Purple Sensation' which will still flower the following spring planted as late as December
  • Keep your forced Christmas hyacinths cool to stop the leaves growing too rapidly and obscuring the flowers
  • Recut any lawn edges that are looking scruffy
  • Continue to clear away debris to stop slugs and snails hiding under it
  • Harvest Christmas broccoli, parsnips and leeks
  • When pruning apples and pears, save the long offcuts to use as plant supports for perennials or as pea sticks in spring and summer

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