It was the 8th October and there I was, happily
strolling through the streets of Exeter minding my own
business and pondering whether the prospect of an Indian
Summer really was beyond hope. And then it happened.
I rounded a corner and there, in broad daylight, were
the council workers, shamelessly putting up the Christmas
Now I've always known that summer arrives early in the
West Country but when it comes to biblical festivities
I assumed they were pretty much in step with everyone
else. By now of course the yuletide campaign is well
underway and barely a commercial break goes by without
someone popping onto the screen and trying to convince
you that Tia Maria actually tastes nice. By the time
the Big Day eventually arrives it will feel like it's
all been going on for months.
It never used to be like that. I remember when the build
up started with an Advent calendar discreetly appearing
on our living room wall and the African violets would
disappear from the corner table in favour of a cyclamen
and a bright red poinsettia.
I don't want to be too rude about poinsettias because
I know a lot of people like them, my local garden centre
alone sells 4,000 each winter but who on earth buys
those pink ones? Poinsettias prefer cooler rooms otherwise
they wilt. To keep the humidity up, stand them on a
layer of pebbles in a water-filled tray. Put the plants
near a window with lots of light, let them dry out between
waterings, feed occasionally and they should last for
But remember, some plants are just for Christmas, not
for life. Getting them to produce the coloured bracts
- kind of flower petals - next year is tricky. They'll
need 14 hours of total darkness followed by 10 hours
of daylight every day for 8 weeks. How very annoying.
It's easier to chuck them away and get another one next
These pretty plants also prefer cooler rooms, between
5 and 10C. In fact in London they are even used outside
in window boxes so porches and conservatories are often
ideal. Indoors, high temperatures in centrally heated
rooms and a lack of water will make them wilt. Lots
of light is important and a windowsill (not draughty)
is usually the best place. Feed them weekly and they
should keep flowering for months. When they've finished,
let the corm (the bulb thing) dry out completely until
late summer. When it starts to show signs of new growth
put it in a pot again and start to water it.
Azaleas are fairly easy to keep but draughts, erratic
watering and droughts can make the leaves fall off and
hot, dry rooms with radiators are killers. You'll probably
need to water three times a week but avoid hard water,
which they hate. Plunge the pot into a bucket of water
until air bubbles stop escaping from the compost. Remove
flowers as they fade and they'll go on for a month or
Azaleas are worth keeping for another year. Start to
feed them weekly after flowering and put them outside
in a bit of shade after the last frosts of spring. Then
move them into a slightly larger pot, sink the pot into
the ground to stop it from drying out and in a few months'
time bring it back in before the first frosts of winter.
Fingers crossed, they'll flower again the following
So, If you're thinking of giving anyone a plant as a
present for Christmas I would urge you to give them
an outdoor plant because indoor plants have a tendency
to snuff it rather rapidly if they're not looked after
properly. This can leave the recipient burdened with
guilt, especially when they see you glancing round the
room every time you visit.
Camellias are always a good choice because their glossy
leaves and sumptuous blooms look expensive so the recipient
will think you've really splashed out. The majority
flower in the spring but there are plenty that begin
to bloom in winter, especially the Williamsii hybrids
(named after a Mr Williams from Cornwall who bred the
first ones). The most famous called 'Donation' is a
great plant with semi-double pink flowers from late
winter and is very popular.
In January, one of my favourites, C. japonica 'Lovelight'
has big white flowers and a tuft of golden yellow stamens
in the centre. If you buy a camellia in flower you need
to keep it in a sheltered spot until you give it away,
otherwise the flowers can get spoilt. If you can, keep
it out of direct sun in a porch or a cool greenhouse
until you're ready to wrap it up.
The star magnolia, M. stellata is always a good gift.
They don't look much at Christmas, just a bunch of twigs
with silky buds on the end, but when the white, scented
flowers open in spring they are something really special.
And hopefully, when they flower each year the new owner
will think of you.
Accidents do happen, though. Some friends of mine recently
gave one as a present but in the two weeks that they
had it on their patio, between buying it and giving
it away, every single bud had been stripped from it
by squirrels. The look on the face of the recipient
was bemused to say the least.
Perhaps a safer gift is a rose. Because they are planted
bare root in winter, the absence of a pot and soil makes
them ideal for posting to people who you won't get a
chance to visit. And let's face it, there's no better
way to encourage someone to shed a few of those festive
calories than suggest they do a bit of gardening over
the Christmas break. So go on, say on the card "get
out and plant me now."
reprinted with premission from Greenfingers.com