My regular readers will know I approach January with a certain degree of trepidation. It’s much easier to feel positive and optimistic when there are twinkly Christmas lights to brighten the short, dark days of winter. Mince pies and mulled cider help too. Then January arrives, the Christmas decorations come down, there’s the metaphorical tightening of belts as we recover from seasonal expenditure and the physical loosening of belts to cope with all that festive food. The sense of anticipation which accompanies the Winter Solstice ebbs away as I’m still scrabbling away in the dark when I get up on a morning.
Something that has made a difference for me this winter has been the decision to grow indoor bulbs. This has been the first time I have managed to get my act together, remembering to not focus purely on spring and the outdoors when I ordered my bulbs back in the autumn. On the list were hyacinths, Narcissi ‘Paper White’ and ‘Grande Soleil d’Or’ and Hippeastrum ‘Red Velvet’. I was a bit dubious about whether I would like them or not so I stuck a tentative toe in the water and I didn’t go mad with the order.
My reluctance partly stemmed from my dislike of probably the most popular of all bulbs to force, the hyacinth. They have always seemed funny plants to me. With their short stumpy stalks and fat stubby trumpet flowers they just look a little odd, particularly when they’re grown directly in the ground. Perhaps if the flowers were more delicate or their stems longer, but as they are they have never done it for me. If Narcissi ‘Paper Whites’ are the Kate Moss of the bulb world, all willowy and sylphlike, then hyacinths have always seemed, to me, like a Les Dawson character, solid and stocky. Then there’s their famous scent. Potent is how I remembered it. My mum used to grow them, and with several on one windowsill I remember them being so overwhelming that a particular room was off-limits whilst they were in bloom. But browsing through the bulb catalogue back in August I thought I should give them another go. And I’m rather pleased I did because I have several in flower now brightening up the January gloom and filling my house with a delightful perfume. My selection of variety may have something to do with my new-found love of hyacinths. I picked the white flowering ‘L’Innocence’ which not only looks more stylish and modern than some but it also seems a little more delicate and a little less dumpy. As for the scent, it isn’t overpowering at all, and with the very occasional patch of sunshine or heat from the radiators warming the air the aroma is wafting through the house. So for bulbs indoors I’m won over but I remain to be convinced by them as additions to my borders.
The hyacinths weren’t the first of the bulbs to flower with the Narcissi ‘Paper White’ timing their opening for my birthday in November. They are the most delicate of flowers with a sparkly sheen to their purest of white petals. They are also one of the most perfumed of narcissi. The jury is still out on whether I like their scent or not. Occasionally I would wander into the kitchen and sniff the air and then start looking around for the offending aroma, checking the soles of shoes, emptying the bin etc, only then would I realise it was the narcissi. I have heard it likened to the whiff of cat wee before. But then there would be other times when it would smell completely different and quite beautiful. I’ll grow them again because they are so easy and home-grown flowers for a November birthday are too good to ignore.
The winter blooms continued with my hippeastrum. Its huge bulb took a while to get going but then I dug out my heated propagator and sat the pot on the base of this. It wasn’t long before a green stalk emerged. It kept on growing and growing in a triffid-like manner. When it reached nearly 3ft it started to show signs of a flower bud. Slowly, four individual trumpet-shaped flowers appeared with them finally opening on Boxing Day. The variety ‘Red Velvet’ couldn’t have been better named or more suited to the Christmas period with its luscious and humongous flowers. It was fascinating to watch it grow because I had never tried it before, and there’s nothing like rekindling that child-like wonder by cultivating something new. I might look to see if there are any smaller varieties though as it’s tall and increasingly leaning flower stalk have given some cause for concern.
In the greenhouse I have a large pot of Narcissi ‘Grande Soleil d’Or’ and some crocus waiting to be brought indoors. The extra warmth inside will speed them into growth for an earlier show and keep up the succession of winter blooms. And, whilst I’m waiting for the days to lengthen and the weather to improve, my indoor flowers are providing some much-needed cheer.
I came home one day last week to find a package waiting for me. Inside was this delightful snow couple made by my very talented sister-in-law, Liz. They’re the perfect final touch to the decorations. Now I just need to do a spot of baking and wrap the presents, and of course, wish you all a very merry Christmas.
The predicted storm has arrived here in Wales. There’s a howling gale outside and rain lashing down so I hope everyone stays safe and warm, and if the weather is making you feel a bit gloomy then I’ve included a link to a very funny version of the Twelve days of Christmas. It’s read by Frank Kelly, an Irish actor best known for playing Father Jack in the comedy Father Ted. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if all of those gifts over the twelve days actually turned up it could well be something like this version. Hope it makes you smile.
Merry Christmas, WW x
Much as I have loved the mild weather we have had so far this autumn and winter, it hasn’t felt particularly seasonal. We have had only two real frosts up to now and I have had to keep reminding myself that it’s December and Christmas is not far away at all. I’m torn really, I’m not a lover of the cold, but I am a sucker for a Christmas that looks like the images on the cards – all snow-covered houses, frosty trees and smiley snowmen. I know the reality is somewhat different, our transport system grinds to a halt and our hospitals fill with people who have fallen over but two of the loveliest Christmases we’ve had were recent white Christmases. We were snowed in at my parents for one of them. We played scrabble, we read, made an enormous snowman and warmed ourselves in front of the fire. The other time we were at home. The countryside around us was under several inches of snow and looked like wintery perfection. We saw people skiing in the Brecon Beacons, watched birds skate on the frozen canal and followed animal tracks in the snow. Of course, once it’s no longer pristine white and turns to slush it loses its appeal, even for me. But, for just a few days everything looks magically different. And I think that’s why I love it so much, a touch of frost and a sprinkling of snow transforms the dull and drab landscape of our typical winters.
With little sign of a white Christmas this year I have been thinking of other ways to create that festive spirit. Upstairs, in my spare room, I have boxes of goodies, reminders of the summer that has gone. Dried flowers, seed heads and grasses are joined by bits and pieces I have foraged over the autumn. I have always loved using natural decorations, particularly at Christmas. I used to just pick up cones and wind-fall branches when I was out on walks but over the last couple of years I have started to grow plants specifically for drying and decorating. The collection has grown bigger each year, so much so I have often ended up wondering what to do with it all.
Last year I was asked to do some flower arrangements for a dinner at Kate Humble’s rural skills farm. Problem was it was February and very much winter. Lets just say I was so very glad I hadn’t composted my honesty seed heads, grasses and teasels, as I had been planning to do the previous week. Jam jars of dried posies were delivered to them which were dotted about the tables, the honesty sparkling in the candle light.
This year my stocks of dried material were even bigger. I couldn’t get into the shed at one point I had so many bundles of drying plant material dangling from the roof. And the gas man looked more than a little puzzled by the collection of plants hanging in the airing cupboard. Using dried material is a really useful way to decorate for Christmas in advance. Much as I would love swags of evergreens around the house throughout December, shrivelled, dry leaves wouldn’t be so appealing by Christmas. So I use my dried material throughout November and December and then add in the fresh pickings in the days leading up to Christmas Day.
If you would like to see some more of my ideas for natural Christmas decorations, both dried and fresh, you might like to take a look at this month’s The Simple Things magazine which is out now. There were ideas in last month’s issue too which is still available to buy online. So the feature could be ready to be published in time the photographs were taken at the start of October. Wellyman LOVES Christmas, so I was surprised on the day of the shoot at how restrained he was. He didn’t greet the editor and photographer in a reindeer onesie with Wham’s Last Christmas blaring out, and instead settled for making Christmas tree-shaped biscuits, with a quick play of some carols on the piano. It was great fun making all of the decorations and fascinating to see the process of putting together a magazine feature. If you get the chance to see the outcome I hope you like it.
There are also a few ideas over on Wellyman’s own blog Pianolearner.
I’m in a bit of a daze at the moment. Some of it is due to a lack of sleep. We appear to have mice or squirrels in the loft/wall cavities which sound like they are performing their own version of Strictly Come Dancing throughout the night, right above our bedroom. Wellyman and I weren’t keen on the idea it might be a rat so thought we’d refer to it as a squirrel in the hope that would make it all better when lying there at 4am listening to some hobnail booted creatures above our heads. But it turns out rats are preferable to squirrels on the sliding scale of unwanted creatures in your loft. Squirrels, according to the pest control guy, are the animal equivalent of a teenager left home alone. I’ve always had a soft spot for squirrels, even the unloved greys, but apparently they will cause a scene of devastation given half the chance. Not a particularly comforting thought as it seems, on initial inspection, unlikely to be rats. Lets hope for mice then, although it’s hard to imagine something which can squeeze through a gap as narrow as a pen can make so much noise that even Wellyman is roused from sleep.
Only two hours slumber was probably not the best preparation for my day out in London last week. My publisher had invited me along to the Garden Media Guild Awards at a rather swanky hotel on Park Lane. So I ditched the wellies and jeans in favour of heels and a frock and headed east. The awards recognise the best in broadcasting, books, print, photography and online media in relation to gardening. Many of those attending are freelance so I suppose the event doubles as a bit of a Christmas do for those who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to end the year with a bit of a party. Although everyone seemed much too well-behaved for it to resemble a true Christmas party. I wish I could post up some photographs but the ballroom was strangely lit with green lights. Maybe they thought it appropriate as we were all gardeners but it gave everything an odd Kermit-like tinge. It was lovely to meet up with fellow bloggers Michelle, Petra and Naomi. Alan Titchmarsh made an impassioned ‘I have a dream speech’ about the future of gardening and horticulture, Carol Klein looked very glamorous and Matthew Wilson managed to keep the post-lunch (and wine) audience under control. Dr Hessayon, he of the ‘Expert’ books fame, took to the stage to present an award and made a speech, a speech which was oddly misreported in several newspapers. There was much consternation on Twitter from those who had been there – had we really missed the standing ovation? Turns out you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. I was really happy for Jason Ingram, who took the photographs for my book, when he won ‘Photographer of the Year’. Then it was time to leave; the matchsticks would hold my eyelids open no more. I did have to navigate a room of over 300 people with my goody bag first though. I’m sure the idea behind using a watering can as the receptacle for a variety of gardening related gifts rather than an actual bag seemed like a great idea on paper, the recipients were after all a group of gardeners. On the other hand the very long pointy spout was an accident waiting to happen. Numerous groins and a pregnant lady narrowly missed a poke from me but I thought it was safest to make my exit when I realised I had been stood with the spout only millimeters away from the ear of a man who was sitting down behind me. Still, I guess a watering can was an improvement on an axe, the gift given to all the guests a few years ago.
Then there was the long trip home before heading off the next day on another long journey to visit family in the north-east for the weekend. And now I’m back home and it’s December and I feel completely unprepared for everything this month demands. The garden and allotment demand little or no attention at this time of year which is just as well really. I miss the fresh air and exercise of a morning spent gardening but I’m enjoying the break this year more than in the past. Scouring seed and plant catalogues and the internet for ideas for projects I’ll be working on next year is exciting but daunting also. Where will I fit it all? Am I biting off more than I can chew? There are the first signs of new life on the plot as daffodils poke through the bare soil, encouraged by the mild autumn. It’s surprisingly how the sight of just a few fat green shoots can spark a feeling of positivity and creativity but they did. It’s going to be a hectic few weeks but I’m determined to get out into the garden and have a poke about in search of new life. As we move closer to the shortest day it makes all the difference to my mood to be reminded spring won’t be too far away.
There’s something to be said for blissful ignorance. There are so many forms of communication nowadays that being unaware of what is going on has to be a deliberate choice; don’t listen to the radio, turn off the TV and don’t read twitter. Take the weather for instance. The Countryfile weather forecast had set expectations high that a spell of good weather was on its way, the Indian summer I had been hoping for. For days though a thick layer of looming and oppressive cloud hung over this corner of Wales. The sense of disappointment was huge but it was made worse when I would hear reports of sunshine and warmth elsewhere. The thought that if we lived only 40 miles or so further west or north and I would be basking in glorious sunshine just made me feel as if I was missing out, rather like knowing there was a party taking place that I really wanted to go to but couldn’t be there. Much better to not know the party was going on in the first place!!
Tuesday was another day that started off with a slate grey sky, the cloud was so low it was almost making me feel claustrophobic. Opening the curtains in the dining room I spotted a little mammalian treat left behind so thoughtfully by our neighbour’s cat. I made a mental note to tackle the mouse’s disposal after breakfast. Of course I got distracted and forgot entirely about the dead creature so inconveniently deposited just by the greenhouse. So an hour or so later, on my way to check my seedlings in the greenhouse, I stopped to see if our resident frog was poking through the pond weed. I knew instantaneously what the soft squishy thing was that I could now feel under one of my flip-flops and screamed. I had stood on the dead mouse. Poor thing! To add insult to injury the meaninglessness of its death, purely as a play thing for a cat that has no need for extra food as it waddles around the neighbourhood, had now just been compounded by the lack of respect my shoe had shown it.
Despite the lack of sun I thought I’d better make the most of the fact that it was at least warm and start my bulb planting. I really dislike bulb planting. It’s hard work and the deferred gratification of having to wait until spring to see any rewards for your efforts doesn’t help. My strategy this year is to plant the bulbs in stages rather than in one mammoth session. This will hopefully make it all seem a less daunting task. The first of the bulbs to be planted were those I had bought to force for some early colour indoors this winter. I prefer to not give Christmas any thought until about mid-November, if I have any say in it but sometimes a little planning ahead is necessary and with my pots and bulb fibre ready I got planting. There were some paper white narcissus which should flower before Christmas, a multi-headed and highly scented narcissus called ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’, an amarylis and some Hyacinth ‘L’Innocence’, a beautiful simple white especially prepared for forcing. I haven’t grown any bulbs this way since I was a child, it was one of my mum’s rituals to plant hyacinths every autumn. I remember planting them in brightly coloured bowls and putting them under the bed in the spare room and checking them every week or so, waiting to see signs of shoots poking through. I never used to like the smell of hyacinths so it’ll be interesting to see if my sense of smell has matured at all. I’m hoping that planting these strongly scented bulbs isn’t going to make parts of the house a no-go zone this winter.
The hyacinths need a spell in a cool, dark place to allow roots to develop. I simply covered my pots in the left-over bulb fibre compost bag and then put them in a cool spot in the house. I’ll check on them every now and again and when shoots start to poke through I’ll remove the compost bag and move them into the light. I planted them into normal plastic pots but the plan is to get hold of some zinc planters in the coming weeks. I think the combination of the white flowers and the silvery zinc will look quite festive.
The daffodil varieties I’m growing, on the other hand, don’t need light excluding from them. So I’ve put the pots in a cool spot in the garden for now. As the weather gets a little cooler I’ll then bring them indoors. The amarylis needs warmth and light and is sitting in the greenhouse at the moment because of the warm weather but, as soon as the temperature starts to drop, it too will take up residence on my kitchen windowsill. You don’t need to use bulb fibre to plant up indoor bulbs, a multi-purpose compost mixed with some perlite to improve drainage is fine. Bulb fibre is best though if you’re using containers that don’t have drainage holes in them as it has charcoal in it which will keep the compost smelling fresh.
I have, in the past, bought bulbs already planted up from the garden centre which are just about to flower but they do have a tendency to become very floppy. The low light levels of winter mean they strain for any available light and they are quite tall plants for a pot anyway. Garden centres often put a stick painted green into the pot to provide some support but it’s such an ugly thing and detracts from the beautiful flowers. So that’s why I spent yesterday weaving some birch twigs to create some more natural looking means of support for my home-grown forced bulbs. The birch twigs are brilliant and super flexible and the woven structures should do the trick.
As the hours passed the sun did finally burn through the cloud, so much so that I was gardening in a vest top and shorts by the end of the day. Strange to think that these bulbs will be flowering in several months time when the warmth of summer will be a distant memory. Hopefully their flowers will brighten up those winter days. Does anyone else grow bulbs for indoors? I’d love to hear about your favourites.
So this is a little later than planned owing to a bit of a baking extravaganza that has transformed my kitchen into what now resembles a bomb site.
But at last the presents are wrapped, the cranberry sauce and stuffing are made and the mince pies and other tasty treats have been baked. The damson gin has been decanted for a Christmas Eve tipple. And the house is decorated with some flowers picked from the garden and seed heads picked back in the autumn.
So all that is left, before I flop onto the sofa with a cup of tea, is to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Christmas can be a difficult time and so often doesn’t match the picture sold to us by TV programmes and magazines. Hopefully, though, there’ll be the chance to relax a little, enjoy some good food and company and recharge the batteries.
Merry Christmas, Love Wellywoman X
This will be my last post before Christmas, so I just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
The weather has turned unseasonably mild again and I couldn’t find anything that was suitably festive to photograph. So I plumped for a photo of the snowman we made last Christmas, whilst staying with family. This time last year we were driving on the M5 doing 30mph because the motorway was sheet ice. We were snowed in for a couple of days at family in the north east and had no idea whether we would make it to our next destination, family in the Pennines. Fortunately we did, but how different the weather is this year.
My garden is looking more forlorn now. There are still a few flowers hanging on, some heleniums, primroses and a pelargonium. I’ve even got stocks flowering still at the allotment. We have had only 2 frosts and a little bit of sleet so far. It’s the Winter Solstice today and I spotted my first bulbs pushing through the other day, so although January can be a long, hard month to get through we are at least heading in the right direction. Not long now till we’re chitting those potatoes and ordering seeds.
Whatever you’re doing and wherever you’ll be this Christmas have a lovely time. Best wishes, Wellywoman x
I love using bits and pieces from the garden and hedgerows to decorate the house at Christmas. My garden is quite small so supplies me with some different types of ivy, winter-flowering honeysuckle, a few seed heads and crab apples but for anything else a trip into the local countryside is required.
It’s good at this time of year to have an excuse to get out of the house, the temptation to stay warm and cosy in front of the fire is hard to resist. Fortunately, yesterday was a beautiful winters day. An early frost, our first real frost of the year, followed by a crisp sunny day meant I didn’t need any persuading to go for a walk.
A couple of hours later I came back with rosehips, haws, some teasels and some beautiful lichen covered branches and along with my garden gatherings I set to making some decorations for the house.
A real favourite of mine are larch branches with their beautiful cones. This year I have gathered some branches together and placed them in a jug as a decoration in their own right. I also like to use them to decorate presents, cutting them to size and sliding them under ribbon to hold them in place.
There was a picture of a beautiful star made from lichen covered branches in last months Gardens Illustrated magazine. So using that as inspiration, Wellyman fashioned the twigs we had gathered into a star which hangs from a door.
I used a few larch branches tied together with some ivy and rosehips with some natural twine to decorate the back of my dining chairs. I had looked at buying some decorations for the same purpose last week on a trip into Bath but they would have cost £25. These, however, cost nothing and I’m really pleased with the natural look.
I few years ago Wellyman made a small wreath from some willow. Each year I wind ivy into the bare branches and add various bits and pieces. This year I wired in some rosehips.
Finally I put some teasels in an old enamel vase with some dried hydrangea heads.
I’m really pleased with the look they have created and all for free.
I’d love to hear about any ideas you have for natural decorations.