A gardeners' Christmas list
Lily Middleton reflects on the festive season for gardeners, from wreath making to homemade Christmas gifts
I love this time of year, wrapping up for chilly evenings, twinkly lights, custardy puddings, and that sense of excitement and expectation as Christmas approaches. There’s nothing better than a crisp walk on a winter’s day, attempting to burn off some of the excesses we like to enjoy, but also savouring the bare and often beautiful landscapes.
- Find gardens with winter events that you can visit with your 2-for-1 card
- Celebrate flowers in December
Winter for gardeners can provide the opportunity for rest, but also offers the space to plan for the year ahead. I like to reflect on what worked well on my balcony garden, the things that were less successful and what I’ve learnt along the way. In 2022, I really struggled with the heatwave, the glass sides of my balcony didn't help matters and there were a few plant casualties, but I had great success with rudbeckia, sunflowers, and petunia ‘Night Sky’, which kept a corner of the balcony covered in flowers for months.
If, like me, you like to create decorations and gifts for friends and family, the run up to Christmas can also prove to be a busy time. And if you have a house plant collection, it’s important to ensure they're coping with the central heating, or cold draughts.
I live in a very small flat and don’t have the space for a big, real tree each year. Instead I have an ancient artificial one, older than me, that I inherited and that I love, despite the fact that each year it gets increasingly closer to toppling over for good. However, if you have the space there’s nothing quite like the smell and sight of a real tree. But how can you make sure that you’re sourcing your tree in as sustainable and environmentally-friendly way as possible?
Three things to consider for your Christmas tree:
- Choose the right tree for you. There is much debate around whether a real or artificial tree is the best option, with reports showing that you need to use a plastic tree over 10 times to negate its carbon footprint, fine for my 30+ year old specimen, but if choosing a new, locally sourced tree, this may be the better option. Take a look at Forestry England for suggestions of local, real Christmas tree suppliers that sell Forest Stewardship Council (FSC®) Certified trees. You can also purchase a pot-grown tree that can be brought inside for Christmas but moved back outside afterwards, with some acclimatisation.
- Keep it looking its best. The last thing you want, after taking time and care adorning the tree with pretty decorations and lights, is for needles to drop and leave branches looking bare. There are several ways to avoid this. Take care when picking your tree, checking that needles aren't easily coming away in your hand, and inspect the base, too. A tree that was cut more recently will have a paler base and be a safer bet, it will also be heavier, as it contains more moisture than a tree that has been sitting around, drying out for a while. Opt for varieties that hold their needles well, like the Nordmann fir or Douglas fir. When you get it home, pop the tree in a bucket of water in a shady spot outside to rehydrate it and give the branches a chance to settle. Before placing it indoors, saw off a few centimetres at the bottom to encourage the tree to absorb more water, helping to keep it at its best for longer. Find out more about looking after your Christmas tree.
- Once the festivities are over - recycle it! Your tree could have various uses beyond Christmas. Perhaps you might shred branches and leaves and add them straight into your compost, or use it as a mulch. Conifer branches are slightly acidic, so they make an excellent mulch for plants that thrive in acidic soil, however, as they rot down, they become more neutral so the shredded branches can be used as a mulch for most plants. Alternatively, you could chop up the trunk and create a wildlife shelter. Discover more ideas for recycling a Christmas tree.
As we approach Christmas, my mind turns to two things: festive decorations and handmade gifts. There’s something extra special about knowing you hand-crafted something yourself, whether a natural table ornament or a beautiful gift artfully topped with a sprig of holly. And it makes for a great conversation starter.
More like this
There’s plenty of inspiration around the Gardeners’ World website and I look forward to giving lots of them a go this festive season. I’ve got my eye on this exquisite door decoration which would look so beautiful on my front door to welcome festive visitors to my flat. It's a nice alternative to a wreath if you don't have the budget for a ready-made one, or the time to make your own. This decoration simply uses a few cuttings from a Christmas tree (if you have a real one), some foliage from your garden and LED lights.
If you're hosting Christmas this year, why not add a touch of nature to the dinner table with this gorgeous centrepiece. One of the best things about Christmas is the opportunity to be as creative as you like, so head out with your secateurs and gather a mix of foliage to create a striking focal point on your festive table. Just be careful if foraging outside of your own garden - you don't want to upset any neighbours! And be responsible, only collect material that is in plentiful supply, leave plenty for wildlife, seek permission from the landowner – and ensure you're not taking rare or endangered plants.
Handmade baubles filled with material from your garden can be a thoughtful gift or a unique addition to your tree. Again there's the opportunity to be really creative here. I'd be tempted to add a mix of foliage and small crocheted Christmas characters, to add some festive cheer.
Finally, it's not really Christmas without a bit of mistletoe, so take a look at our project to create a mistletoe and box Christmas ball.
Gifts for gardeners
Giving and receiving gifts is one of the many joys of the festive season, whether creating homemade presents, or choosing a treat for a fellow gardener in your life.
I’m a big fan of a homemade Christmas, I usually make my own cards and have even been known to print my own wrapping paper, so it’s exciting to plan what gifts you could make for friends and family, especially if sourcing the materials from your own garden. It's also a great way to save some money at an expensive time of year. Take a look at some ideas for homemade Christmas gifts for wildlife gardeners.
Growing greenerTo save some money on expensive wrapping paper and avoid too much plastic, why not wrap your gifts with brown paper and string. Not only does it nod to that family movie classic, The Sound of Music, but it also lends a wonderfully natural look to your gifts – the paper can then be recycled or composted. Just top with some foraged festive greenery, like holly or a sprig of Christmas tree, and you're all set.
You could use your homegrown produce to create thoughtful and delicious gifts for family and friends. I love a cheese board, and Christmas is the perfect excuse to repeatedly eat excessive amounts of cheese. And what I like on the side is a little dab of chutney, delicious. So, you could make pots of chutney for friends from your pumpkins, or windfall apples.
Create your own Christmas gifts for friends and family this year, to help save some money. Make your own edible gifts from homegrown produce, or take cuttings from your house plants. Browse more ideas.
This year we've decided as a family to buy each other a book each, rather than buying lots of gifts we might not want. So, I can’t wait to curl up under a lamp on a festive evening, with a pile of chocolates and the latest nature-inspired book to transport me. There's a huge amount of choice, so I've been taking a read of this round-up of 15 great gardening books for inspiration.
But if you're still scratching your head over what to buy a loved one, there are plenty more ideas for gardeners in our list of 35 gardening gift ideas.
Will you be making a festive wreath this year? Recently, I’ve been learning how to make a wreath from scratch, with expert tuition from gardener Franziska Stampfli at Fulham Palace. She’s been teaching us how to transform materials sourced from the garden into a beautiful wreath.
She shared her top tips for creating a wreath using fresh garden material, including how to keep it looking its best for as long as possible. I've shared my progress, below.
Making a base: First off we created a base layer using wet moss, this is important for keeping your wreath looking fresh for as long as possible. It is also extremely satisfying as you slowly press the moss around the wreath base (created from wisteria branches, saved when it was pruned earlier in the year), winding string around as you go to keep it in place. Ensure you use moss from a sustainable source.
Securing the foliage: Some people might use wire to keep their foliage in place, but here we used string. Keep on wrapping it around to secure your foliage as you go - making sure to pull it tightly to keep everything in place. All the foliage used is straight from the garden, the perk of working somewhere so beautiful is that if you run out of materials - off you go with your secateurs to cut more!
Take your time: After a few hours of hard work, cups of tea and interruptions from the palace cats, I was finished, and pretty happy with the result. Franziska advised using a mister to add moisture to the wreath if the moss starts to dry out, so that your creation doesn't wilt, so I'll be diligently doing that right through December.
If you’ve been inspired to try your own homemade wreath this year, there's plenty of ideas and projects to have a look at. You may have spotted the show-stopper on the front of the latest issue of Gardeners' World Magazine – created by Amber Partner – watch her making it, here. Exclusively for Premium subscribers, she's also created a natural festive wreath in three different ways, that you won't want to miss.
Scroll through the gallery below to find more wreath inspiration:
Showing item 1 of 10
Growing your own for Christmas
In December, there are still some crops which can be harvested for tasty and nutritious meals. Kale is a classic winter crop, and although its trendy phase of a few years ago seems to have waned, it's still a delicious addition to the veg patch. Don't worry about the cold if you're growing kale - a touch of frost can actually improve the flavour.
I still remember the first time I saw Brussels sprouts growing on their stalk as a child, my Mum excitedly showed me and it was not at all what I expected. I have mixed views on whether I like them or not, but this BBC Good Food recipe for roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon and chestnuts sounds delicious. They also improve in flavour after frost.
To me, the idea of growing my own Christmas dinner is really exciting. It’s a bit late for this year, but plan ahead and next year you could be harvesting your own ingredients. Follow our month-by-month guide to growing your own Christmas dinner in 2023.
Winter plants I love
Whilst winter is a relatively bare month outside, there is still plenty of interest to be found on walks, visits to public gardens or in your own horticultural world.
One of the stars of my balcony throughout the winter months is cyclamen, they do not stop flowering in my sheltered spot in the city. It’s a joy to have consistent colour to admire in the limited hours of daylight. Plant up with ivy and other evergreens for a beautiful winter pot.
All I want for Christmas is a garden, and if my wish did come true there are a few plants that I would love to include for winter interest. I’m a big fan of dogwood and admired the collection on a visit to RHS Garden Rosemoor last year – that impossibly bright bark looks stunning in an otherwise barren border. Here are some of the best dogwoods for winter colour.
Another winter star on my garden wish list is Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, which has tightly-packed bright-yellow flower spikes from November to March. Mahonias also provide a source of pollen and nectar for winter colonies of bumblebees and other pollinators.
Of course, it’s not just outdoor plants that keep our green fingers busy at this time of year. I love my house plant collection, and in such a warm, insulated flat they still require lots of care in the winter months. One of my favourites is the prayer plant, it has such beautiful leaves, with fine magenta stripes on bold green leaves that fold up at night – hence its common name. It’s also incredibly easy to propagate, just pop a cutting in some water and it will form roots in a couple of weeks, so ideal for creating cheap gifts for family and friends.
I'm a big fan of my Kentia palm, a gift from my generous colleagues at Kew Gardens. It’s a large plant, and makes a striking addition to my collection, the structure and the scale it offers in my small space is fantastic.
The Christmas cactus flowers from late November to January, earning it such a festive name. But it also has wonderful foliage to enjoy for the rest of the year. It can be a little temperamental with flowering, and mine is yet to flower again, but I will persevere. Luckily I love the foliage, too.