Tips on how to make Christmas decorations from garden material - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
If you've bought the Christmas tree and now have little left in your budget for wreaths, baubles and other festive garlands, just take a walk in the garden to find some twigs, sprigs and berries which will make pretty adornments - and save you pounds.
Ideal material for adding natural beauty to festive scenes indoors include crab apples, hazel, dogwood, berried ivy, holly, silver birch stems, as well as a variety of seedheads and pine cones.
Pre-lit man-made Christmas paper trees are all the rage this year, but you can create a similar pretty adornment at a fraction of the cost with half a dozen thick stems of willow or birch, tied together with florist's wire and festive ribbon or raffia and placed in a large indoor trough or pot filled with moist compost and decorative stones as a mulch on the top.
Wind a selection of Christmas lights around the branches, which will give any corner a focal point and takes up less room than a regular tree in a smaller space, or will add a festive glow in another room away from your main tree. If you're using Christmas lights, don't add extra water to your pots.
Clippings from your Christmas tree can make the base of a fabulous wreath, using a wire frame wrapped in moss, secured by florist's wire. Take the tree clippings and feed them into the frame from their stems, making sure all the sprigs face the same way. Again secure with thin wire, circling it all the way around the frame, and then add holly or other evergreen additions, along with pine cones which you can secure with wire or glue, baubles and colourful ribbon for a bow at the top or bottom.
The colourful stems of dogwood also make an easy indoor or outdoor wreath. Weave the most colourful stems together, wiring the first one to create the frame and then weaving subsequent stems around it.
Holly spheres are also easy to make, using a dry oasis ball, strong curling ribbon or raffia and florist's wire. When you are picking your holly, use end pieces, allowing for two to three pairs of leaves and then trim the bottom pair of leaves off so you have an inch of clear stem.
Pierce the ribbon with a piece of wire so you can thread the wire and ribbon right through the centre of the oasis ball, knotting the ribbon or making it into a loop at the bottom and securing it further by threading more wire through the loop and into the oasis, to secure the decoration when it is suspended.
At the top of the ball, wind the ribbon up to stop it becoming too creased and secure with a paperclip, which you can hold with one hand while inserting foliage with the other.
Starting at the top of the sphere, put in pieces of holly around 2.5-3in long, adding small bits of conifer as you go, working around the ball until it is all covered. By eye, make sure the foliage is even and fill in any gaps with other evergreens. Thuja 'Rheingold' is a great ornamental golden conifer to stick between the holly sprigs. You can also use ivy with clusters of berries, leaving the last two leaves of the ivy and the berries, which will fill it out and give the sphere a different dimension.
Other bits and pieces can also be added including seedheads and cones, which may be better glued on. Tie a bow at the top of the sphere with the remaining ribbon and then suspend it from your hanging basket bracket.
Festive natural baubles can be hung off shelves and door handles by making a ball out of chicken wire and then covering it with moss from the garden, secured with florist's wire, and then adding either sprigs of berries or decorative seedheads. If you want a bit of sparkle, add a spray of glitter to the berries or a little fake snow on to the moss.
And at the Christmas table, create your own festive place settings with dried fruits or small bundles of cinnamon sticks, gluing small cones to the base so they can stand upright, to take florist card holders. The same natural materials can then be added to your Christmas crackers to match.
Best of the bunch - Ivy (Hedera)
It may be the bane of many gardeners' lives, but ivy comes into its own at Christmas, adding colour and movement to outside pots and weaving in and out of garlands or wreaths as an addition to festive indoor decorations.
If you have mature ivy in your garden, you may enjoy rounded heads of matt black berries in winter, prized by flower arrangers, which can be used along with red berries from other shrubs as a great contrast in indoor decorations.
Some ivies are extremely hardy, surviving the worst of the winter weather unscathed, including Hedera helix, which will thrive in all soils and situations, producing glossy green leaves, and H. colchica 'Sulphur Heart', which has dark green leaves splashed with yellow and pale green. If you want a hardy variegated ivy, go for H. colchica 'Dentata Variegata', which has light green leaves mottled with grey and edged creamy white.
Ivy will grow in almost any soil but does best in alkaline conditions, with moisture at the roots, and is not bothered if it's in sun or shade, although it will always grow from a shady position towards the light.
Good enough to eat - Parsnips
No Christmas dinner would be complete without parsnips, whether roasted in a Parmesan crust or given a devilishly delicious dowsing of maple syrup to create a stick-to-your-teeth, toffee-flavoured coating. And they are so easy to grow.
They thrive in a deeply dug, fertile soil and should ideally follow a previous crop that has been well manured rather than adding compost to the soil when you plant them. If you are choosing a long-rooted variety, make sure your soil is devoid of stones and is not heavily compacted. Otherwise, go for a short-rooted type.
Sow the seeds in April directly into the ground in drills 1cm deep and 30cm apart, sowing two seeds at 15cm intervals so you won't need to do much thinning later on.
You will need to be patient because seeds are notoriously slow to germinate. Hoe between the rows to stop weeds competing and make sure the ground doesn't dry out in very hot weather.
Be warned, though, that heavy watering or persistent rainfall after a drought can lead to the roots splitting. If you want a continuous crop of baby parsnips, you can sow seeds throughout May and June, to harvest in September, but make sure you use proper baby-parsnip seed as normal parsnip seedlings stay very thin until quite late in their life so cannot be eaten early.
Leave winter parsnips in the ground until you need them and frost is said to enhance the flavour. However, you can lift them before the ground is hard to work, storing the roots indoors in boxes of sand. Good varieties include 'Gladiator' and 'Albion'.
Three steps to... Revamping an old brick wall
1. Cover nearby plants with plastic sheeting, then rake out loose areas of mortar using a wire brush.
2. Repoint the wall where necessary using a ready-made mortar mix to save time mixing your own.
3. To finish off, paint on silicone sealer to extend the wall's life and stop algal growth on shady walls.
What to do this week
:: Check bulbs being forced for Christmas and new year flowering regularly, to ensure they don't dry out and that they are given light and warmth at the right time.
:: Bring under cover herbs potted up for forcing.
:: Take winter hanging baskets under cover, either into the greenhouse or porch, as they are particularly vulnerable because the compost in them is exposed to cold from all sides and can freeze solid.
:: Make sure any newly planted bare-root or rootballed trees which are in containers have good drainage and are slightly raised off the ground to allow excess water to drain away.
:: Tidy plants in winter containers, cutting off the yellowing leaves of polyanthus and primroses, and removing dead flowers using a pair of scissors.
:: Plant hippeastrums for spring flowering in 15cm pots of John Innes No 2 compost, burying only the lower half of each bulb. Keep pots in a humid atmosphere at about 10-13C and water sparingly until flower buds appear.
:: Finish taking hardwood cuttings of gooseberries and currants.
:: Leave a pile or grit near the front drive and any steps for use if conditions become icy.
:: Open greenhouse ventilators a little on sunny days but close them again quite early in the afternoon, before the temperature begins to drop, to help retain the heat of the day.
:: Prune greenhouse vines once the leaves have fallen and the plants are dormant for the winter.
:: Clean and service lawnmowers and other tools.