I love embellishing the garden – it definitely gets the lion’s share of my attention compared with the house. Usually, late on Christmas Eve, I fling up the house decorations in between making the stuffing, picking sprouts and filling the odd stocking. This year, I have turned over a new leaf, having been inspired by a friend who is a talented pro.
Emily Watson (emilytallulah.com), who specialises in flowers for weddings, events and weekly contracts, magnanimously offered to come and share a few pearls of design wisdom and artful techniques, so I leapt at the opportunity to learn from one of my favourites. If you haven’t got an Emily, a mini home workshop with a friend or two, pooling foliage, flowers and decorating ideas, would be a perfect start to the festive season.
We decided to use as much home-grown, recycled and edible decoration as we could, and to go for different ideas, so that the house felt a bit more on trend. Poinsettias, cinnamon sticks and red baubles were all banished.
Many gardeners have a selection of evergreens, and I can’t think of any that I wouldn’t use to decorate the house. I have a range of various eucalyptus, yew, box, holly, pittosporum, sarcococca and ivy. Having selected armfuls of foliage, both deciduous and evergreen, we recut the stems and put them in deep water to condition them. friends have.
The formal table
Our “dining room” is a stone-vaulted undercroft, shabby and well lived-in, having had just a few licks of paint since the 13th century. But it exudes an extremely convivial atmosphere, especially when candlelit, so we decided to focus on candles.
Using a range of sizes of pillar candles, we stuck sprigs of rosemary around their bases using double-sided tape, so the sprigs went about halfway up the candle.
Velvet is big this year and I love it. Keeping our colour theme quite narrow, we used deep crimson velvet ribbon to fix the rosemary in place, tying each piece with a neat bow (practice needed here).
The subtle scent of rosemary is a joy; I often add a few herbs to flower arrangements, too, as it’s fabulous to pick up their aroma when you plunge your nose into a vase.
Before starting on the central garland that runs down the length of the dining table, we laid a sheet of polythene on top to go under the proposed greenery. We then set down three long ivy trails cut from the garden (it seems to have gone mad everywhere with our mild wet winters). Among these leafy trails we popped in three three-litre pots of Jasminum polyanthum (nicely in bud) and three two-litre pots of Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Emotions series’ (all bought in, but these will be planted out later on).
Next, we slotted in various candles in an assortment of holders that I have collected from junk shops, markets, eBay and the like, and we added these to the table, which gave an eclectic feel to the look.
To completely hide the pots, we slipped in sprigs of rosehips from the dog rose (Rosa canina), home-dried hydrangea heads and artichokes, and bunches of home-cut thyme. We just chose what we had available, but there are infinite possibilities here. Then we added dried oranges to the edges, having scored the peel from top to bottom in segments around the fruit, which were then slowly dried in the oven. These will last for years.
For place settings, Emily suggested apples (we had a bumper harvest this year), and to make them more Christmassy, we sprayed them lightly with edible gold spray from Hobbycraft (hobbycraft.co.uk). Then I topped them with a gold-sprayed leaf, using a non-edible spray, as it has more shine.
Decorating the candles
To add an extra sparkle, we decorated the candles by writing carefully on them with gold acrylic pens, again from Hobbycraft. We kept it simple with a repeat festive message, but stripes and patterns work brilliantly for those with a steady hand and a designer’s eye.
Crackers are a must, but the cost of them is steep, and the jokes and gifts end up in the bin. Making your own is worthwhile, and it also allows you to add a personalised gift. I love gardening gloves, twine, seeds and bamboo socks, while others might prefer chocolates, cosmetic samples or fun earrings. You can choose paper and ribbon to tie in with your theme (we used gold tissue paper and deep crimson velvet ribbon) and then buy the snaps and hats for a few pence. Start saving your loo-roll inners and get making
The Kitchen Table
Brussels sprouts big time
Although the “big” meal is more formal, the vast majority of our time is spent lounging around wearing pyjamas in the kitchen, prepping food and drinking. It is the busiest room in the house, so I like to lavish attention on it. We decided to major on Brussels sprouts. Despite their bad press, I think they are things of beauty, whether on sturdy stems, decorating bowls or on my plate (cooked with fresh herbs and crispy bacon bits). My next-door neighbour, Barbara, who runs Heavenly Chocolates (stamfordheavenlychocolates.co.uk), sells an amazing range, including beautiful and delicious chocolate Brussels sprouts and mini Christmas-pud truffles, so having iced my Christmas cake, I embellished it with these.
For the centrepiece in the kitchen, I cut a branch of silver birch from the garden and slung it between two beams over the kitchen table using twine. Then, along this Emily tied on huge stalks of Brussels sprouts – bizarre but beautiful. More chocolate sprouts were hung from the bough and gold-sprayed cardboard birds were strewn along the branch, too, along with a few golden apples and pears, plus some gold velvet bows. The finishing touch of hanging glass votives with tea lights inside literally lit up the whole installation.
We could have used twiggy branches from many different trees, such as twisted willow, beech, hornbeam or any suitable deciduous tree. Just bring them inside for a few days first to dry them out a little.
For the final touch, we added our favourite brassica stalks in a vase: these rugged stems will look good for a few weeks, but I will recut the ends regularly, even so. My favourite tableware is from Marigold & Lettice (marigoldandlettice.co.uk), and Bronwen, who designs and makes it all, does a wonderful range, decorated with –you’ve guessed it – Brussels sprouts. So plates and jugs embellished with these beauties are perfect.
When we are not eating, cooking or lounging in the kitchen, we occasionally go to sit around a roaring log fire in the sitting room, so we thought that highlighting the fireplace with a garland swagged over the large oak beam would be the focus of attention here.
Using plastic-coated chicken wire, we formed a fat sausage (about 6in thick), which we scrunched up a bit and then hung on four hooks, so the sausage ran all the way along the beam over the fireplace. We then poked in stems of home-grown dried bracken (it is best picked when it goes a fawny brown, as then it lasts well). We quickly covered the wire with this. Surprisingly, it looked pretty magnificent with just bracken. But we added extra embellishments, too, trying to keep a subtle, home-grown look.
Dried stems of hops were tied in using floristry stub wire. I pick the hops in August (they grow in our local woods) and just hang them anywhere to dry. If you spray them when dry with hairspray, they last for several years; unsprayed, they’ll last maybe a year. To add a tiny bit of colour, we hung bunches of Rosa canina hips and a few dried-beech-leaf sprigs.
The whole process was amazingly quick and easy; it took an hour at the most. Half the fun was trying different additions and deliberating what to discard and what to keep. It is tempting to throw too much in, and we decided to definitely avoid evergreens and berries, just to ring the changes.
A note on the Christmas tree
I love to bring in living pine trees in pots; then, after Twelfth Night, they are planted back in the garden in a root-control bag (gardenselect.co.uk/pages/root-control- rootex) – these save on watering and make the trees easier to lift the following year. I usually plant them in terracotta pots and then gild these by applying gold-leaf transfer and size (glue) – both size and transfer are available from Cornelissen (cornelissen.com).
If you don’t want to use the pots outside, you could just use a gold spray. This year, a friend gave me a big brass cauldron, so I used that instead. We tied on mini velvet bows, homegrown chillies (they may be dusted off for the turkey curry, though), slices of dried orange and some of Heavenly Chocolates’ mini Christmas-pud truffles. I will, in due course, put presents around the base.
I have never felt so Christmassy this early before and feel incredibly smug. Most of the foliage we used was from the garden, but, of course, you can be flexible with your designs to use whatever you or your friends have.