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Christmas bouquet

My Christmas bouquet from the garden this year.

Every Christmas Day for some years now, I've walked around the garden on Christmas morning and composed a bouquet of the things I can find in flower and in berry. It's one of those simple things that makes me very happy. There's a lot of holly around this year, but not in my garden, so I can't cheat (under my self-imposed rules), but I'm well supplied with cotoneaster berries and crab apples. 

Christmas bouquet

It's a very mild winter, and this year my bouquet is composed of:

BuddleiaEleagnus pungens 'Maculata'
Crab apple (nameless)

Mahonia media 'Charity'
Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki' and
Rosa Rambling Rector.

There were plenty of others to choose from, including the dried-out heads of hydrangea paniculata, all sorts of rosehips, bamboos (which I am forbidden to touch until year 4) and grasses, but these were enough to be getting on with.

Merry Christmas.  



Flowers for winter

This winter, I've decided on a floral, girly bedroom.

black chintzMaybe it's the vile turn in the weather - it's been chucking it down for most of July - but lately I've been thinking about bedding for winter. And I've decided I want to wake up in a bedroom full of flowers.

The rest of our house is pretty simple, though not minimalist - white walls, hard floors in tile or wood, no carpets or rugs, etc. On a daily basis, that's the way I like things, but the bedroom, I feel, is a feminine space where one can be a bit more girly - and being the age I am and living the life I lead, I don't get to indulge my girly side a great deal.  

A couple of years ago, we moved the bedroom, which had always been on the middle floor of the house, up to the top floor, into the attic conversion. This room, which was formerly our office, is small, but has a high cathedral ceiling and a huge north-facing Velux that floods the room with light all day long. 

turquoise rosesAt night, in winter, it is glacially cold, as by the time we go to bed, the heating has been off for many hours. So overall, you must imagine, it is small and cold room, and very very bright.

For this reason, our all-white bedding has come to feel just too stark in winter. In summer, it feels fresh and clean, but prising oneself out of bed on a freezing, dark winter morning, or nipping back to bed for an afternoon kip seems to me to cry out for something prettier and cosier. 

blue with rosesTherefore enter the florals, and I have decided it will be a floral overload, as the sewing room is teeming with unused yardage. Before we even bought this house, I bought up lots of ends of rolls of fabric in Liberty's basement, which were 'botanical' florals - very crisp, clear designs on backgrounds of eau-de-nil, beige, deep petrol blue, yellow and even black - very Cath Kidston, if you like. I also have old chintz curtains, gingham check yardage, gingham seersucker, and a 20-year-old set of Pierre Frey floral bedlinen in a size way too small for our current superkingsize duvet.

stripe cottonSo last weekend, I set to and began by making the correct size duvet cover. This involved adding strips of fabric about 15 inches wide to the top and sides of the old 'double' size duvet cover. I don't have fabric that matches, so on one side I've used a dark pink cotton plaid and on the other a pink gingham seersucker. And I must admit I'm very pleased with the result. I've made ties for closures, which also means the duvet can be tied to the iron bedstead to stop it moving around too much. 

rosesThese changes mean that a duvet cover that had become effectively redundant for several years now has a new lease of life, and it is a much more comfortable arrangement than the former sheet-and-duvet combi, given that the DH thrashes around all night.

I've made pillowcases to go with it - not matching, but clashing, using eight different patterns altogether, then next up will be finishing a second duvet cover, in a patchwork of lemon, sky blue and mint florals. The trick with clashing and matching florals is to introduce a colour-toning stripe, plaid, paisley or spot to break them up and make the whole thing look like an old patchwork, so I have also bought the striped cotton above, and aim to use some blue and white seersucker I took from an old dress.

What with that and my birdsong CD playing in the bedroom, I hope it feel like a haven this winter. 




Garden pleasures

Today is a sunny but coolish day - perfect for making flower syrups

Pauls Himalayan MuskToday I'll be indulging in one of my favourite pursuits of the year - making flower syrups.

I do this perhaps six days a year, when the elderflower and roses are in bloom. Elderflower syrup is one of those glorious gifts of nature - the plant itself, in the green version, is as tough as old boots and will grow on any wasteland or crack in the paving into which it can set seed. In its garden varieties - sambucus nigra Guincho Purple, sambucus nigra Aurea and the various variegated and lacinated varieties with their cut leaves, it's also a beautiful shrub, and flowers equally well.

The syrup has a wonderful, evocative smell and taste and I generally make enough to get myself through the winter. 

The recipe, if you want to try it, is quite simple:

Eight heads of elderflower

Pound of sugar or a one-pound jar of honey

Juice of one lemon

Gather the elderflowers in the morning after the dew has risen but before the heat of the day gets up. Strip the flowers off and pick out the insects and dead blossoms. Place in a glass or ceamic bowl, mix in the sugar, add the lemon juice and give it a good stir, then store somewhere sunny, covered in clingfilm, for 24 hours. It should liquefy, but if it doesn't, add a little water or alcohol to get it going.

Strain off the juice and bottle it. I use small Schweppes Tonic bottles and freeze them until needed, only unfreezing one at a time. Wonderful over ice-cream, or with gooseberries to add a muscatel flavour, as a winter cold cure in hot water, or with fizzy water in summer. It also makes a good flavouring for kir with a cheap white fizz. If you don't want to freeze the syrup and you're using sugar, bring it to the boil for a minute or so, then bottle in glass bottles. You don't need to do this with honey, as it's a natural preservative. 

You can do the same with the berries come winter, cooking them up for 10 minutes or so, straining and bottlling while hot, but for some people the berries are purgative and I am one of them. If they don't affect you, however (and most people are unaffected), they are very high in vitamin C and make a good cough syrup. 

For the rose syrup the method is the same but you need an awful lot of rose petals - about eight good handfuls, which would mean decimating the average garden. Luckily I have whopping great rambler roses some 20ft high and wide, and highly scented species such as Rosa Californica Plena, so more than enough to go round. The rose syrup makes a particularly special kir. Pull the petals off the rose rather than removing the whole head, if you can. 

As a final tip, if you gather the flowers in a colander, it gets rid of most of the insects and spare pollen, thus saving you fussing later. 




A Christmas bouquet

Every Christmas day, it's my challenge to see what I can gather in the garden to make a bouquet

Xmas bouquetAs a devotee of the works of the late Rosemary Verey, for some years now, each Christmas morning, I've gone around the garden to see what's in flower.

Ms Verey's book The Garden in Winter is what first gave me the idea. Winter is my most dismal time of year and by February, after months of rain and fog I'm usually at a very low ebb. So when I first began to plant my garden, about seven years ago, my first priority was winter interest.

I've never bothered with herbaceous planting, as it will take me the next 20 years just to get the backbone of this garden in, so my focus has always been on trees and shrubs. That's paying off in spades now, which is the happiest part of woody plants - they may be expensive to buy, and an effort to plant, but every year they just get better and better. 

Xmas bouquet close-upQuite by accident, this year my bouquet contains more flowers than other winter interest (berry, bark and evergreen leaves). The biggest surprise was the Graham Thomas roses, of which there were half a dozen still in bloom on Christmas Day. My Graham Thomas is a complete thug and flowers prolifically despite its windswept Western-facing site. Each year the wind rips it free of the wall and today I'll cut it to the ground in the hope that the new growth will face upwards rather than straight out at 45 degrees. 

Also in flower was rosa Evelyn, another English Rose by David Austin, and much more tender. So too was mahonia media 'Charity', planted over the body of our beloved cat Worthing, and abelia grandiflora with its pinkish flowers and modest, shiny evergreen leaves.

An unknown spiraea which flowered in the spring and once again in autumn this year has lent its tiny white flowers, and my subtle parrotia persica is in flower too, with tiny dark-red flowers encased in brown velvet, which betray its relationship with the witch hazels. Real hazels come next, with their dull winter catkins, and finally, there is the mimosa, often cut to the ground by the Normandy winter, but always reappearing, a little forward of its old site. Its flowers are still in bud, but if it makes it through the winter, they'll be heads of fluffy, yellow, vanilla scent by March.

Yesterday I forewent the peeling bark of rosa roxburghii, preferring to let it grow a little more before I prune it, but I took the dark red twigs of cornus 'Gottschaud',  the fiery-red twigs of cornus sanguinea 'Winter Beauty' and the egg-yolk yellow stems of salix vitellina. For a bit of structure, I also added stems of salix tortuosa - the Devil's Claw Willow - which has shot to 20ft high in six years in spite of the steep, barren north-facing slope on which it's planted.

The lovely red berries - disliked by the birds - are from cotoneaster cornubia, which shares that same slope and even though it was split right in half by the wind five years ago, still towers over my head. 

Walking around the garden in the bitter weather is a wonderful reminder that the earth isn't really dead and that plants need their winter hibernation like human beings need their sleep. Gathering my Christmas Day bouquet each year gives me a real lift, with its memories of summer and the promise of spring. 


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