Decorate your Christmas with garden foliage
There’s a host of handsome evergreen shrubs whose foliage will give your Christmas decorations an air of distinction
I have written before about the special pleasure that comes with making your own Christmas arrangements, using materials foraged from the hedgerow as well as from the garden/ allotment. Not only are these satisfyingly seasonal as well as thrifty, but they are also deeply personal in a way that no shop- bought equivalent ever could be.
Of course, it helps hugely to have a well- stocked winter plot that is home to an interesting array of foliage or berrying shrubs. Choose these wisely and they will provide you with generous armfuls of plant material for many Christmases to come.
Not just any old plant material, either, but a rich variety of fresh, organically grown, aromatic foliage and vividly colourful, berried branches that are a world away from some of the tired, chemically preserved stuff you can pay a small fortune for at this time of year.
Which are the best kinds to grow? The plant that inevitably comes immediately to mind, both for its handsome foliage and decorative berries, is holly (Ilex), that enduring Christmas classic. Just bear in mind the fact that this evergreen shrub/small tree is typically very slow growing.
You can speed things up a litle by choosing the faster-growing and less prickly Ilex x altaclarensis rather than varieties of our own native holly, Ilex aquifolium, in which case I recommend Ilex x altaclarensis Golden King, a handsome, free-branching, tall plant with glossy gold-and-green variegated leaves.
Left to its own devices, this generously berrying variety can eventually reach a height and spread of five metres, but by judicious harvesting, you will naturally create a more compact plant.
Despite its name, Golden King is an example of a female holly, as is the lovely Ilex aquifolium Argentea Marginata, an elegantly variegated, hardy shrub/small tree with spiky leaves edged with silver.Typically, it is the female holly plant that bears those wonderfully scarlet berries, but only – and this is important – with the help of a male pollinating partner.
If you live in a town or city, this is rarely a problem as neighbouring gardens will provide one, but in an isolated country garden, it is best to play it safe by playing Cupid and planting a male plant such as the confusingly-named Ilex Golden Queen nearby.
The exceptions are what are known as self-fertile female hollies such as Ilex aquifolium JC Van Tol and Pyramidalis, the loners of the holly world.
All hollies like a humus-rich, well- drained soil in either full sun or light shade; autumn or early spring are both good times to plant them.
Hollies aside, there is a host of handsome evergreen shrubs whose foliage can be used to give your homemade Christmas decorations an air of distinction. Owners of mild, coastal gardens can experiment with different varieties of pittosporum, a useful evergreen shrubby genus native to New Zealand and much loved by flower arrangers, but one that needs a sheltered spot where harsh frosts are a rarity.
If purple foliage is your thing, try Pittosporum tenuifolium Tom Thumb, a compact plant with gently crimped, plum-coloured leaves that typically reaches a height and spread of 80-100cm. For a slow-growing compact plant with silver-white leaves, try Irene Patterson (1m).
By comparison, the fast-growing Pittosporum Silver Queen (pale green leaves edged in creamy white), is a much larger plant (4m x 2.5m). Like holly, pittosporums like a well drained but moisture- retentive, humus-rich soil in sun or light shade.
Another handsome evergreen shrub whose aromatic branches look and smell wonderful in a Christmas wreath or garland and which grows happily in many Irish gardens is rosemary (Rosmarinus).
As befits a plant of Mediterranean origins, it needs a very sunny, sheltered spot in sharply drained, moderately fertile soil. For the purposes of providing plenty of foliage for cutting, avoid the prostrate types and instead go for the vigorous variety known as Miss Jessopp’s Upright.
Also hailing from the Mediterranean is the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). Left unpruned, this slowly forms a large evergreen shrub with glossy green, aromatic foliage, whose branches are perfect for using in Christmas arrangements.
For evergreen foliage with a silvery sheen, try the tough, shrubby Eleagnus x ebbingei, the fast-growing Ozothamnus selago Sussex Silver (hardier than better- known O. rosmarinifolius) or sun-loving Brachyglottis (formerly known as Senecio), another tough shrub whose felted, grey-green leaves work well in a Christmas arrangement.
Then, of course, there’s the highly aromatic, silver-blue foliage of the gum tree (Eucalyptus).
Along with E. parvula and E. robusta (both long-established favourites), a new introduction, the compact E. gunnii Azura (also known as ‘Cagire’) is making waves, not only because it retains its juvenile foliage but also because of its exceptional hardiness.
To all of this leafy loveliness you could add dried seedheads (opium poppy, honesty, nigella, some clematis), dried flowerheads (hydrangeas, sedums, Bells of Ireland), coloured branches (willow, dogwood, lichen-covered birch), berries (not just holly but also cotoneaster, skimmia and Viburnum betulifolium) and even some sweetly perfumed, homegrown winter flowers (Viburnum x bodnantense, V. tinus, winter honeysuckle and Sarcococca hookeriana).
The resulting seasonal arrangements should put those of even the poshest florist in the shade.