Anticipating joy

Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
December 2021

Steffie Shields celebrates the best parts played by our gardens in Christmas festivities.

The child in all of us loves an Advent calendar, counting down the days to Christmas. The expectant, heart-warming pleasure of the big occasion lurks on the near horizon – coming together with family and friends, all ages, mouth-watering treats, surprise gifts and little acts of kindness all add up to special times that linger long in the memory.

One of the first enjoyable chores, before the inevitable build-up, is to make an Advent wreath. Since spying this year’s more than copious holly berries, when gathering foliage for flower arrangements for Welby’s harvest festival church service, ideas have been gathering in my mind. I noticed how curving sprays of variegated holly hang down invitingly – asking for snipping to go indoors! It makes management sense, let alone invigorating winter exercise, to strip ever clinging, ever growing, evergreen ivy off mature trees. This allows their textured trunks to breathe and frame haunting views of bleak midwinter.

Being half-Canadian, I confess a love of snow! Its pristine white, chilly blanket simplification of countryside somehow heightens anticipation for Christmas. One of our most joyful family Christmases came when, leaving church after Midnight Mass, we discovered that, while we were inside singing and giving thanks, a sudden snowfall had silently transformed our world. Driving home through lamplit streets and twinkling Christmas tree lights was pure enchantment.

So, if snow flurries should tumble down one night, even if a full-on blizzard means you dare not set foot outside, turn off TV and turn on garden or security lights for a moment to witness a spectacular, winter wonderland outside every window.

‘Weather is the chief content of the garden’ concluded the whimsical Scottish garden maker Ian Hamilton Finlay of Little Sparta fame. Whatever the politics or science of climate change, have you ever witnessed such phenomenal growth in trees, shrubs and hedgerows as this year? My roses, particularly one, ‘Fragrant Memories’, shot up, flowering in flushes, from June through the season, as if on steroids! Its rounded, cupped flowers are creamy white with yellow-pink centre. Last Christmas, even though somewhat ragged brown around the edges, they were still budding happily when caught by hoar frost. Severe cold may have affected the petals’ colouring, but each bud, leaf edge and stem was bejewelled, and every spider’s cobweb laced.

Supposedly this hybrid tea rose normally grows to about four feet, ideal for back of the border. However, thanks to this year’s unprecedented combination, masses of sunshine and buckets of rain, I needed a sturdy iron stake to tie its many straight stems wavering and towering at least seven feet above my head! Dead heading on tiptoe has been a challenge. A gift from my cousin Julia, ‘Fragrant Memories’ never fails to stir recollections of times spent together when we were young, especially those Christmas tea parties with perfumed aunts and jolly uncles. I will not prune it back till well after the festive season, hoping to snip a bud or two to add to the dining table centrepiece, for a hint of its strong sweet fragrance, with an appropriate hint of myrrh.

Last December a friend treated me to a new hellebore, ‘Glenda’s Gloss’, which has stunning colouring. Each flower has a beautiful magenta edge as if hand painted by Santa’s elves. A semi-evergreen Christmas rose, Helleborus niger – a hardy, long-flowering plant – also makes a delightful gift to ornament a cool room in a house, conservatory, or outside on the patio. Come early spring, it is best to transplant your gift in moist, well-drained partial shade, best in alkaline soil, in a sheltered corner of your garden, where it will keep on giving and attract masses of bees.

At Syston Park, there has been a legacy of tree planting since Georgian times when Sir John Hayford Thorold made major landscape improvements. He commissioned Lewis Kennedy, formerly of Lee and Kennedy, a renowned Hammersmith nursery, who took on the mantle of Humphry Repton as premier landscape designer after the latter’s road accident. Kennedy planted a fine array of specimen trees, including cedars of Lebanon, copper beech and Holm oaks in the pleasure garden and on the park approaches.

Today’s owners continue to invest in trees, spending a great deal of time and care in growing beautiful Christmas trees for the public to self-pick, with special ‘pick your own’ Christmas tree weekends. Shoppers can choose their own living tree and tag it. Then the staff will cut your tree on the day you decide to pick it up before Christmas, ensuring its utmost freshness.

Whether the traditional Christmas tree introduced into our homes by Prince Albert, Norway spruce, Picea abies, or Nordmann Fir, Abies nordmanniana, that memory laden fragrance of a newly cut Christmas tree indoors is a sensory highlight of the season. In contrast to the sharp pointed needles of the traditional spruce, Nordmann Fir has distinctive needles with a rounded edge. Native to Eastern Europe, it is fast becoming more popular because it holds on to its needles very well indoors. The latest eco-friendly fashion suggests buying a small potted Christmas tree with roots.

Some argue, by planting the tree out in the garden after 6th January, with plans to dig it up and pot it for indoor duty every Christmas ad infinitum, that this is both thrifty and sustainably better for the planet – not quite as straightforward as it sounds. You must find a suitable spot, where it will hopefully survive and grow straight enough to ornament.

Beware! First a typical five-foot tree takes 10 years to grow. Secondly, when eventually left in the garden, though a slow-growing tree, Nordmann Fir can grow to be a massive tree – up to 200 feet tall!

Gardeners like to sit by a window and study their outside growing space, ruminating on the gems in each new season.

A favourite job is planting new bulbs or trees. In visualising their eventual effect, the task never fails to invigorate the spirit. Christmas Day will see gardeners celebrating and relaxing for a change. At times channelling their inner Charles Dickens, they worry about money or feel nostalgic about the past when carollers used to call. Naturally, they feel sad about those family members or friends no longer there to share a feast. However, with childish excitement, they enjoy sparkling sensations, that magical moment when the Christmas tree lights flicker on for the first time.

Dan Pearson, one of today’s great designers, in conversation with James Golden, an American garden creator, in a recent Garden Museum online screening, declared: “Looking out, a garden is a joy, like looking at the world through a different lens. Emotions are very important in a garden.” Feelings are a major part of Christmas too. Close observation of prospects and detail – changing colour, textures and topography – stimulates innovative ideas and fresh plans.

Improving gardens brings rewards – new life, continued nurture, and refuge, hope in future growth – precisely why we continue to bring red-berried, greenery and flowers into our homes, kindling heartfelt memories to remind us of the joyful and loving message of Christmas. Merry Christmas reader!

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