Dates for Christmas!

One of the little traditions in our house are stuffed dates at Christmas time – apparently they are not allowed any other time of the year except those few days over Christmas, which is a shame really as they are just delicious. I can remember my grandmother making these and being most put out when I suggested I would like some for my birthday in September. “Oh no dear, only at Christmas.” Maybe dates were an expensive luxury back in the day and not easily available all year round?

Stuffed dates also make an excellent little hostess gift or small present to have tucked away in case a visitor drops a present in and you have nothing to give in return. This seems to have been a constant worry for my mother as I can remember her always having some signed cards in blank envelopes – for the cards she received but hadn’t sent to or little presents on the hall table, so it looked as though she had been planning to pop out and distribute at any moment!

Anyway back to the dates. There are a variety of things you can use to stuff the dates and I love all the different options. One of my favourites is to slit the date, remove the stone and then fill the gap with Boursin cheese. I particularly like the black pepper Boursin variety.

Other options are marzipan and as pictured, blanched almonds. You could use cashews or any other nut you fancied as well.

Dates often come in a little box so it’s easy to remove them, stuff and then return them to the box. You can then decorate the box with a sprig of holly or a tinsel bow or whatever you fancy – a quick and easy solution to a tiny present… or frankly, just a nice treat to make for yourself!


Festive balls!

The hanging basket with its chicken wire ‘dome’.This week, my partner in writing crime, Julia Wherrell, has come up with a lovely idea to brighten up the outside of your house in a festive yet very natural way.

I do not claim to have one tenth of Joanna’s skills when it comes to flower arrangement or plant knowledge and most of my gardening ideas are somewhat ‘freestyle’. I work with what’s around and what inspires me and sometimes ideas work out really well and other times… well, let’s just say my compost heap gets a boost.

As December dawned I decide my hanging baskets were beyond saving and took them down, leaving my house looking very plain. Something green and festive, that’s what’s needed, I thought. But what? I vaguely remembered something about making ivy balls using two hanging basket frames wired together to make the ball structure. After excavating my garden shed I could only find two hanging baskets and not the four I would need to produce two arrangements – one either side of my front door. My first bit of improvisation was to wrestle two bits of chicken wire into rough dome shapes to form the top half of the ball. This actually turned out to be a very good idea, as you will see…

Next I set off round the farm, with the dog, a large carrier bag and my secateurs. Half an hour later, I was back with lots of ivy, some holly, someStarting to wrap ivy around the ball…old dried cow parsley heads and a surprising quantity of rosehips. Being a good forager I only took a few pieces from any one place, leaving plenty of cover and food for the birds and not disturbing the habitat too much. The dog was quite bored by all this and stumped round the walk carrying a large piece of wood as I was too preoccupied to throw her ball. Don’t worry if you don’t live on a farm, you could find plenty of material in areas of woodland or hedgerow.

Back in the garden, I spread out my haul on a tarpaulin and started to cover the balls. I began with lengths of ivy and wound them around. The chicken wire worked really well as it was easy to poke the ends of the ivy through and get them to stay put. I worked on the balls alternately to ensure they were looking fairly equal. I paused briefly to spray the dried cow parsley heads silver – and most of my hand at the same time – and left them to dry. 

Next, I added holly and more ivy, trying to cover as much of the ball structure possible. I soon realised I didn’t have enough, so started raiding the garden, adding some variegated ivy and holly and finding quite a bit of ivy in bloom on the back wall. The design I had envisaged was starting to come together, but lacked a bit of oomph. It suddenly dawned on me that the enormous pieris that I kept squeezing past where it had overgrown the I worked on the balls alternately to try and ensure they looked balanced.steps (I think it’s Forest Flame) was looking rather fine at the moment. A bit of judicious pruning later and I had the final part of the design. The pieris added some lovely red colouring and the flower spikes softened the shape really well.

The final touch involved me wiring up the various bunches of rose hips and dotting them around the two spheres. And absolutely finally, I added the silver cow parsley heads for a bit of subtle glamour.

And there you have it, two festive balls outside my front door! You could obviously use pretty much anything that you think will last and, even if it The finished festive ball!wilts a bit before Christmas, take out the wilting bits and add something else. If you could find mistletoe, that would be lovely and if you want more glitz, you could wire up some small silver or gold baubles and add those as well.






Christmas stockings

My major task this week is to find lovely little stocking fillers for my daughter’s stocking. I realise I have very few Emily-free days before she is home from university and will be as nosy as a five-year old about where presents might be hiding even though she is now 21!

Christmas stockings have been hung for ages but there’s no definitive history, it’s all folklore or tradition. Some people just have presents in the stocking – all supplied by Father Christmas. Some have a stocking, and then Father Christmas comes along and leaves larger presents under the tree. In our family’s case, we have stockings, and then all the presents are from real people rather than Father Christmas.

We always leave gifts for the reindeer and Santa – I don’t mean for a moment that Emily still believes – but I think we all just enjoy the little ritual of carrots for the reindeer, orange juice for Father Christmas as he is driving (Father Christmas was a little disappointed about that!) and a mince pie or chocolate brownie depending on what’s in the cake tin, to sustain him through his busiest night of the year.

When the girls were little, it was easy to have a limit of £4-5 for anything in the stocking, now it’s so much harder. Not only have prices gone up – I saw a £45 cashmere scarf advertised as a stocking filler today – but also adults are much harder to find things for than little girls! As tradition dictates, there’ll be a satsuma, some gold chocolate pennies and then a few other sweet treats, the obligatory amusing bubble bath and sadly this year I have stooped to a parrot key ring that swears – not a very good example but it is highly amusing.

So it’s full speed ahead for me – a personalised cupcake making apron (she loves to cook), some underwear, funny socks … thank goodness for the internet!

So, what are your stocking traditions?


Winter in the garden

I have been so busy rushing up and down to help my daughter and baby Grace that I haven’t had a moment to think about the garden. This morning as I went to check on my mother and stepfather (they’re in their late eighties and nineties) I was wowed by the display they have created around their front door. As they find gardening a very difficult task these days the pots at the front entrance are their pride and joy and the way they look certainly reminded me how fabulous winter planting can be.

Viburnum Dawn.They have vivid blue ceramic pots filled with vibrant mixed colours of fabulous cyclamen. They bought a dozen of each colour from the local garden centre and then crammed the pots with bright reds, hot pinks and pretty pastel pinks – and they look fantastic. If the weather were not so awful here today I would take a photo to show you!

That’s a really simple way to bring colour near the house but there are other plants further down the garden that can really make you smile on a grey day. Viburnum ‘Dawn’ is one of my favourites as is Mahonia (I have ‘Winter Sun’) both of them are great shrubs that last for  years and repay the investment many times over. Chimonanthus is another shrub that pays dividends – its lovely yellow flowers are gorgeous when not a lot else is showing off in the garden!

I would be wrong to omit mentioning heathers. They are great value and come in many colours. I get a particularly good display from a white one I have called ‘Springwood Mahonia Winter SunWhite’ – but there are fabulous pinks as well.

I hope that’s given you some ideas for how you could get some bright cheery colour into your pots or garden this winter!


Winter birthdays

Much as we all enjoy Christmas, there are lots of people who have winter birthdays too and I think it’s always important to think of something non-Christmassy for them.

My daughter, who has a birthday on December 27th, was plagued by joint cards and presents from some people throughout her childhood, so we try really hard to keep them separate so she doesn’t miss out!

This is a very sweet use of our Signature die planter and lattice and the beautiful winter flowers stamp sheet.

Sylvie Ashton made this sample and as she drew the flower stamps for me, I knew she would come up with something brilliant if it needed to include them. I love the little snowflakes coming down and the “snow” that has landed on the early bulbs.

It’s never as hard as you might expect to make a scene for a card – in this case just using some midnight blue for the sky and white layers for snow make it really easy to see the planter in position.