As part of a project designed to sow ideas, grow inspiration and cultivate futures, 300 London schools are growing their own picnic this summer and their reward could be a £500 voucher from GardenSite.
As winter draws in and Christmas beckons, indoor plants, floral and foliage decorations assume greater significance. David Coton suggests how you can transform your home with the colourful interest of seasonal plants.
Outside in your garden, your summer flowers will mostly have faded, so there is every reason to fill your home with plants that provide instant colour, bulbs that can be grown to decorate your celebrations and foliage that's an age old accompaniment to this special time of the year.
During your garden's winter dormancy, indoor plants have the stage virtually to themselves and there is plenty of choice if you want to decorate your house with flowers and foliage, brightening the seasonal festivities and beyond
Introduced in the 19th century from Mexico, in its natural environment the Poinsettia can grow up to 10ft tall. Poinsettias don't only come in red, although this is the most traditional colour, many different variations are available, these include white, pink and marbled varieties and, what many people refer to as flowers are in fact bracts or coloured leaves, the true flowers in the centre are tiny and insignificant.
Although everyone knows what a poinsettia looks like and they arrive in the garden centre looking fabulous, it is a plant that sometimes does not receive the care and attention it requires.
They can be very demanding and do not react well to any kind of stress or duress and you should only ever purchase your plants from a nursery or florist that keeps the plants in warm conditions. Plants bought from a supermarket or from pavement sellers will have been chilled and will almost certainly fail to flourish.
The true flowers in the centre of the plant should ideally be in bud or just opening to ensure a long display of colour. When you get your poinsettia home, place it in a warm and bright location and, most importantly, not exposed to any kind of a draught, and keep away from radiators.
Be very careful with watering. Wait until the compost is moderately dry and then water thoroughly with tepid water. Use a slow release fertilizer or add a balanced fertilizer every fortnight.
With a little care a poinsettia should reward you with many weeks of attractive festive foliage and can even be kept for another year.
All you have to do is allow the plant to slowly dry out in the spring and prune back hard. Re-pot and place in a light location but out of direct sunlight where the temperature is about 16 - 17ºC.
Feed weekly, keep warm, and in November alternate between 12 hours of natural light and darkness. The bracts should then colour again but will probably never be as good as in the first year.
This inexpensive plant will flower freely into the new year. Mother Nature normally designs flowers that are uniform in shape, but one of the greatest virtues of the Cyclamen is its seemingly irregular flower. It is thrown from the top of a long slender stem like a flag billowing on a mast in a blustery wind.
The flowers are richly coloured, bold and proud, waving over a sea of silver, green and grey foliage. The leaves huddle together into a tight mound, acting as the perfect landscape on which to plant those showy blooms.
Grown from a tuber, when bought they should be compact and well budded. After getting home, keep in a cool (13°C) bright position out of direct sunlight. Water from the base regularly when the soil is dry and do not allow to stand in water. Remove any spent flowers and feed fortnightly.
After flowering allow the corm to dry and it can be replanted during the following autumn.
There are two popular varieties of Schlumbergera but they require much more humid conditions than other cacti you may have. This is because they originate from woodland rather than desert conditions.
They should be grown out of direct sunlight with the pot in a saucer filled with moist gravel, a temperature of between 18-20°C (65-69°F) is ideal. During the summer the plants can be placed outside in the shade, apply a liquid feed and slowly increase watering. Bring inside to a cooler location when buds start to appear, reduce the watering until the buds fully form, then increase the temperature and start watering again.
Re-pot at least every two years and cuttings can easily be taken in late spring by planting the top portion of a stem not too deeply in a mixture of compost and sharp sand. Put the pot out of direct sunlight but in a light place. If you occasionally water and mist, the cuttings will root after a few weeks.
This bushy plant with dark green foliage has delicate funnel-shaped flowers in various shades of red, orange, pink and white. It prefers cool, bright conditions and unlike other house plants, doesn't mind a wet root system. So dunk the plant in a bucket of water (preferably rain rather than tap) and maintain humidity by placing the pot on damp gravel and misting the leaves as much as several times per day.
These are tough plants and can last for many years, remember to deadhead regularly and, once flowering has ceased, move to shaded outside location and keep moist. If re-potting is necessary, remember to use ericaceous compost. Then in the autumn, bring it back inside the house and begin regular feeding.
Portuguese sailors brought the Christmas, Jerusalem or Winter Cherry to Europe from the Americas. It's a very attractive plant with wavy dark green leaves contrasting with tiny white star-like summer flowers and subsequent orangery red berries that can last throughout the winter. However you should note that the berries and other parts of this attractive plat are toxic to humans and pets.
These plants like lots of light with no draughts or dramatic changes in temperature or location. They enjoy a cool environment, between 12 – 22°C (53 – 72°F) in the summer and 7 – 10°C (45 – 50°F) during the winter months.
During the summer the plant can be kept outdoors, keep the soil moist during the growing season and apply a houseplant feed until the flowers cease blooming. When the berries drop in the spring, prune and re-pot if necessary to encourage new growth.
Christmas bulbs can always be relied on to bring colour and scent into the house. Traditionally the most popular at Christmas time are hyacinths, narcissi and amaryllis. They are relatively easy to grow, depending on the cultivar, Hyacinths require about 11-13 weeks to flower, Amaryllis need to be planted in October as they take about 10 weeks, while Daffodils will take 6 – 10 weeks.
Make sure you buy 'prepared' bulbs. Early varieties include 'Delft Blue' and the dark pink 'Jan Bos'. You might want to wear gloves (hyacinth bulbs can cause irritation) when planting either in bulb fibre, or a moisture retentive, free draining, compost if the pot has drainage holes.
Position the bulbs close together but not touching on a moist bottom layer of peat free compost or similar growing medium, then fill in the gaps so that the tops of the bulbs are just showing and there's about half an inch to the top of the pot.
Now place in a dark, cool (48F) place. This can be achieved by covering in a black bin bag and leaving in the shed or garage. Check regularly to keep the compost moist but not wet. When the shoots are about 2ins tall, move into a lighter place that is out of direct sunlight and away from any central heating radiators. Feed with a seaweed based fertilizer every fortnight.
You can also place the pot on wet gravel to improve humidity. At Christmas they can be displayed in a warmer room but the flowers will last longer in a cool environment. After flowering leave the leaves intact until they wither, then lift the bulbs and keep in a cool, dark place for about eight weeks. Re-plant and they will flower again in the spring.
With lovely trumpet blooms of many colours on erect statuesque stems and straplike foliage, the amaryllis looks superb planted individually. 'Minerva', with attractive red and white petals, is a good variety to choose for Christmas flowering. First soak the bulb's roots in water.
The bulbs are quite large and can be planted tightly together up to their necks, leaving only about an inch gap to the edge of the pot, with the top third above the surface. Water well but make sure drainage is effective, so if you are using compost, rather than bulb fibre, mix in some grit and choose a pot with drainage holes. Putting in a slim supporting stake now might be a good idea, then keep in a draught free position at about 20C.
Water sparingly until growth starts, then position in a light location and rotate the plant so that it develops a straight stem. Water well when the surface dries and use a fortnightly fertilizer. When flowers emerge you can move to a cooler position to prolong the display. After flowering, store bulbs in cool dry soil and replant in the autumn.
'Paper White' is a favourite variety as it's early and has a wonderful scent. Place the bulbs into compost mixed with grit, the tips should be just above the surface, water and leave in a cool location.
When the shoots are about 2ins tall they can be moved gradually to a slightly lighter, warmer, location until in full bloom but keep out of direct sunlight. After flowering keep the bulbs in the pot or dry and pot again for next Christmas.
Particularly at Christmas, evergreens are used as a symbol of enduring life even in the bleak mid-winter and their symbolism dates back to pagan times, well before the Victorians invented modern day Christmas.
Holly, ivy together with mistletoe, pine and laurel are now widely used in wreaths and swags, hung on your front door to offer the promise of renewal in spring and also peace and goodwill. The more elaborate ones also feature pine cones and berries, even dried fruit – not to mention fairy lights.
Ivy is the great survivor and can live through the coldest weather and holly is related to Christ's crown of thorns and its red berries to his blood. Holly also played an important role in the Roman festival of light, Saturnalia, that celebrated the winter solstice (December 25 using their calendar) and the coming of the new year.
Mistletoe is another plant with a pagan past. Parasitic by nature, it is normally found on apple trees but was especially venerated by the Druids if they discovered it on oak trees. Also, as a symbol of fertility, stealing a kiss under mistletoe was first mentioned in print in 1820).
You might think that a wreath is a simple handcrafted ring of fir branches, but that's possibly before you have seen Premier wreaths. These are a colourful confection red, gold and greens with pine cones, berries and baubles. Some are lit by LEDs to enhance the colours and textures.
There are minimalistic designs with bunches of red or gold berries and these contrast with rustic styles that are a winter cornucopia of fir cones, leaves and berries, even citrus fruits and cinnamon.
Fibre optics can add intense gold flourishes while bright LEDs sprinkle light on battery operated Konstsmide's wreaths.
However sumptuous these designs are, there should still be room in everyone's home for a wreath with a simple red bow. Handcrafted and locally sourced, the wonderfully scented foliage cannot be beaten.
Garlands can grace walls, stairs or doorways. Again the foliage may be augmented with berries and real pine cones and completed with fairy lights.
Luxurious ones feature large velvety burgundy coloured poinsettias and finished in glitter gold with complementing red berries.
Simpler garlands comprise foliage with LEDs that can be displayed inside or outside the house. Others are a mix of green bay leaves, ivory, gold baubles, ribbons and perhaps fruits.
As opposed to the mesmerising colour changes are achieved by fibre optics, many have a dusting of snow with white berries for an attractive wintery effect.
A Christmas swag is a beautiful addition to a fireplace or wall. If you wonder what the difference is between a swag and a garland, the former is normally shorter, thicker in the middle and thin at their ends.
A luxury style will have foliage dressed in gold dusted cones and leaves. If you want something more opulent, choose one with gold coloured embellishments that contrast with the natural looking green foliage and feature gold poinsettia heads and baubles that are spaced along the swag’s length.
More naturalistic swags have lifelike foliage and are generously decorated with real pine cones and bright red berries. They are designed using wire and therefore can be easily shaped as required.
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