It used to be tradition at this time of the year for Victorian garden boys to gather holly tips and evergreen foliage for wreath-making. In the run-up to Christmas, most estate gardeners were directed towards making decorations, especially holly wreaths.

Even today, this tradition persists, the gardeners on many large estates still producing wreaths from material gathered from their land. With a small garden it is also possible to grow all your requirements for a wreath or two, especially holly tips. Indeed, the occasional removal of small growing points not only provides the material for making wreaths, but also keeps the bushes in good order.

The same could be said for pruning your conifers. As long as the foliage is of the past season's growth, there is unlikely to be any problem reclothing the donor bush. If you cut into wood that is more than a couple of years old, you may well have problems.

If you wish to plant suitable varieties in your garden for wreath work, plan for spring planting now. The best variegated holly is Golden King. Not only is this beautifully marked with green and gold, but it also produces dense clusters of bright red berries. Silver Queen is a cream and green variegated kind which is also useful at Christmas, but it never bears fruit. If you require a good berrying glossy green sort, then go for the not so spiny JC Van Tol, a more easily handled version of our native holly.

Lawson's Cypress provides the best greenery for wreath backing. This is often variable in both colour and quality as most of the plants in our gardens were originally raised from seed, with all the variation which that brings with it. For good consistent material of high quality, plant the variety of cypress known as Green Hedger. This makes a lovely free-standing pyramid despite its name, which might suggest otherwise.

If you are looking for something a little more startling, then cut background material from the golden Stardust or metallic blue-green Allumii. Both of these are first-class garden conifers which take well to regular judicious trimming. Often the flowers and fruits which are used to decorate Christmas wreaths are artificial. While there is little expectation of traditional Christmas rose blossoms lasting more than a couple of days and the silk or plastic kind must be resorted to, there are real berries which can be introduced which should certainly last until Twelfth Night.

It is not always necessary to have fruiting holly in order to create the desired visual effect. There are several cotoneaster which produce fruits that will remain in character for three or four weeks after cutting.

The most persistent is Cotoneaster cornubia, a heavily fruiting kind which carries its berries in easily detachable groups. By now this has usually lost all its foliage and the berries just hang in bunches waiting to be picked and wired into the wreath.

Philip Swindells

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Q My Brussels sprouts are all open rather like rosettes. Why are they not tight and round?

A Blown sprouts are the result of a loose puffy soil and inadequate firming in of the plants at planting time.

Q I have dug up some parsnips and they are brown in the centre. Why?

A This is a disease called parsnip canker. It is very difficult to control. The best solution is in future to grow varieties that have resistance to the disease. White Gem and Avonresister are reliable varieties.