All I want for Christmas
It's easy to buy a plant for a gardener at Christmas, isn't it? You just pop into a garden centre and buy a bright poinsettia or, if you're really pushing the boat out, a pure white orchid tied primly to an upright cane, its roots creeping weirdly out of a seemingly undersized pot. If it was for me, a gift is a gift and I'd say thank you and try to mean it. But ask me what I really want...
I want scent, sweet and heady enough to uplift the grimmest winter day. I want a promise of pleasures yet to come as leaves slowly unfurl and brilliant colour follows. I want to caress a little treasure in my rough gardener's hands and imagine it growing with me for years. In short, I want my rustic heart to skip a beat on Christmas Day. Too much to ask of the time-pressed, non-gardening shopper? It's easy when you know how...
Let's start with scent. Witch hazel is my all-time favourite winter scented shrub, usually flowering in the first mild spell after the shortest day. The plants for sale look like bare twigs with bobbles on right now, but what bobbles! As the spidery petals unfurl, the scent wafts out, sweet and rich beyond expectation.
For good scent I stick with the traditional yellows, Hamamelis mollis and H. x intermedia 'Pallida', but there are some gorgeous reds and oranges too - they need a spot with the light behind them as they vanish against a dark background.
Sarcoccoca confusa 'Christmas Box'
For a fragrant welcome home, Christmas box is unbeatable. Sarcococca confusa is evergreen, neat, trouble-free and does really well in a ceramic pot. Placed outdoors, close to the front door, its scented white flowers will greet the happy owner as they fumble for keys in the winter gloom. Last year's shiny black berries will still be on the plant when it is in flower, which adds interest.
For something smaller, tiny narcissus in a clay pot will brighten my day and I can plant them out and enjoy them again next year. But not those tall indoor Paperwhites - I can't be the only person who finds the strong smell unbearable!
Winter is bare root planting season and a bare-rooted apple or a pear tree is a gift for life. Pick a good eater and keeper like Spartan or Conference and buy from a specialist nursery. They all deliver by courier and the hessian-wrapped package will come to no harm in a cold garage for a week or so.
Tulipa 'Carnaval de Nice'
Remember to check that it's grafted onto a suitable size rootstock for your intentions. Or perhaps a bundle of bare rooted Raspberry canes for an allotmenteer? 'Polska' tastes amazing and fruits continuously from midsummer to autumn.
If you're really pressed for time and money, buy tulip bulbs. February isn't too late to plant them out. Avoid the big mixed bags and buy a few pretty miniatures, or a flamed one, like Carnaval de Nice for something special. My mother once bought me orange and purple tulip bulbs for Christmas. I wasn't sure, but when they flowered they lit up the garden and made me smile for weeks. I loved them.
Above all, keep it real. Don't even consider silk flowers. Or plastic. Never, ever. They will indeed leave a lasting impression, but perhaps not the one you intended...
Sue Beesley is a garden writer and designer. Her garden; Grasses with Grace was awarded Gold at this year's RHS Show Tatton Park.