26 December 2013 - 11:50am

Of all the trees that are in the wood the holly bears the crown

All together now The holly and the ivy, now are both well grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. How true is that? Holly, or Ilex to give it its grown up name, is a lovely shrub. We should plant more of it by choice rather than ignoring it as a dull, prickly bush. It can brighten up a dull corner under trees on or the dark side of the house, you can prune it (carefully, with gloves!), cut lovely branches now to decorate the house and let it get on with growing with little or no work from you. Birds like the berries too and we get little seedlings dotted around the garden here that presumably come from beak or feathery bum. If I spot them before Peter gets out with the strimmer, I pot them up, grow them on a bit so they can stand the wear and tear of living in our garden, and then plant them along the back of the garden, they are not very fussy about soil. A couple have now made decent sized plants, admittedly after several years. You are spoilt for choice for varieties – they come variegated, with red or yellow berries, some reasonably fast growing, other slow and compact. There is a column shaped one called ‘aquifolium’ ‘Pyramidalis’ and ‘Madam Briot is a hefty variety that makes a good hedge. If you want to make sure of berries you either need to plant a male and female variety within spitting distance, or chose a self fertile one such as ‘J.C. van Tol’. If you are confused, go to a decent plant nursery as now is a good time to plant as long as you pick a mild spell. Rather surprisingly the rabbits ate one I planted last year:; I would have thought it was a rather uncomfortable meal. So be warned! Ivy is undersung as well (apart from in carols at Christmas) and can make a lovely feature. I’ve got ‘Sulphur Heart’ growing up the garage. It has big leaves with random yellow middles that really shine out this time of year. It makes good ground cover as long as you don’t let it travel everywhere and smother your treasured plants. Many hundreds of years ago in some villages there was a midwinter custom of holding singing contests between men and women, where the men sang carols praising holly for its masculine qualities while women sang songs praising the ivy for its womanliness, and disparaging holly. It was often resolved under the mistletoe!. Ideas as to what is was about them both that had a distinct and different gender bias on a postcard please! If you are looking for a Christmas present for a keen gardener or flower arranger, my son bought me the most beautiful pair of pruning scissors from Ernest Wright. They are a perfect weight, sit comfortably in the hand and cut cleanly. They are a truly lovely thing. Happy holiday and all the best for 2014.