I’ve said this before on these pages, but will say it again - holly, or Ilex to give it its grown up name, is a much, underrated shrub. 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 with rabbits and large dog, 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. 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. Also looking good here at Charnwood is our Mahonia. An unprepossessing, easy evergreen shrub also liking woodland conditions, it is coming into flower now with its gorgeous yellow scented spikes in profusion. If you have a shady corner where nothing much will grow, give it a go. It’s a fairly big plant and a bit prickly not unlike a holly so take that into account if you are planting it by a path. In case you haven’t noticed, Christmas is nearly upon us. I still think the best Christmas present ever is a good gardening book. The one I have permanently at the side of my bed is Monty Don’s ‘Ivington Diaries. He is a wonderfully expressive writer so you learn a lot about his emotional journey through the year as well as how to be a better gardener. He also writes with both humour and humility, this is his entry for December 27 1998: ‘What have I done in this or a previous life that merited being given spiked aerating sandals for Christmas? What bothers me most about this present … is not that they are absurd and the wearer instantly transformed into a puncturing buffoon, but that the giver might have been serious. .. The best presents of all – at any time of year – are plants from people’s gardens.. I love walking round the garden and remembering the provenance of plants.. . I like to think that the whole country has this interconnecting family tree of plants in gardened linking families, lovers and strangers alike.’ Seasons greetings from Charnwood!