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Garden Centre

It was the 8th October and there I was, happily strolling through the streets of Exeter minding my own business and pondering whether the prospect of an Indian Summer really was beyond hope. And then it happened. I rounded a corner and there, in broad daylight, were the council workers, shamelessly putting up the Christmas decorations.

Now I've always known that summer arrives early in the West Country but when it comes to biblical festivities I assumed they were pretty much in step with everyone else. By now of course the yuletide campaign is well underway and barely a commercial break goes by without someone popping onto the screen and trying to convince you that Tia Maria actually tastes nice. By the time the Big Day eventually arrives it will feel like it's all been going on for months.

It never used to be like that. I remember when the build up started with an Advent calendar discreetly appearing on our living room wall and the African violets would disappear from the corner table in favour of a cyclamen and a bright red poinsettia.

I don't want to be too rude about poinsettias because I know a lot of people like them, my local garden centre alone sells 4,000 each winter but who on earth buys those pink ones? Poinsettias prefer cooler rooms otherwise they wilt. To keep the humidity up, stand them on a layer of pebbles in a water-filled tray. Put the plants near a window with lots of light, let them dry out between waterings, feed occasionally and they should last for three months.

But remember, some plants are just for Christmas, not for life. Getting them to produce the coloured bracts - kind of flower petals - next year is tricky. They'll need 14 hours of total darkness followed by 10 hours of daylight every day for 8 weeks. How very annoying. It's easier to chuck them away and get another one next year.

These pretty plants also prefer cooler rooms, between 5 and 10C. In fact in London they are even used outside in window boxes so porches and conservatories are often ideal. Indoors, high temperatures in centrally heated rooms and a lack of water will make them wilt. Lots of light is important and a windowsill (not draughty) is usually the best place. Feed them weekly and they should keep flowering for months. When they've finished, let the corm (the bulb thing) dry out completely until late summer. When it starts to show signs of new growth put it in a pot again and start to water it.

Azaleas are fairly easy to keep but draughts, erratic watering and droughts can make the leaves fall off and hot, dry rooms with radiators are killers. You'll probably need to water three times a week but avoid hard water, which they hate. Plunge the pot into a bucket of water until air bubbles stop escaping from the compost. Remove flowers as they fade and they'll go on for a month or so.

Azaleas are worth keeping for another year. Start to feed them weekly after flowering and put them outside in a bit of shade after the last frosts of spring. Then move them into a slightly larger pot, sink the pot into the ground to stop it from drying out and in a few months' time bring it back in before the first frosts of winter. Fingers crossed, they'll flower again the following spring.

So, If you're thinking of giving anyone a plant as a present for Christmas I would urge you to give them an outdoor plant because indoor plants have a tendency to snuff it rather rapidly if they're not looked after properly. This can leave the recipient burdened with guilt, especially when they see you glancing round the room every time you visit.

Camellias are always a good choice because their glossy leaves and sumptuous blooms look expensive so the recipient will think you've really splashed out. The majority flower in the spring but there are plenty that begin to bloom in winter, especially the Williamsii hybrids (named after a Mr Williams from Cornwall who bred the first ones). The most famous called 'Donation' is a great plant with semi-double pink flowers from late winter and is very popular.

In January, one of my favourites, C. japonica 'Lovelight' has big white flowers and a tuft of golden yellow stamens in the centre. If you buy a camellia in flower you need to keep it in a sheltered spot until you give it away, otherwise the flowers can get spoilt. If you can, keep it out of direct sun in a porch or a cool greenhouse until you're ready to wrap it up.

The star magnolia, M. stellata is always a good gift. They don't look much at Christmas, just a bunch of twigs with silky buds on the end, but when the white, scented flowers open in spring they are something really special. And hopefully, when they flower each year the new owner will think of you.

Accidents do happen, though. Some friends of mine recently gave one as a present but in the two weeks that they had it on their patio, between buying it and giving it away, every single bud had been stripped from it by squirrels. The look on the face of the recipient was bemused to say the least.

Perhaps a safer gift is a rose. Because they are planted bare root in winter, the absence of a pot and soil makes them ideal for posting to people who you won't get a chance to visit. And let's face it, there's no better way to encourage someone to shed a few of those festive calories than suggest they do a bit of gardening over the Christmas break. So go on, say on the card "get out and plant me now."

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