Mid-winter festivals have been common across the northern hemisphere for tens of thousands of years, with residents festooning their homes with greenery and lighting fires and lights to drive away the winter glooms.
Here in hot and often dry Australia, we need to remind ourselves of greenery too, as heat and drought brown off the land, the lettuces, and even fade the letterbox.
I love celebrating household greenery in December. Step 1: water all outside the house, even if it must be with a hand-held hose or bucket of water saved from the shower.
Green grass or new green shoots on garden plants cools the soil and the air above it and lifts the spirits. A green garden is also a gift to anyone passing by.
Next, add two pots of your favourite greens or whatever you fall in love with at the garden centre to either side of the front door, to enjoy each time you pass through. This year I fell in love with two lush red geraniums (okay, pelargoniums) and I smile whenever I see them, They are my personal green celebration, even though I made a vow not to plant any ornamentals this drought year. (As soon as I planted them, we had a flood. Though I am not saying one caused the other...)
The next annual herbal celebration is the green garland draped over the doorknob - the doorknob has been slightly gnawed by one of the wombats who decided she was suffering carrot deprivation, but the garland pretty much hides that.
The garland itself is a commercial one, of intertwined young branches - easy to create by anyone with .000005 per cent more artistic talent than I have. But I do interweave bay leaves into it so it becomes a living garland, too. (Note to self: remember to haul the garland out of its box for this year).
Then there are vases of greenery. We have wonderful semi-wild gladioli that bloom in December, vivid white magnolia glorifolia, the occasional lily, and many shades of hydrangeas all vivid at Christmas, but our vases are mostly filled with green: more bay leaves, plus cumquat or calamondin branches, tree fern fronds, hydrangea foliage, peppermint gum leaves or powdery blue gum foliage, found on the local Maiden's Gums, which seem to last longest of any eucalypt leaves in a vase, all adorned with a few gaudy flowers for added brightness.
To the casual eye they look like bunches of flowers. They are actually vases of the kind of greens that stay green for several weeks before wilting and fading. Hunt and you'll be surprised how much greenery you have in your garden to work with - and how one bunch of blooms can be divided between six vases of greenery and still look floriferous.
Then there is The Tree. For years we cut down casuarina branches and tied them together to look like a "real" tree, which my offspring insisted were radiata pine and/or spruce.
Keeping the trunk of a live tree in a bucket of water, in a shady cool spot, to stop all the pine needles falling, was also difficult, and rarely entirely successful in keeping back the horde of pine needles.
After that I tried potted dwarf lily pillies, which I personally loved but the family felt looked too untraditional, a potted cumquat, a coffee bush, a lush calamondin with its own decorative orange baubles, and a few others.
MORE JACKIE FRENCH:
The NSW Christmas bush was the most successful, but I couldn't find one at the right stage of brightness in the garden centre every year.
Finally, on impulse, while my husband was having his cataracts done and I was bushed, I gave in and headed to the mall. We now have a "fake" tree. It can be put away each year with most of its decorations on it, small dangling wombats and bright birds as well as sparkling red and silver baubles and home-made kids' decorations.
But it stands in the glass corner of the living room where all you can see behind it is a grove of native ginger leaves, and fruit trees, like the date palm and the plum trees and the apples.
The effect is truly, wonderfully a celebration of greenery and new life.
This week I am:
- Already picking more zucchini than we know what to do with.
- Almost ready to pick the first cucumbers.
- Feeding the lemon trees - it is difficult to overfeed a lemon - so that there will be fat, tender fruit for the compulsory summer lemon cordial.
- Buying two more red hydrangeas and two more red geraniums/pelargoniums because I love them. Case closed.
- Weeding, weeding, weeding.
- Delighting that the recent rain has prompted the asparagus to put up a new crop of tender shoots.
- Picking the last of the cumquats and Meyer lemons, the first small yellow plums, vast amounts of tender silverbeet, a few late ripening mulberries, and far too few raspberries.