How to treat your Christmas tree

Picture the familiar Christmas scene: you arrive home from the garden centre, a tall, bushy tree proudly under your arm. You're anxious to get it up and show it off in all it's festive glory - but once it's actually inside, once you've pruned and snipped it into it's allocated space, the magic seems to have faded.

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a family looking at Christmas trees

Picture the familiar Christmas scene: you arrive home from the garden centre, a tall, bushy tree proudly under your arm. You're anxious to get it up and show it off in all it's festive glory - but once it's actually inside, once you've pruned and snipped it into it's allocated space, the magic seems to have faded.

There's no need, though, for your tree to be over-hacked, lopsided and backed into a corner, if you just do a little groundwork before you buy.

For instance, measure your floor-to-ceiling space, taking into account the height of any stand below and the fairy or the star which will add extra height to the top.

Then look at the width you have to play with. Will relatives be constantly brushing past the tree to reach a door or a sofa? If so, you'll need to take that space into account and be prepared for some secateur work.

Of the estimated eight million real Christmas trees bought every year in the UK, according to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, the most popular is the non-drop Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), originally from south Russia. However, these are quite bushy trees and if you only have a narrow space, it might pay to shop for a smaller type, like the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), popular in the eastern United States.

If space is really tight, you may opt for a small cypress which you can plant in a pot, then place on a side table or stand and decorate accordingly. Once Christmas is over, provided you have kept it well watered and away from radiators, you should be able to plant it out in the garden when weather and soil conditions permit.

Andrea Blackie, garden designer and horticulturalist at plantify.co.uk, home to Britain's biggest online plant selection, says: "If you don't have the space for a full-size Christmas tree, you can get creative with other plants to make your home look festive this Christmas."

She recommends small evergreen shrubs that will fit into a small space and can be decorated to look fabulous during the festive season.

Common box (Buxus sempervirens), a shrub with small, glossy green aromatic leaves, can be clipped into cones or even bought in a cone shape then decorated with small baubles and other festive adornments.

Another alternative is a standard, such as a bay or a berried holly, into which you can secure baubles and ribbons to give them a festive look without taking up too much space. They can be planted out once the festive season is over to give year-round enjoyment.

Whatever you choose, remember that evergreens prefer the great outdoors, so don't put them anywhere near a radiator and keep them well watered in a cool room. If you can, leave it till the last minute to bring them inside.

If you are buying a traditional Christmas tree, saw off the bottom 5cm of trunk to open up its pores before you bring the tree inside and place it in a bucket of water until you are ready to house it. When you bring it in, make sure you can keep it topped up with water, as a tree will drink half a litre a day. Most Christmas tree stands have a space for water, or you could simply wedge it into a bucket.

There's a few extra tips to remember when buying your tree too. Make sure the tree is fresh - look at the colour; when it dries out it loses some of its green hue. Stroke the needles too, and they should feel moist to the touch. Always put the tree on the ground to assess the size and shape before you buy. If it starts shedding some of its needles when it moves, it's not the freshest. It's also wise to shop around - or leave your tree buying to the last minute - if you want a bargain, because prices vary hugely on location.

Once you've ticked all these boxes, and your tree is neatly in its place, get the decorations down from the loft, get the baubles on the branches, and enjoy...

Best of the bunch - Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera truncata)

In their native homes, these forest cacti are attached to trees in woodlands and jungles, but in the UK you generally buy them in a much more sterilised environment, in bud in November, waiting to burst into bloom in colours of white, pink, red or purple. They have flat, tooth-edged leaf-like stems with a trailing habit and tiers of flowers which bloom at the end of the stems during the winter months and throughout January.

They also need little maintenance, apart from watering thoroughly when the compost begins to dry out and maintaining a minimum temperature of 55F. They also need a cool, dry resting period after flowering and will benefit from placing in a shady spot during the summer to help them produce next year's flower buds. Don't move a plant once the buds appear or they may all drop off.

Good enough to eat - Celeriac

This knobbly root is a winter staple which creates a wonderful mash with potato and garlic, or added to soups and stews to add flavour and texture. It should be sown in early March indoors at 16-21C (60-70F). Prick out the seedlings into small pots when big enough to handle and continue growing on a windowsill or in a heated propagator in the greenhouse and keep well watered but out of direct sun. Harden off the plants carefully and plant them into well prepared soil with plenty of compost when the last frost is over, in early June. They should be spaced 30cm (12in) apart in small gardens or can be given more space on allotments. Water them in well, liquid feed every two weeks with general purpose feed and keep them moist. Weed regularly until the plants cover the space and harvest them, digging the whole plant up, from September until Christmas. One of the most reliable varieties is 'Monarch', which produces excellent roots.

Top buy

Are your paving stones becoming clogged with weeds? If so, invest in a Speed Weeder, a nifty little tool from horticultural trade charity Perennial, which supports people in need from the horticultural world. The lightweight weeder has a pointed end which will hook out all those weeds which have made a home between block paving, brickwork and other hard landscaping surfaces. Priced £5.50, www.perennial.org.uk or 0845 676 0640.

What to do this week

  • Firm soil which has been raised by frost back around plants.
  • Plant lilies in patio pots, keeping them in the greenhouse to develop.
  • Dig over borders and vegetable plots if weather permits.
  • In the greenhouse, sow seed of slow-maturing half-hardy summer bedding plants including pelargoniums, begonias and verbenas, in heated propagators.
  • Plant some decorative outdoor containers for Christmas, featuring winter-flowering heathers, skimmia and dogwood.
  • Rake up the last of the leaves.
  • Dig up and divide overcrowded clumps of ferns.
  • Protect alpines from excessive rain by covering them with cloches.
  • Mulch the crowns of perennials with chipped bark or compost to protect them from the elements.
  • Place netting over your holly bushes if you want the berries for Christmas decorations, or the birds may eat them all.
  • Check stored tender bulbs and corms to make sure none have gone rotten. If they have, pick them out and dispose of them.