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Coaxing gifts from the greenhouse

21 November 2022
santa claus shaped cute strawberries filled with whipped cream
Photo: Getty Images

Prepare early enough and you can delight loved ones with living treats perfectly timed for Christmas delivery. (There’s always next year!) Words Diana Noonan

Christmas is all about giving – and with that in mind, I press my greenhouse into service to provide a range of treats for the festive table, and living gifts to give to friends. My Christmas ‘coaxing’ yields up strawberries, baby courgettes and carrots, fragrant basil, and pretty lavender.

Early strawberries

Most of my strawberries grow outside in the garden, but I grow a few precious Christmas strawberries in my greenhouse. I choose early varieties (such as ‘Camarosa’, ‘Chandler’ and ‘Pajaro’) for the purpose because they flower in response to shorter days so give an early crop.

While I know that many gardeners have had success with strawberry planters (tall grow bags with planter pockets down the side), they are not for me. I find they require too much fuss with watering or they quickly dry out. What’s more, I like to provide loads of rich liquid fertiliser directly onto the roots zone of my plants (tricky to do when using a strawberry planter bag).

Instead of using strawberry planters, I grow my Christmas strawberry plants in black plastic bags, which help to heat up the growing medium.

The bags are filled with compost that I prepare the previous autumn. I keep it light in nitrogen (animal manure), heavy in potassium (seaweed), loose (plenty of mulched twigs) and rich in humus (leaf litter and other plant material).

As soon as young fruit forms, I water on a high potassium liquid feed (seaweed and comfrey leaves soaked in water for a couple of weeks).

Strawberry flowers require pollinating so I lure in the bumbles (which are at work long before honeybees) early in the season with pots of spring bulbs placed at the door of the greenhouse, and also inside it. If the bees are slow to make an appearance, it’s out with the paintbrush to do the pollinating myself.

Strawberries enjoy warmth, don’t like to dry out and don’t like wet feet. By growing in the greenhouse, I can supply all their requirements as long as I stay vigilant. Vigilance includes providing the plants with plenty of ventilation (greenhouse doors, windows and top vents are wide open all day, every day). Ventilation is essential because strawberries are highly susceptible to fungal disease, and the greenhouse, with its hot, humid environment, is the perfect situation for it to thrive.

Once the fruit is ripening, I cover it with netting to keep out the blackbirds who would like to beat me to it! Providing the sun comes out, I’ll have the bright red fruit I need by December 25!

Baby vegetables

It wouldn’t be Christmas at our house without tender, melt-in-the-mouth courgettes and succulent baby carrots. They are both achievable thanks to the greenhouse – but preparation starts early.

I sow my courgette seed into small containers of quality seed-raising mix in early September. I germinate the seed on a sunny window ledge, with the help of a small propagation board, and transplant the seedlings into op-shop fabric bags with handles (the sort sold at supermarkets to hold groceries). The growing mix comprises compost that is high in well-rotted animal manure, kelp, humus and loose, twiggy material. The bags go into the greenhouse in late September.

I sow my carrots, also in early September, into more of the same bags (filled with compost to which animal manure has not been added at any stage). I always choose a short-season baby carrot (such as ‘Paris Market’) for this purpose. These bags go straight into the greenhouse, and once the seedlings emerge, I thin assiduously to encourage rapid growth. I am careful to keep the seedlings damp but not moist, and I refrain from feeding (I want the roots to reach down into the soil for nutrients). As the temperatures rise in November, the carrot bags go out the door (too much heat could send them running to seed).

The bagged courgettes, however, stay firmly where they are (they need all the heat they can get if they’re to produce a harvest for the Christmas dinner table). Pollination is paramount for courgette flowers, so once my flowering spring bulbs at the door to the greenhouse are past their best, I replace them with pots of lavender, marigold and cosmos. And once again, it’s out with the paintbrush if the buzzies don’t arrive. While I usually remove all but one or two male flowers from my courgette plants, I leave more on as the 25th grows closer. That’s because I will stuff a few with basil and cashew cream, dredge them in tempura batter, and shallow fry them as a festive entrée.

Precious Basil

It may be commonplace in warmer regions, but basil is a seasonal treat in the deep south. To have it ready for Christmas dinner, I sow it in mid- October and raise it indoors on a heat pad. After it has its first two sets of true leaves, it comes off the heat pad and stays on a sunny window ledge for a month (I bring it away from the glass at night to avoid it getting chilled). As it gains height, I nip out the growing tips to encourage bushing. Basil resents root disturbance, so in late November, I create a shallow depression in a corner of the greenhouse that I can easily dodge when hand-watering the tomatoes (basil doesn’t enjoy overly damp soil). Then I simply upend the pot, tap out the seedlings, soil and all, and gently place everything in the hole.

There’s enough nutrient in the ground to see the plants through until late December, at which stage I will give them a diluted liquid feed (in moderation, so the soil doesn’t get too wet) of water in which seaweed and compost has been soaked. My precious basil adds that aromatic sensation to crisp green salad and vinaigrette, and becomes the focal ingredient for a Christmas Day breakfast of basil pesto bruschetta.

Lovely lavender

At Christmas, I like to give living gifts that I’ve grown myself. So many of my friends love lavender but have trouble getting it to thrive, or lose it altogether over the winter. That’s why I like to gift them potted lavender on Christmas Day. To start off the plants, I take cuttings in the previous season’s midsummer, from branches that have not borne flowers. I prepare each cutting by trimming off two-thirds of its foliage and dipping the base of its woody stem in rooting hormone. I then pop the cuttings into individual containers of good-quality potting mix, to which has been added a scattering of perlite and vermiculite, and a few pinches of slow-release fertiliser pellets. I keep the mix damp (never wet), and situate the pots in dappled light. Come late autumn, I move the cuttings into the greenhouse to over-winter. During the cold months, I give the cuttings no more than a dribble of water every couple of weeks; I water sparingly, but more frequently as the weather warms up.

The little plants begin flowering in late October, at which stage I pinch out the flowerheads as well as a third of the growing tips to help the foliage bush out. In mid-November, I take the plants outside and let them flower as much as they like so that they are looking their best by Christmas time. That’s when I dress up the pots in lavender paper and a lavender ribbon – the perfect Christmas gift, and all thanks to my greenhouse!

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