By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe

One of the joys of having a property in Spain is the pleasure of experiencing a colourful garden at Christmas; a garden that motivates you to sit out and enjoy the winter sun and perhaps also to work on the garden in conditions that are often more like spring than the middle of winter, even if you need to wear a light jumper. There are five main things to be done, starting now, to ensure that you achieve this.

Resist doing the major annual garden cut-back in the autumn as you would have done in Northern Europe. The cut-back is best done during the months of January and February; earlier will mean few flowers in December.
Throughout the autumn, aim to prolong the flowering of existing perennials and shrubs by continuously deadheading as soon as flowers die and cutting back unsightly branches to stimulate new flowering shoots. If you have a dry autumn also continue to water.
Stimulate the early flowering of shrubs and trees that often do not flower until early to mid January. The three main requirements are to plant selected plants in south facing beds sheltered from cold winds, to keep the plants watered whether in garden beds or containers and to feed with a high potassium feed. Shelter can be provided by walls, glass screens, hedges or fences. In this way it is possible to encourage mimosas to flower a few weeks earlier than in other gardens in the area.
If your garden is not already fully planted, plant up some of the shrubs and trees we list below during November. With luck they will flower this year.
Purchase a selection of plants in flower just before Christmas whether a permanent resident or an absentee owner visiting for the festivities. These can be for sunny spots in the garden, the front step and porch or covered terrace.

We list below some of the garden plants that can be in flower at Christmas and where appropriate give tips on how to look after them during the autumn.

Some Christmas Flowering Trees
The most reliable late flowering trees are as follows:
The Strawberry Tree (arbutus unedo), which also has bright red fruits to brighten a corner of the garden. The fruits are edible, but in large quantities rather heavy on the stomach. We now prefer to leave them as a winter treat for wild birds, especially blackbirds.
The Galan De Noche that might be persuaded to pump out its heavy perfume on Christmas Eve.
Of the early flowering trees, the delebeta and bon accuel varieties of Mimosa are very spectacular with their network of branches covered in masses of yellow flowers. Cut branches look wonderful in a large vase and can last for a week or more.
Another tree to plant up this autumn, or next spring for the following Christmas, is the Justice Tree which can be covered with large bunches of attractive white flowers throughout December and indeed much of the year.

Lantanas are reliable in most gardens and also Hibiscus in warmer spots. Likewise Roses if they have been dead headed, watered and fed during the autumn. In a warm corner Poinsettias up to two metres in height can be the perfect replacement for a garden Christmas tree.

Climbing Shrubs
Bougainvilleas, Begonias, blue and white Solanums and the perfumed white and yellow varieties of Jasmine can produce some of the most spectacular year end displays. If you are lucky, both the blue and white Plumbago can also be in flower although not at there best. During the autumn ensure that you trim to shape, thus stimulating flower buds.

The Frutescens, Coronarium Chrysanthemums and Euryops Daisy give reliable winter colour in many gardens. If you are very lucky, a few Margeritas may still be in flower. A near neighbour has a wonderful display of naturalised Violets that always brighten up her front steps in December. We obtained a few cuttings last spring to give colour to a raised bed of Clivias until they flower for Easter.

Several Succulents can come into flower around Christmas notably the Red Hot Poker Aloes and the Aeoniums with their bright yellow spires of flowers and the various varieties of Christmas Cacti.

Winter Annuals
The most reliable for colourful displays are the seasonal Pansies, Busy Lizzies, Stocks, Wallflowers and Petunias which are now available almost all the year round. If the autumn has been warm and wet you may be lucky to have self seeded Nasturtiums brightening up the front of beds and cascading over walls. Also colourful Portulacas can often be coaxed to flower through to the New Year. Although strictly perennials, forced Primulas are often best treated as annuals and purchased fresh each autumn.

Christmas Bulbs
Our favourites include pots of specimen Amaryllis and Hyacinths and in warm corners of rockeries Anemones, Crocuses, Miniature Daffodils and Freesias. These bulbs need to be planted up during the next month. Naturally you can wait until December and buy pots of bulbs just coming into flower. Ensure that bulbs in pots and in the garden are kept damp.

Hopefully these ideas will lead to more colourful gardens at the year end and that heavy frosts don’t come until January or February, if at all.

© Dick Handscombe