Horticulturalist Jo Banks reveals how to use foliage, candlelight and cake for the perfect Christmas home. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures by Simon Hulme.
You’d expect Jo Banks to love her garden best in summer when the flowers are in full bloom and the raised beds are abundant with fruit and vegetables.
In fact, she prefers it in winter. “It’s a formative and calm time unlike spring and summer when weeds are growing as soon as you turn your back. There are jobs like clearing leaves and cutting back but there is also time to make plans,” says Jo, who runs the Harrogate Garden and Flower School and who is never short of ideas.
Her latest creative venture is decorating her home for Christmas and, of course, plants, flowers and foliage feature heavily along with cake.
She and her friend, cake maker Amanda Earl, have designed a contemporary Christmas cake with a twig wreath and decorated branches that are all edible.
It takes centre stage on the enormous Ikea dining table, which is used for everything from dining with friends to wreath making and table decorating workshops. A tray filled with mince pies from Betty’s is always on standby.
“It’s such a wonderful family company and makes things with love, care and attention. I’m lucky to have them nearby,” says Jo, who moved back to Harrogate five years ago after buying her detached 1960s home. It’s in a quiet spot within walking distance of the town centre and she has reconfigured the space to suit her needs.
Walls came down to make one large, open-plan dining area, kitchen and office leading to a separate sitting room. The walls are painted in a pale grey but the rest of the décor reveals a love of bright colour. Jo’s Christmas decorations, by contrast, are mostly from nature’s own palette.
“The garden is such an important part of my life so I like to bring a bit of outdoors inside in celebration of my favourite season. I use twigs and branches, holly, ivy and rosemary” she says.
The lichen-covered branch suspended from the ceiling above the table is one she pruned from a California Lilac in a friend’s garden. “Lichen grows where the air is clean. If there is no lichen it is a sign of pollution” she explains.
The branch is decorated the with glass tealight holders hung from coloured ribbon and makes a striking and beautiful focal point. Like many of her festive decorations it was inexpensive to create.
The glass jars filled with fresh cranberries and little tealights are another cost-effective idea. “The berries last a couple of weeks before they turn to mush,” she says, adding that the two urns either side of the Christmas cake were chosen for their small bases and are planted with her favourite white hellebores.
There are more plants on the sideboard, some from Johnsons of Whixley, along with a large jar with a candle and a Betty’s lebkucken inside. A potted hyacinth is propped up with twigs from the garden and top dressed with sphagnum moss.
It features on all her indoor plants, including the row of Christmas roses in her favourite vintage terracotta pots, which sit on a bed of ivy and fairy lights on the mantelpiece.
She adores candles and fairy lights and Christmas is her excuse to “go mad” with them. Some of her favourite candles are grouped on top of a gold table in the hall – another bargain. “It was an old table I had in the garage and my goddaughter painted it for me,” she says.
A bird bath has also been re-purposed and turned into a festive fruit bowl filled with tangerines for her guests. Her real tree will also be given a new life when Christmas is over. She named the plump potted spruce “Little Fatty” and has trimmed it with her favourite mercury glass baubles and fairy lights. Its plastic pot is wrapped in bright pink felt tied with a matching ribbon.
“Potted trees are great because you can put them outside in the garden after Christmas then bring them back in again the following year,” says Jo, who points to what she calls her outdoor “Christmas trees” – Malus Robusta best known for its rosy red crab apples.
The wraparound garden is the nerve centre of her business. She launched her classes and workshops after a midlife switch from nurse to gardener.
She studied horticulture at Harlow Carr and established her own garden design and maintenance business before moving to London for a year to work at the renowned Petersham Nurseries.
“I have always had a passion for horticulture. It is incredibly therapeutic. I love teaching people about gardening. Whether you have lots of space or just a backyard, it gives you so much back in return,” says Jo.
“I enjoy showing people what they can do with what they grow so cooking and making is a big part of what I do. I’m also planning a calligraphy course. If you give someone flowers it’s even better to add card in with lovely writing on it,” she says. “It’s a finishing touch.”
The Harrogate Garden and Flower School, classes and workshops, include wreath making on December 10 and 11. jobanksflowers.co.uk