Christmas is a time of celebration, family and good cheer, but it can also be consumerist, wasteful and exhausting. With shops, the internet and the media advocating the purchase of more and more presents, mounds of plastic and wrapping paper sent to landfill, and the risk of food waste piling up in the kitchen, I’ve been asking myself how to make Christmas more sustainable this year. We all know about the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We’ll be reducing our purchases and recycling whatever we can, but primarily this Christmas we intend to focus on reusing, with a sprinkling of replanting, rethinking and rejoicing along the way.
Trying to reuse as much as possible stops materials ending up in landfill when the festivities are over. We’ve switched from traditional wrapping paper – which can’t be recycled because it often contains plastic – and started using alternatives that reuse materials already in circulation. Colourful tissue paper collected over the year from parcels makes a pretty wrap and can be secured with biodegradable tape. We also decorate the sturdy paper bags that our vegetables arrive in and use pages from last year’s calendar as wrapping paper. Material makes a good wrap – either cut up old colourful clothes or buy material from charity shops and tie up with bright ribbons.
Festive plant decorations can be reusable too. Rather than buying new plants – often in plastic pots and peat-based compost - that only last a few weeks, we aim to reuse plants year after year. Our hippeastrum is now on its third year – it rests in summer in the greenhouse – and we’ve kept poinsettias for several years too. Wreaths are a perfect way to reuse materials from the garden or hedgerows such as holly (wear gloves!), ivy, rosemary, pinecones, dried allium seedheads and old man’s beard.
Even the tail end of this year’s fruit and vegetable crops can be repurposed for seasonal presents. The last batches of chilli seeds are currently drying in the airing cupboard and make great presents in festive paper packets as they can be sown immediately in the New Year. Fruit butters and jellies are perfect for Christmas too. The last of our quince crop is now a clear, rosy jelly and we’ve even made quince gin as a new addition to family Christmas hampers.
Recent tree planting targets aimed at tackling climate change have focused on the fact that the UK is currently one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Gardeners can help and there’s no better time than now to replant some of this lost tree cover in our gardens. A tree or shrub is a long-term present that will give the recipient pleasure for many years to come – be that fruit in summer, autumn foliage colour or berries for future Christmas wreaths.
Winter is an ideal time to plant trees and shrubs as they are in their dormant period, so there’s time for good root growth and establishment before the growing season commences. Many trees are available bare rooted at this time of year, which avoids plastic containers and also leads to more choice for the consumer. What about giving the gift of a silver birch - with its slender habit and wildlife-friendly branches - or a dwarf holly that will give evergreen interest and berries throughout the darkest months?
Children and adults are conditioned to feel that buying presents and spending money is a key part of showing love at Christmas time. And while my kids will no doubt love the lego set we’ve bought them and my husband will enjoy the books he’s had on his reading list for months, I’m trying to avoid buying for the sake of buying.
Rethinking Christmas in our house has involved buying a lot less and instead putting time at the heart of our Christmas gifts and celebrations. The kids are learning Christmas poems as a gift for their grandparents and I’ve been sending long letters to family instead of presents. Offering to plant up a cheerful winter container for a friend, helping with winter pruning, or making seasonal cakes and biscuits is a way to show the love through spending time rather than money.
Modern life is frenetic for many of us, especially at this time of year. One of the gifts I intend to give myself this Christmas is the time and space to enjoy what I have - a few minutes first thing in the morning watching the birds on the garden feeders, a mug of tea and brisk stroll round the garden watching my breath steaming in the cold air or a good book in front of the fire in the evening. Taking time out to appreciate what I already have will, I hope, remind me about how little I actually need and how lucky I already am.
Nic Wilson, Writer and Garden Designer