The holidays are almost upon us and Christmas is the last hectic hurdle to get through.
In an ideal world, the day should be pure pleasure and not painful, which is why I'm all about simple, smart, inexpensive ways to make your house and garden shine.
Spruce up your spread
There's nothing like the satisfaction of dressing a room beautifully for Christmas Day. The stage is set and if you're the host this year, your guests will soak up the festive atmosphere.
There are plenty of simple, effective, natural ideas for setting the stage, from the table to the sideboard, bathroom and outdoor areas.
Edible props are great ways to go and your guests can eat them if they get peckish between Christmas lunch and dinner.
The rich red and purple of seasonal berry fruit are stand outs, particularly simple bowls of glossy cherries, strawberries or blackberries. They may not last long, but make great first impressions and you can keep restocking if the bowls begin to look bare.
I also love the look of walnuts in their shells - they will provide light entertainment as your guests find ways to master getting them open with or without a nut cracker - one year a relative of mine demonstrated a simple squeeze and twist technique which popped them open in a flash.
Simple timber or bamboo platters or bowls suit this approach.
Alternatively, go for luxurious shine with polished silver platters or glass bowls with chunky lit candles nearby so the flicker is reflected in them in the evening.
An eclectic kiwiana spread will ensure you feel like you're on holiday already.
Try using interesting jars as vases for green foliage and pohutukawa flowers, candles in wine bottles and a piece of sculpted, bleached driftwood, pine cones, shells or smooth stones as a centrepiece to a sheltered outdoor table. Involve the kids, too.
They will enjoy finding natural decorations and will feel part of the preparations. String up solar-powered white bud LED lights through trees near your table or window for evening magic.
Don't forget the bathroom - lavender, roses and jasmine are all flowering now. Cut for a vase to give the room a lovely scented touch.
Nip and tuck, a garden polish
Give hedges a quick trim, tidy up and pull weeds from paths and most visible areas near the front door if you're out of time. Use a hoe to quickly dispatch weeds, then rake them off.
Apply mulch where needed for the best visual effect, such as the front garden and around border gardens in view of seated areas.
If your entrance is lacking, quickly pot some annuals in Christmas colours near the front door for an inviting first impression, or move a pot or two you already have looking good to the entrance.
Put broad candles in pots and tubs and light in the evening. Mow the berm if you need to. Use your judgment as to whether the grass on your berm is a feature or just plain ugly.
I've seen some attractive, broad berms where the grass has grown long and is seeding quite prettily.
With cow parsley and tall daisies flowering, they are much like a natural meadow, and good for beneficial insects.
But overgrown kikuyu doesn't look the best. If you don't have a mower, say hello to the neighbour who does and offer to mow their berm while you're at it.
Pamper the plants before heading off
All packed? Don't forget to care for your plants before heading away, to avoid returning home to a scene of desiccation and desolation.
Water outdoor pot plants well over a couple of days, then move them to a shady spot, clustering the pots together to reduce water loss.
Try lightly digging in water-retaining granules to the surface of the pot's soil before watering or cover exposed potting mix with pebbles to reduce surface evaporation.
If you're going away for a week or more, water indoor pot plants, then place them on a wet towel, grouped together, in the bath or shower.
Don't let them sit in too much water, though. I take the opportunity at this time of year to pot up anything that is too water-hungry - as that is usually an indicator that the plant has outgrown its pot. Water border gardens well, several days in a row then apply mulch. Water pots and borders with diluted seaweed fertiliser to improve the water retention of your soil and the general health of your plants during the time you're away.
Net fruiting plants and trees you expect to ripen when you're on holiday, and spray undersides of leaves with neem oil to reduce white fly, passionvine hopper and other summer pests.
If you have a worm bin, keep it out of full sun as your worms will cook.
Throw in your Christmas scraps, some leafy weeds such as dandelion, a little shredded office paper or dry grass and pour in a few cups of water to keep them happy while you're away. Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and happy holiday.
The garden column returns January 5.