Flower arranging and storytelling
IF YOU think the garden is a dreary mess at the moment, I'd agree with you – but Sandra Carson thinks otherwise. Wherever she looks, she sees possibility.
All her ideas are put tougher like a beautiful bouquet in Autumn and Winter Flora, her book on flower arranging: tips, how to press leaves between sheets of toilet paper, painting warty gourds, wrinkled walnut and crinkled passion fruit.
Vegetables, fruit, foliage even beetroot leaves and feathers make up her palette at this time of year and the results are breathtaking.
As we sit by the open fire in her home near Galgorm, she puts on a log and surrounds it with crackling pine cones that have been discarded because they aren't quite perfect for a display but just right for the fire, sending out an aroma of pine.
There are flower arrangements everywhere, the kitchen table is a riot of gold and silver for Christmas concoctions, works in progress.
Sandra grew up in Coleraine where she and her sister Pat helped her parents who grew their own fruit and vegetables, so a natural interest was awakened.
When the family came to live in Ballymena they had more ground, more garden and, for the young Sandra a stretching of the imagination occurred as she came to love nature.
“I made a world for myself, examining creepy crawlies, learning about wild flowers and beginning to draw and paint," she tells me.
Sandra was fortunate that teachers in school soon recognised her artistic talent and encouraged her to enter flower shows. She made arrangements in an old casserole dish and placed them on the staff dining table: so impressed was the headmistress that she allowed this gifted pupil into her private china cabinet for delicate containers.
Although she told the careers teacher she might go on to study archaeology, Sandra was always destined for the world of art and ended up teaching art at the Girl's High School in Ballymena, where her painting and drawing classes soon included the artistry of flower arranging.
The word spread until she was asked to run a course for teachers so they in turn could bring the subject to primary and secondary school children, and in this way she passed on her joy and creativity to young ones.
However, ever since she was a teenager, Sandra had wanted to attend the Constance Spry Flower School in London. Spry was her hero, a woman who arranged flowers for the weddings of the Duke of Gloucester and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and was commissioned to do the flowers for the Queen's coronation, not only in Westminster Abbey but along the processional route from Buckingham Palace.
Learning from the Spry school, Sandra uses unlikely ingredients in her displays and this is one of her hallmarks which she developed when she attended Woburn Abbey School of Flower Arrangement.
All her learning came together after retirement in the late 1980s when she established Country House Courses working in all the lovely old houses of the rich and famous, Colebrooke, Baronscourt, Castleupton amongst them.
Now, at 79 years of age, she's looking for a new project.
"The book was a mammoth task, the preparation was long and involved, at one time the kitchen was so full of materials I couldn't get to the oven, the microwave or the freezer for a week and usually ended up in Marks and Spencers for something to eat!"
But it has been worth it. Although some of the more obvious outlets have not yet taken copies, garden centres just love to have it to display, especially at this time of year.
Undoubtedly, with superb pictures by Peter Houston, this is a book to cherish, full of stories of Sandra's life, poems, her own sketches and painting and above all, guidance on arranging everything from flowers, trees, weeds and fruits.
Autumn and Winter Flora is available from Cameron's Garden Centre Ballymena or from Sandra Carson on 028 2565 2905, priced £30.
:: Who Is Harry String?
The pictures in Nick Cann's book Come Home, Harry String are vivid – but they come through words, imagination and story telling.
I feel I know Harry, the poor man badly injured in a mysterious car crash on the main road from Enniskillen to Belfast in May 2008, he looses his memory and spends the next year trying to piece together his life.
Is he married, was he married, who is Martha and why did she behave so strangely? And then there's Clive, a member of staff at Camberhill.
The book is filled with references to Holywood and Belfast, the QFT, a real journey round the city. Harry is 44 years of age, damaged but working hard to recover his full health and strength, he's a photographer with a great determination and a sense of the ridiculous. Not unlike the author.
Nick Cann, a graphic designer, has the ability to work out plots in a fascinating way, loves words and includes lots of conversation in his writing. The characters come to life and, when I'd finished the book within a day, I missed Harry String. I sincerely hope things work out for him in the future.
Nick, who was born in East Sheen, Richmond upon Thames, can trace his ancestors back to Armagh, but he only came to live in Holywood having met a young lady from here.
A man of many parts, Cann was once nominated for the title of Northern Ireland's Best Dressed Man and he featured in one of the more memorable episodes of Come Dine With Me, shot in Belfast.
Now re-married with a busy life and two young children, it took him 10 years to complete the book, which is his third. However, his fourth book is now finished, having only taken two months to write!
Come Home, Harry String (£6.99), is now on sale at branches of Stewart Miller, No Alibis in Belfast, Concern Holywood and can be bought online at Indiego.co.uk.
Two very different books – two great Christmas presents.