Evergreen essentials for the festive season
PUBLISHED: 07:00 25 November 2018 | UPDATED: 09:22 26 November 2018
Ed Dolphin, treasurer of Sidmouth Arboretum and volunteer Sid Valley Tree Warden, takes a look at growing Christmas trees
Pagans of Northern Europe have used evergreen trees and shrubs in their winter festivals for millennia.
The popularity of Christmas trees in UK homes is credited to Prince Albert having a tree decorated with candles and treats at Windsor Castle in 1841, but Queen Charlotte had decorated yew trees in royal residences as early as the 1790s and Victoria’s diaries mention decorated trees in the 1830s.
Coming forward a ‘few’ years to my childhood of the 1950s, a Christmas tree was always a Norway Spruce (Picea abies). What you never knew was how long it would last before dropped needles were stabbing through your socks into the soles of your feet.
This is a particular problem with trees bought in places such as supermarkets, where the trees can stand around for quite a while to dry out before they are sold.
In the 1990s, an enterprising forester introduced us to the Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana) from the Caucasus.
Being a fir tree rather than a spruce, the needles are soft, blunt and attached by a small woody pad which means they are much less likely to drop. The one downside is that the Nordmann cannot match the lovely resinous smell of the Norway Spruce. Nordmanns now represent more than 80 per cent of the UK Christmas tree market.
To farmers, Christmas trees are a crop, but they need a very different style of farming to arable or livestock as it takes at least seven years from planting to harvest.
To find out more, I visited Lester Bowker, of Cotley Farm Christmas, near Whimple, and he very kindly showed me round one of their plantations.
Cotley Farm plant about 3,000 Nordmann fir and 5-600 Norway spruce seedlings each year. This means they have more than 20,000 trees growing at any one time. They need regular attention to promote a good pyramidal shape and much of this work has to be done by hand.
When the seedlings are established, the first job is finger pruning to establish a balanced shape. This involves working along the rows of young trees, bending over to pinch out any unwanted shoots using finger and thumb. To sustain a good shape, this process is repeated twice as the trees grow to maturity, secateurs replacing the fingers as the trees grow.
Leaving a crop in the ground for seven years means weeds can be a real problem. Weeding is done with a hand driven machine at Cotley to avoid chemical treatments where they can.
Other threats to the crop are aphids, rabbits and deer. Any trees that fail to grow into a saleable state are used for wreaths and other decorations. When the trees have been cut, a stump grinder returns the remaining stump and roots to the soil ready for the next crop.
The fresher a tree, the less likely is it to drop its needles, even a Norway spruce. At Cotley you can actually go into the field to pick your tree and take it home straight away.
Wherever you source your tree, it will last longer if you treat it like a cut flower when you get it home. Saw off the bottom 25mm (one inch) of the trunk and stand the tree in water for a while. Do not have the tree near to a radiator and try to keep the base watered.
You can find out more about the Cotley Farm Christmas experience at www.cotleychristmas.co.uk