THE HOLLY BEARS THE CROWN

On the edge of the Nor­folk Broads, this un­cle-and-nephew team farm the fo­liage that has been hung in fes­tive homes for cen­turies

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - words by paula mcwa­ters pho­to­graphs by ja­son in­gram

On the edge of the Nor­folk Broads, an un­cle-and-nephew team farm the dis­tinc­tive fo­liage that has been hung in homes at this time of year for cen­turies

On a crisp win­ter’s morn­ing at How Hill Farm, Nick Coller is en­gaged in what he calls the race against the pi­geons. Perched 12 feet up a ta­pered wooden or­chard lad­der, while his un­cle, Peter Board­man, watches be­low, he is gath­er­ing in this year’s heav­ily berried holly har­vest be­fore the birds get it. “We need to stay ahead of them, so we start har­vest­ing in early Novem­ber or even late Oc­to­ber,” he says. “We have mi­gra­tory birds such as field­fares and red­wings later but, ear­lier on, pi­geons are the worst cul­prits – they can gorge their way through the berries with alarm­ing speed and all we are left with are stalks!”

The crop is gar­nered from five acres of holly or­chard, ar­ranged in five blocks around the fam­ily’s 400-acre mixed-arable farm and fit­ted in be­tween the main crops of sugar beet, pota­toes, bar­ley, wheat and ap­ples. The trees Nick is cut­ting from – some nearly 80 years old – are in fine con­di­tion with plump, glis­ten­ing berries in shades of scar­let and orange, stand­ing out against glossy leaves, both green and var­ie­gated. In a good year, Nick can har­vest as much as five tonnes of holly from them, cut­ting it into 70cm-90cm lengths to drop into ap­ple bins towed by his trac­tor.

To buy time, half of it can be kept in the farm’s cold store un­til Nick is ready to pack it up into 4kg boxes and send it to mar­ket. This is one of the tricks of the trade Peter learned when he joined the Holly So­ci­ety of Amer­ica and trav­elled on fact-find­ing trips to the Pa­cific North­west, where holly farm­ing is much big­ger busi­ness than it is here. “As far as I know, we are still the only com­mer­cial one of its kind in the UK – it’s a long-term com­mit­ment be­cause it takes at least 20 years for a tree to grow large enough to be able to cut off a rea­son­able amount,” Peter ex­plains.

Holly has been used to dec­o­rate our houses for cen­turies. The cus­tom can be traced back to the Druids, who held ev­er­greens to be sacred and be­lieved they could ward off wood­land spir­its. Later, Chris­tians saw holly berries as sym­bols of Christ’s blood and suf­fer­ing. Dur­ing the Ro­man fes­ti­val of Satur­na­lia, which took place in De­cem­ber, it was cus­tom­ary to send the boughs as to­kens of es­teem and we still think of it as a sym­bol of good­will to­day, which is why we bring it in to deck our homes and churches.

The first trees at How Hill Farm were put in by Peter’s fa­ther in 1938, al­though no one knows what he had in mind be­cause, sadly, he was killed in the War soon af­ter. At that time, it was a fruit farm but when Peter took it over from his mother in 1953, he could see the holly’s po­ten­tial, and be­gan nur­tur­ing it to cut and sell, which he started do­ing in 1968.

Holly needs mois­ture and there is plenty here: How Hill Farm is on the Nor­folk Broads, ad­join­ing a na­tion­ally im­por­tant marsh­land na­ture re­serve that is home to swal­low­tail but­ter­flies and marsh har­ri­ers. Peter’s kitchen win­dow in the 1850s farm­house frames a pic­ture-per­fect view across his gar­den (which he

opens reg­u­larly for the Na­tional Gar­dens Scheme) to­wards the River Ant and a 19th-cen­tury wind­mill at nearby Turf Fen.

In 2001, Peter asked Nick to take on most of the man­age­ment , but there is still a sense that Peter finds it dif­fi­cult to hand over com­pletely af­ter run­ning the busi­ness for so long – and he and Nick ad­mit they don’t al­ways agree. Peter used to send all the holly boxed and he dealt with many dif­fer­ent mar­kets; Nick has less time to de­vote to it, as he has a day job run­ning a Ford deal­er­ship (the arable work on the farm is con­tracted now), so works on the holly busi­ness only at week­ends. Con­se­quently, he con­cen­trates on sup­ply­ing just two main whole­sale mar­kets – Covent Gar­den and an­other just in­side the M25.

He also has a bank of cus­tomers he sup­plies di­rect, and sells six-foot lengths of un­ber­ried, un­boxed holly to florists for Christ­mas wreath-mak­ing, so it is quicker to cut and han­dle as they come and pick it up by the van­load. Nick main­tains a healthy re­spect for his un­cle, how­ever, ac­knowl­edg­ing there wouldn’t be any holly for him to cut if it hadn’t been for Peter’s long-term ef­forts to set up the busi­ness in the first place. And Peter is clearly pleased to have a fam­ily mem­ber to hand on to, par­tic­u­larly some­one as en­thu­si­as­tic as Nick. Both of them trained at Writ­tle Col­lege and Peter re­ports with a note of pride that his nephew chose to write his fi­nal the­sis on holly and grad­u­ated as top stu­dent of his year.

Nick grew up here and helped out on the farm as a boy, af­ter which his hor­ti­cul­tural train­ing and spells fruit farm­ing abroad honed his skills. “I prune the trees into an A-shape to get max­i­mum light to the leaves and berries, and to make them eas­ier to ac­cess at har­vest time,” he says. “I keep the weeds down round them and once a year they all get fed with farm­yard ma­nure.”

“Holly va­ri­eties ma­ture at dif­fer­ent times, just like ap­ples do,” Peter adds. “Each tree can be cut ev­ery sec­ond or third year and we ob­vi­ously cut from which­ever ones have the most berries.” They have about 100 dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties, in­clud­ing sev­eral spec­tac­u­lar ones that are al­ways high-yield­ing: var­ie­gated ‘Golden King’, dark-green ‘J.C. van Tol’ and the large-berried ‘Fire­cracker’. As

an ob­vi­ous ad­di­tion, Nick has started grow­ing mistle­toe on the Bram­ley ap­ple trees in their or­chard. It looks pretty in the branches and doesn’t seem to have any detri­men­tal ef­fect on their fruit­ing: “Mistle­toe is a par­a­sitic plant, so it needs a host. The seeds ripen at Easter and are very sticky. I squash them and just at­tach them to the un­der­side of the branches, out of the sun on the north side, where they will stay rel­a­tively moist.” This, too, is a slow process – af­ter ten years, the bunches are just about ready to cut from. The only main­te­nance they need is a lit­tle prun­ing of the tree to let light get through.

Peter’s one re­main­ing am­bi­tion is to find a white-berried holly: “Trade cat­a­logues listed it 200 years ago and it has dis­ap­peared, but I feel sure there must be one in a hedgerow some­where or in an old rec­tory gar­den per­haps. Dis­cov­er­ing one would be a tri­umph.”

Mean­while, Nick’s am­bi­tions are to keep How Hill Farm’s ex­pand­ing col­lec­tion of hol­lies healthy and pro­duc­tive and to keep find­ing new mar­kets for it. That would make his Christ­mas.

along with the mistle­toe, the branches are sent di­rectly to cus­tomers and florists for them to use in fes­tive wreaths and dec­o­ra­tions

FROM ABOVE LEFT Nick perches pre­car­i­ously on a lad­der to har­vest the holly – gloves and sharp se­ca­teurs are es­sen­tial; once col­lected,

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP

LEFT How Hill Farm grows around 100 va­ri­eties of holly, in­clud­ing Ilex ‘Nel­lie R. Stevens’, I. aquifolium

‘Ar­gen­tea Marginata’, I. x al­ta­cleren­sis ‘Golden King’, I. aquifolium ‘Am­ber’; I. aquifolium ‘J.C. van Tol’ and I. aquifolium ‘Bac­ci­flava’

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