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
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’