Alex Cor­lett vis­its a Christ­mas tree farm and has top tips for look­ing after yours

Alex Cor­lett is on the Black Isle in the Scot­tish High­lands at a most un­usual farm.

The People's Friend - - News -

I’M sur­rounded by Christ­mas trees. My feet are a cou­ple of inches deep in Black Isle mud here on Scot­land’s north-east coast, and lines of firs stretch away from me in all di­rec­tions to the very edge of the es­tu­ary be­low.

It’s only in the last 20 to 30 years that grow­ing trees has gone from a side­line for foresters to big busi­ness, as our host, Christo­pher Hood, ex­plains.

Christo­pher works for Needle­fresh, a co-op­er­a­tive that con­nects tree grow­ers with the re­tail­ers look­ing to buy them, in this in­stance Lidl.

“It was the Scan­di­na­vians who took it from forestry to a form of hor­ti­cul­ture. In my par­ents’ time it used to be just a thin­ning out of the for­est to get a tree.

“Grad­u­ally peo­ple re­alised that there was a real de­mand for Christ­mas trees.”

Here we were, stand­ing on the largest Christ­mas tree farm in the UK and pos­si­bly Europe.

With 1,000 acres here, with an­other 1,000 over on the Mo­ray coast, you can drive a long way in any di­rec­tion up here and still be sur­rounded by trees.

It was es­tab­lished in the 1980s by a Dan­ish man who recog­nised that Scot­land had all the right at­tributes for grow­ing.

Christo­pher ex­plains that it’s the Gulf Stream that pro­vides the right con­di­tions.

As it heads over the north coast, some of the stream wraps back around the east coast and prevents Caith­ness, Suther­land and the Black Isle from get­ting ei­ther too hot dur­ing the sum­mer or too cold dur­ing the win­ter.

Christo­pher re­mem­bers when he knew the busi­ness was chang­ing – in the 1980s, when some well­dressed gentle­men from a ma­jor su­per­mar­ket chain came ready to in­spect some of his trees.

“They wore the clean­est wel­lies I’d ever seen! One of them had on two left wel­lies.”

One wor­ried buyer asked Christo­pher how quickly she needed to put her or­der in that year, so he’d know how many to plant.

“It takes more than one year to grow a tree! It takes about ten! I had to ex­plain the trees I planted this year weren’t the ones I’d be de­liv­er­ing.”

It all starts with the seed, which comes out of a cone. Tree seed is dif­fi­cult to grow as it’s quite dor­mant – it’s de­signed so that it can lie on the for­est floor for years un­til it gets just the right con­di­tions to go for it.

The baby trees live in the nurs­ery field. Those Christo­pher is talk­ing about now are Nordmann firs, which have rapidly be­come the most pop­u­lar va­ri­ety.

The rea­son why is clear when you look closely at the branches. Tra­di­tional Nor­man spruces, once the UK’S most pop­u­lar, have nee­dles with a peg that at­taches them to the stem.

As soon as it’s cut, the tree be­gins to dry out and the peg dis­in­te­grates, leav­ing your nee­dles all

over the floor.

The Nordmann has a very vis­i­ble ball on the end of the nee­dles which fits into a socket on the branch and stays strong even after cut­ting, so the nee­dles stay on the tree.

Dur­ing its 10 years of grow­ing, a lot of work goes into mak­ing your tree look good. As the branches grow, a clus­ter of buds ap­pears at the end.

The mid­dle one is picked out by hand, so that the growth af­ter­wards is out­wards rather than straight on. This gives a bushier tree.

Christo­pher ex­plains how se­lect­ing the right seed makes an im­pact on the trees we see for sale.

“The seed for these Nord­manns came from the Cau­ca­sus Moun­tains. If you take the seeds from the north­ern slopes, where the grow­ing sea­son is much shorter, you get a denser tree. Trees from the south­ern slopes grow too fast, with the branches too far apart.”

Each level of branches and the length of trunk above it rep­re­sents a year of growth, which helps to fig­ure out how old your tree is.

Char­lie, Christo­pher’s son, joins us from a mud-splat­tered pick-up truck and ex­plains that al­most ev­ery­thing here is done by hand.

From se­lect­ing seeds and pick­ing new ones to plant, to trim­ming and fi­nally net­ting, the whole process is done with care and at­ten­tion by ex­pe­ri­enced and skilled staff.

“The work is as in­volved as some­one grow­ing a crop of wheat, only we have to work for ten years be­fore we get some­thing out of it!”

The trend over re­cent years has been to­wards nar­rower trees – houses are smaller and folk are look­ing for thin­ner spec­i­mens – but other than that the push is just to­wards bushier trees which can only be achieved with art­ful prun­ing.

The farm’s busiest sea­son is mid to late Novem­ber. Things are al­most non-stop un­til mid De­cem­ber, when ev­ery­thing slows down. Just a bit, though.

Christo­pher re­mem­bers, not so long ago, when Fe­bru­ary to April didn’t in­volve much work at all, but now the vol­ume of trees sold (this farm sells around 650,000 a year) re­quires year-round work.

Christo­pher tells us how busy Char­lie is at the mo­ment, but points out that as soon as he has a chance to talk about the trees, he can’t help him­self!

It’s ob­vi­ous, as we run well beyond the time we were given to talk to them – purely be­cause they’re still show­ing us the crop – that, for this team, the work is a gen­uine labour of love. ■

Nordmann firs are very pop­u­lar.

Dra­matic views over the es­tu­ary.

Char­lie and Christo­pher amidst the fruits of their hard work.

Trees pre­pared and set for Lidl.

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