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.
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.