How are Norfolk's Christmas trees grown? It is more complicated than you might think...
PUBLISHED: 07:00 01 December 2018 | UPDATED: 14:53 01 December 2018
Thousands of people will decorate their traditional seasonal centrepiece in the coming weeks - but how many will appreciate the years of hard work and attention to detail which goes into growing Norfolk's Christmas trees? CHRIS HILL reports.
They are simple to buy, a joy to decorate and spend just a few short weeks fulfilling their symbolic destiny in our homes and workplaces.
But their fleeting moment in the warm glow of the seasonal spotlight belies the painstaking years of effort needed to grow the finest Norfolk Christmas trees.
It is a labour-intensive task involving tissue analysis, micro-nutrients, manual bud removal and beneficial bugs, all while battling the elements to protect the crop during the 10 years it takes to grow a standard six-footer.
Norfolk Christmas Trees grows 120,000 firs and spruces at Great Melton Farms outside Norwich, selling 10,000 a year to wholesale customers or via its own retail shop on Pockthorpe Road.
About 85pc are Nordmann firs, grown from Danish seeds and planted as two-year-old saplings by specialist contractors every autumn – which marks the start of the annual workload.
The trees will be side-pruned with secateurs in the spring, and then the new branches on every single tree will be “bud-rubbed” – a laborious process to remove the middle bud on each new branch by hand, ensuring growth spreads outwards rather than away from the main trunk, ensuring a tighter, fuller foliage.
Weeds are kept in check with strimming and mowing, fertilisers are targeted at the roots and tissue samples from pine needles are taken three times a year for laboratory analysis, looking for small but vital trace nutrients like magnesium, calcium and zinc. Any deficiencies can affect the quality and fullness of the final tree, so they are corrected with foliar sprays during the bud-flush from April onwards.
Trees are identified and marked up for cutting in September, with the first wholesale orders being harvested at the start of November, while the retail trees are cut later in the months and throughout December to ensure a fresh supply for shop customers.
At the moment, the five-strong harvesting team is harvesting up to 1,000 trees a day, with the peak demand expected in the next two weekends.
Farm manager Andrew Hunt said: “It is highly labour-intensive – trees don’t grow into this perfect shape naturally.
“When most farmers are off shooting or having a jolly, we are onto ‘Harvest Mark 2’. The majority of us enjoy the retail part of it. It is hard work, but it gives us that interaction with the public.
“We are farmers first and foremost, so most of the time we are in a glass bubble chugging up and down a field but we get something like 10,000 people coming through the shop and this gives us a nice contrast from our regular working life.”
Like all farm crops, Christmas trees are at the mercy of the weather. Of the new replacement trees planted at Great Melton last autumn, 14,000 were killed by the summer drought.
“That is a lot of money lost,” said Mr Hunt. “By planning our planting and harvesting going forward we can work around that loss, but it is going to be a considerable challenge. The Beast from the East in the winter scorched a lot of trees as well, but they should recover.”
In keeping with the environmental ethos applied across the rest of the 3,000-acre estate, every effort is made to find natural solutions to weeds and pests rather than using chemicals, said Mr Hunt.
“We are planting pollen and nectar-rich seed mixes, clovers, vetch and phacelia when we are planting the new trees which gives us a cover that helps suppress the weeds and gives us beneficial insects like ladybirds, which control the aphids and helps us reduce pesticide use.
“That’s why people sometimes find a ladybird in their Christmas tree. When people take the trees inside their house they tend to warm up and these bugs will suddenly wake up. The ladybird eats aphids – it is a natural predator so we like to leave them on there. I’m sure people would rather that than us spraying lots of pesticides.”
Assistant manager Karl Knight said few people understood how long-term and labour-intensive it was to grow Christmas trees.
“A lot of or customers think all we do is stick them in the ground and cut them down,” he said. “I hear a lot of people saying: ‘I am going to start growing Christmas trees’ but when I tell them what is involved and say good luck, they soon change their minds.”
TREE CARE TOP TIPS
• Leave your Christmas tree outside or in a cool place until you are ready to put it up.
• Use a tree stand designed to hold water – but first saw a half-inch slice off the bottom of the trunk. This enables the tree to drink water via capillary action, just like a cut flower.
• If the tree is not put in water straight away, the pores will block with sap and you will need to cut another slice off the trunk.
• Position your Christmas tree away from heat sources such as radiators and fireplaces.
• Water your Christmas tree regularly with fresh water and keep the stand topped up above the base of the trunk at all times. Christmas trees may drink more than a litre of water a day, depending on their size and how warm the room is.