For hundreds of growers across the country, Christmas is more than just a day in the calendar – it’s a year-round job which culminates in December and begins again in January. Harry Brightwell of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) and Mark Spurway of Feddal talk to editor Victoria Galligan about life as a Christmas tree grower…
The BCTGA was formed in 1980 to improve the quality of Christmas trees sold in the UK, encouraging the sale of good-quality, live Christmas trees and offering a bar against which all 7million tree sold by its members per year should measure up to.
In 30 years, the BCTGA has amassed about 360 members and its environmentally friendly, sustainable ethic is ingrained in its Code of Practice. Its president is the Earl of Iveagh, of Elveden, Suffolk, and its secretary Harry Brightwell says, “Membership of the BCTGA is open to those who grow or intend to grow specialist Christmas Trees in the UK, while associate membership is available for those who provide goods and services to the Christmas Tree sector.
“Applications for membership are considered by our management committee and members receive newsletters, magazines, information and advice on cultivation, management and marketing of Christmas trees.
“BCTGA has a web site where members can list their retail and wholesale sites as we produce a ‘Wholesale List’ of members which is sent to nurseries and garden centres. We also organise open days and seminars for growers to experience and learn other techniques.”
Living and breathing Christmas
At the height of summer, with temperatures soaring and most of the country’s minds on cocktails and paddling pools, the BCTGA held their annual Christmas Tree growers’ open day and AGM at HA Trim in Guildford.
The event was hosted by BCTGA member, Hans Alexandersen of HA Trim at his farm. The family-run business has more than 400 acres across nine sites, with approximately 835,000 trees in plantation.
Here, Harry offered an insight into the life of a Christmas tree grower, saying: “Christmas is just one special, magical day in 365 for most people. But growers live and breathe Christmas every single day of the year. It is the day we work towards whatever the weather – spring, summer, autumn and winter.
“The highlight of the BCTGA year is the annual competition held in October. The Christmas Tree Grower of the Year presents a tree to stand outside No. 10 Downing Street and the runner-up presents a tree for inside. The Champion Wreath winner creates a wreath to adorn the door of No. 10 Downing Street.”
The heat is on
So how have members been affected by this year’s particularly hot, dry summer? Harry says that some members are reporting difficulties where as others have been fine, as many factors affect farms up and down the country differently.
He adds, “Some of the growers have found new plantings were affected, but a lot depends on how the soil has been prepared in the first place.
“My understanding is that new seedlings are most at risk in hot weather; those perhaps which were planted in spring have been most affected as they have not had enough time to establish.
“The trees which have had time to establish are growing OK, although there has been some sun scorching reported by members in different parts of the country.”
Harry adds that as 80% of Christmas trees bought in the UK are Nordman firs, which are deep-rooted, water has been accessible for the tree. He says, “The Nordman can hunt water through its deep tap root, so other species have been more affected by the lack of water.”
Choosing the family tree
Harry recalls choosing the family tree as a boy being a special experience, a date in the countdown-to-Christmas calender as important as baking the cake, Christmas shopping and wrapping presents. He says, “It’s a real special occasion to go out and choose a tree as a family. My (grown-up) boys still recall us as a family doing it. Who recalls going up in the loft to get the artificial tree down?
“Families should make a treat of it and take the children out. Lots of our members hold special events and have grottos on-site, serving drinks and really making an occasion of choosing the tree.
“I sell a few trees myself from a small plantation and have been doing so for about 10 years. Now the teenagers we saw back then are coming with their own children and that’s great to see. Christmas starts when they come here. We’re creating memories.”
‘Prices for quality trees are likely to be on the increase’
Mark Spurway from Feddal trees – whose plantations include 700 acres in West Perthshire – is the son of Humphrey Spurway. Humphrey pioneered large-scale Christmas Tree production in the UK in the late 1970s and was the first grower to introduce Fraser Fir to the UK market on a commercial basis.
Mark (pictured) says, “The business was grown to a peak of sales around 350,000 at the start of the millennium and has settled back to sales of approx. 150,000 within the family. This is mainly due to big Danish-based consortia growing trees in many European countries including the UK.
“The market has been dominated by these large outfits and there has been over-production of trees – fortunately the market has remained short of premium quality and most of the surpluses have been of a standard lighter grade tree as the management has been lacking.
“Prices have remained reasonable for the best quality but have fallen off a cliff for poorer grades, and things appear to be settling down with planting figures reduced in Europe after 2013 so prices are likely to be on the increase.”
A fine balance of the seasons
Mark desrcibes the planting process, which begins when trees are planted at approximately three to four years old from seed. He adds, “The average time spent before harvesting will be around seven years but will vary greatly depending on location.
“Effectively you spend the first three years after planting desperately try to encourage the tree to grow, and the next four years doing everything in your power to slow it down!"
So has this hot, dry summer affected plantations? Mark says, “In Perthshire not too much as we are never really that short of rain. The dry season will have impacted the newly planted trees just as it impacts newly planted shrubs or flowers in your garden and there will be losses – but the established trees should be fine.
“Also those growers who fertilise their trees will have struggled to get the trees to take up the feed as there will not have been sufficient rain to soak the fertiliser into the ground.
“Long winter, no spring and a hot summer is not ideal – but is preferred to a wet summer.”
So what type of Christmas tree does an expert have in their house during the festive season, and why? “Fraser fir for choice. Beautiful scented tree and the best at retaining its needles – or at least that’s what I’d like, but I usually end up scavenging whatever is left in the shed.”
For more information on the BCTGA, see bctga.co.uk