Just what goes into growing your Christmas tree?
- Credit: © 2017 Danny Loo, All Rights Re
The Bennetts have been cultivating Christmas trees at Hooks Cross for 17 years, going through a steep learning curve to find, grow and protect their firs. Sandra Smith went to the farm to find out just what goes into your festive centrepiece
Along rows of lush green trees the dense foliage and waxy needles of Nordmann fir contrasts with its feathery and fragrant neighbour, Norway spruce. Both varieties thrive on the elevated acres at Oak’s Cross Farm where father and son, Bob and Daniel Bennett, nurture saplings into mature trees, creating nature’s symbol of Christmas, ready to feature as seasonal focal points in homes across the county.
‘We started this family Christmas tree farm in 2000,’ Bob recalls as we leave the farm’s small, bustling café and drive past a busy riding school and livery stables. On a plantation a few hundred metres further along a track Daniel, accompanied by his lively springer spaniel, Holly, examines the trees. Aphids can be a problem, not to mention male fallow deer, which, when crossing the field on their way to nearby woodland in autumn, cause irreparable damage by scent-rubbing their antlers against smaller trees. Birds can also wreak havoc. When a centre bud is young and supple, the thrust of a bird taking off from it can result in breakage. These are the sort of things for which these growers are constantly vigilant.
Alongside careful management and protection of the crop, Bob puts the success of the business, Festive Trees, down to a greater awareness of green issues and the environmental impact both in air miles and biodegradability of the things we buy.
‘Real trees are environmentally friendly. People are willing to pay more for a premium tree and like to come direct to the grower.’
The heavy clay soil at Hook’s Cross between Stevenage and Watton-at-Stone originally restricted the choice of species grown here. When testing different varieties, Bob discovered that Fraser firs survived a mere two years while Nobles didn’t grow at all.
‘We grubbed them out then ploughed and cultivated the land,’ Bob explains. ‘Our trees are now fed every spring with compound fertiliser. Nordmanns make up 80 per cent of our crop. If you left them they would grow up to 40 feet. The most popular sizes customers want are six to seven feet, which takes several years.’
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At one end of the field are rows of seedlings little more than 18 inches tall though already showing the classic, conical shape of their elders. They are planted by a combination of Bob driving the machine that digs the holes and Daniel sitting on the back, feeding the young plants into the ground. Minimal growth takes place during the first year when the trees put down roots. Each one is pruned by hand, Norways in January and Nordmanns after bud break in April or May.
‘With a long knife we take the tips off the Norway spruce so that the buds behind will break out. This creates a bushier tree,’ Bob explains. ‘For the Nordmann firs there’s a centre bud and side buds. Taking out the central, dominant one, prevents the tree from growing too wide.’
Deep tap roots mean dry spells are never a problem. However, when a tree reaches three feet, ‘bottom pruning’ is carried out, with branches up to nine inches from the ground removed using secateurs. This allows air to circulate, so avoiding mildew. Although generally hardy, new growth in spring can be damaged by late frosts though regrowth usually replaces any burning. Nordmanns are harvested after eight years and spruce are ready in six. It’s a constant cycle of growth – the 1,000 trees cut and sold each Christmas are all replaced.
So, like in the shops, is Christmas coming earlier each year to Christmas tree growers?
‘There’s the odd one or two who want their tree on December first, so they might come in the last Saturday or Sunday of November,’ Bob smiles. ‘We cut each day during December. Our peak time is the second weekend in December but we do sell up to 3pm on Christmas Eve!’
Once cut, trees are netted at source in order to avoid damage during transportation to the farm’s barn, just off the A602, where the mesh is released allowing customers to select the size and shape before further netting. In the barn, wreaths, made with foliage saved from damaged trees as well as holly growing in the woods nearby, are made and sold by Bob’s daughter, Sarah.
‘Nothing is wasted,’ Bob declares.
Given how beautiful the trees are in their natural habitat, are there any tricks to keeping them fresh and avoiding the dreaded needle drop indoors?
‘Once you’ve taken the tree home, if you’re not putting it in the house straight away, leave it in a garage or shed out of the wind and sun and in a bucket of water,’ Bob advises. ‘Once inside the house, put it in the coolest place possible, preferably away from a radiator or fire, and in a water-holding stand.’
Bob should know what he’s talking about, his business is a member of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association which advises on cultivation techniques and pest control. Each year the association holds a competition for the best Christmas tree, the winner awarded the honour of supplying a tree to 10 Downing Street. Despite flawless conical shapes and rich tones surrounding us, Bob hasn’t yet won this accolade, but he aims to.
Surprisingly, it’s not just busy at Christmas time. The farm produces all year round, with firs requisitioned for film sets, magazine photo shoots and shows, including National Theatre productions. The majority, however, are bought by Hertfordshire residents who love the festive family tradition of choosing a tree, taking it home, decorating it and enjoying the beautiful sight and fresh pine smell throughout Christmas time.