Real Christmas trees are more popular than ever but the skills to nurture them are scarce. Martin Whittaker reports
Despite headlines claiming a shortage of Christmas trees because of our long hot summer, growers say business is booming.
While many young trees planted last spring were lost to drought, it takes a sapling seven years to grow into the big bushy tree that we will be dragging into our sitting rooms and decorating for the festive season.
"All we do is plant more trees next year to make up for it," says Roger Hay, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. But there is a real skill shortage in a burgeoning industry in the UK that is currently worth pound;150 million a year.
Mr Hay says that while agricultural colleges teach forestry, there are no courses in the specialist skills required for nurturing, pruning and shaping Christmas trees. Instead, the job falls to a select band of around half a dozen experts who roam the country giving growers training and advice.
One of the keepers of the Yuletide knowledge is Adrian Morgan, a horticulturalist from Grantham, Lincolnshire. "I go around advising people what fertilisers they should be applying, what herbicides are required and how to prune. And really my knowledge is based on observation and learning."
But he says the industry badly needs more skilled people. "I must admit I do get a bit fed up with being in Blairgowrie one day and Penzance the next."
The tradition of the Christmas tree is believed to have originated in medieval German mystery plays, when a decorated tree was used to symbolise the Garden of Eden. Martin Luther is often credited with being the first to decorate the tree with lighted candles. By the start of the 19th century the tradition had spread to most countries in Northern Europe. We have Prince Albert to thank for popularising the Christmas tree in England's living rooms.
Traditionally they were simply cut in the woods, brought into town and sold by greengrocers and in winter markets. But the quest for better-quality trees has led to the development of Christmas tree plantations.
In Britain the Norway spruce was most popular, but given its annoying habit of shedding all its needles in a centrally-heated room, other varieties which better retain their needles were introduced, including the Scots pine and Nordmann fir.
It is a fragmented industry. There are around 1,000 Christmas tree growers in the UK, ranging from a smallholder growing a few trees in a paddock to a handful who harvest thousands of trees to supply garden centres and supermarkets.
Roger Hay says natural trees have become more popular than artificial ones.
"Our market share has increased," he says. "At the moment around 30 per cent of households in the UK have a real tree. And certainly growers have increased their sale of trees year-on-year for the past 10 years."
One of the biggest is Woods Farm Christmas Trees in Shirley, Solihull. The farm cultivates 500 acres of trees, with between 4,000 and 6,000 trees an acre, though only around 50 per cent will reach the market.
Since the end of October the farm has been shipping trees up to 40ft high to local authorities for civic decorations. Now the company is at its busiest, producing trees for the domestic market, and staff numbers double.
Company partner Graham Gilbert trains staff himself - but he says it can take years to learn the ropes. "Each stage of the process requires different training," he says. "You have general agriculture - preparation of the ground to plant the trees in, the growing of young plants in seed beds and transplanting to their final position.
"Then there's the shearing and shaping. That depends on the variety of tree. And local knowledge has a lot to do with it - when you prune depends on where you are in the country.
"It's quite a skilled job. Then you have the harvesting, cutting and baling and selling the final product on again."
But Christmas tree expert Adrian Morgan believes it is the industry that needs to shape up, particularly when it comes to training. He grows four acres of trees, which he describes as his "laboratory" where he experiments with greener alternatives to herbicides and pesticides.
"I'm a degree botanist and I'm one of the few people who applies much of a scientific rationale to the growing of trees," he says.
"A lot of foresters and farmers have a preconceived idea of what is right.
It helps to have scientific training in the way that plants grow. It is lamentable that not many of my clients are that excited about taking it seriously."