AFTER more than 30 years in Shetland, I still can’t get used to the idea of putting up a Christmas tree at the beginning of December, let alone at the end of November, as some folk do.
In my culture Christmas Eve is the prescribed day; and the tree is removed no later than Three Kings Day, 6th January. And still the needles would drop. My mother, sick and tired of dislodging them with tweezers from the carpet pile – hoovering never took care of them all – insisted on spreading a large sheet of clear plastic underneath the tree to catch the sheddings.
It was my father’s role to put up the tree, and he being a perfectionist our tree was by far the most perfect in the village. In those days the only available tree was the Norway spruce, which is naturally bushy at the bottom, then grows sparser and sparser towards the top as its rate of annual growth speeds up.
Papa was not happy with this. First he would carefully trim away any superfluous growth, mostly where it spoiled the symmetry of the fir. Then, with his hand drill, he drilled holes of exactly the right size and angle, so he could furnish the bare bits with natural branches and twigs.
With hindsight and some accumulated plant knowledge, I can’t help but wonder if this was the reason for the copious dropping of needles, as the inserted bits wouldn’t have benefited from the water still left in the tree.
After driving through Denmark, en route to Germany, not long before Christmas 2004, I noticed small plantations of Christmas trees in nearly every village, with freshly-cut firs and spruces for sale on the road sides.
This would surely work in Shetland, I said to myself. But there were problems. Norway spruces don’t do very well here, and Sitka spruce, which thrives, is far too prickly. It would be agony to decorate such a tree, young children and pets would sustain serious injuries by simply brushing past them, and the premium for my public liability insurance would hit the roof.
Lodgepole pines make fine specimens, once they’ve grown out of their two or three-brushed youth, but their shape, delightful though it is, would probably be too informal for all but the least conventional of tastes.
It had to be noble firs. On my return to Shetland, I found that there was already a nucleus of young trees in the nursery, growing in two and three litre pots. But pots can restrict and stunt growth, especially in vigorous conifers.
Growing things in pots is also expensive. There’s the constant feeding, watering and weeding, then there’s the frequent re-potting, where roots need to be disentangled and pruned, and the trees, deprived of some of their feeding roots, must be kept shaded, and receive overhead misting, until they have made good their losses.
Not only would the resulting Christmas trees be far too expensive in a competitive market, but remembering the Railway Nursery’s principle – a plant in a pot is like a human being in prison – the firs were set free. Lined out in good, but not over-rich soil, in a place where they received some shelter from salty sea winds, they have come on a treat. They are now between seven and nine years old, with rich glaucous green needles and dense lush growth.
Firs, unlike spruces, are soft, tactile creatures, inviting you to stroke them with their soft, arching needles. Two are suitable for Shetland, and will tolerate a festive spell indoors, provided you take a few precautions. Abies nordmanniana, the Nordmann fir, is a tree that can reach a height of 60 metres in its native Caucasian mountains. Despite being a continental species, it can do well in Shetland, as long as good shelter can be provided.
Abies procera, the noble fir, hails from the western United States, and can put up with a fair bit of wind and salt. It is slow-growing to begin with, but once past its wider than high youth, it shoots up at the rate of at least six to eight inches a year. In severe exposure it has a tendency to loose its leader. This, unless the resulting competing shoots are reduced to just one, leads to a broadening and thickening of its crown. Its deep green needles, silver on the reverse, waft a delicious resinous orange peel scent when crushed. We set off with pruning saws and a roll of yellow tie-on labels, to make a start on our noble fir harvest, and to mark some trees for future felling. I have killed a good few trees in my time, intentionally and unintentionally, but when I looked at those fat, resinous resting buds, waiting to burst into growth next spring, I folded up my saw.
“Archer, spare those trees!”
Thankfully, the trees had been undercut in spring, which meant their root systems were relatively compact, and they were easy to lift. Undercutting is a practice used by all nurseries selling field-grown trees. The spade cuts through the roots at the drip-line from the outer-most branches, and then underneath the tree, severing most or all of its roots, but leaving the tree in situ to re-grow its roots in a more compact fashion.
There was nothing for it but to root-ball the trees before fitting them snugly into very large containers. Root-balling is a wonderful old nursery practice, used before the days of containerising plants, and works particularly well with conifers. There are still one or two nurseries about who send out their conifers with their root balls tied up in large squares of hessian, and they establish far better than any pot-grown ones.
But root-balling has one disadvantage: the netting, made of natural fibres, rots away all too quickly, allowing soil to spill from their containment, and exposing roots to the elements, something they don’t take kindly to.
Root-balled trees have a short shelf life and need to be planted without delay, while those potted up shortly after, can be safely left in their containers right through winter. If kept outdoors, they need neither watering nor feeding, and are happy in a sheltered place until they start into new growth, ready for planting out in spring.
Spring is a long time away, and what probably concerns those readers who opted for a living tree right now, is how to ferry it safely through its time in the house. Opt for the shortest spell possible. Bringing it in on Christmas Eve would be ideal, but is probably not an option where children are involved.
If you want to have a tree for life, not just for Christmas, here’s what to do. Keep it in the house for as short a time as possible. Situate it in a well lit, and if possible, cool place. The latter, I realise, is a tall order, as most of us have centrally heated houses these days, and want to have our Christmas tree where we can see it, in a warm, cosy room.
Cover the soil or compost surface of your tree with small pebbles to prevent or slow down evaporation. Set its pot on a tray filled with pebbles and keep the tray filled with water at all times. If you haven’t got one already, get yourself one of those misters used for houseplants, and spray your tree with water all over, at least twice a day. Make sure the soil or compost is always moist, and water if necessary. Turning off your central heating overnight will give it a much needed respite from this unnatural winter heat.
Once the festivities have passed, place your tree, if possible, in an un-heated, well-lit porch, conservatory, or greenhouse for a spell of acclimatisation before putting it outside in a sheltered corner.
There will, inevitably, be some needle loss. Don’t worry about this; it’s the tree’s natural response to cope with the spell of overheating. Things only become problematic if needles aren’t shed, but turn first yellow, then brown, and remain on the tree. There’s nothing you can do in this case, except look forward to some nice, resinous wood for your fireplace, solid fuel room heater or Rayburn.
There’s just one question that remains unanswered. Where do these weird mid-European people put their presents if the tree doesn’t go up until Christmas Eve?
They don’t have to worry about such things, for the Christkind brings the presents, and places them under the tree on Christmas Eve. She’s a kind of dainty fairy, who can fly; Ellie Smith, who used to come here often as a child, once spotted her swishing through the glass pane of a window in a blue dress, strewn with silver stars.
If this sounds like a tall order, please bear in mind that fat, bearded old guy in a red suit, squishing himself through billions of chimney cans in just one night.