There are few things more iconic than the Christmas tree when it comes to the festive season, and it’s easy to forget the work that goes into growing a first-class product that will serve as the centrepiece of countless families’ homes. Here, Colin Palmer of Coddington Christmas Trees tells Fraser Rummens about his 40-year career in tree planting and marketing and shares some advice for the prospective grower.

THERE are four things a consumer wants when it comes to buying a Christmas tree: it has to be green; it has to be bushy; it has to be fresh; and it mustn’t drop its needles. That’s the advice of Colin Palmer of Coddington Christmas trees. And it is advice worth heeding; Colin has – quite literally – written the book on Christmas trees.

Raised on the edge of a Reading housing estate, it was a childhood friendship with a farmer’s son and time spent at his farmhouse that sparked Colin’s lifelong interest in trees. At the age of 12, he picked trees as his topic at the Berkshire Young Farmers’ annual public speaking competition. Colin went on to be accepted to study forestry at Bangor but, through circumstance, wound up taking agriculture at Seale-Hayne College. Two decades working for Shell Agrochemicals in various roles followed.

“I eventually found myself specialising in development and there were a couple of us who were really interested in forestry, and we started developing forestry products,” Colin told Forestry Journal.

Forestry Journal: Colin Palmer with a blue spruce.Colin Palmer with a blue spruce.

It was around this time that he purchased a house with some three acres of land and, keen to utilise it, decided to plant Christmas trees. Colin explained: “It was an old cider orchard. The cider trees were all dead and dying, they had all got Phytophthora, so I cleared those and, because I had always had a lifelong interest in trees, Christmas trees seemed to be the sensible thing to do. 90 per cent of the patch is Christmas trees and the other 10 per cent is a broadleaf woodland.”

He continued: “It was more of a hobby, to start with. I didn’t initially go into it as a commercial operation, it was just something of interest. It appealed to me because there were lots of technical aspects about growing trees which were poorly understood, and therefore, I wanted to learn the basics with a hands-on approach.”

The first trees were planted in 1976 and sold in 1983. “I think we sold about 50 trees in ’83,” Colin recalled. “In the early years we were mostly wholesaling, with the retail trade gradually building. We can now sell every tree we grow.”

Today, Coddington Trees has around 8,000 trees at its farm in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and sells approximately 1,200 annually.

Colin left Shell in the 1990s, at a time when mountain biking was becoming popular and drawing the ire of farmers and walkers. Eager to defend the sport from the adverse publicity it was receiving, Colin approached the Sports Council. He explained: “I suggested that if they employed me for a year, I would pull together a new organisation to represent mountain biking for national parks, local authorities, Forestry Commission and all the rest. I did that for getting on 20 years.”

Forestry Journal: Colin published Christmas Trees – A Grower’s Guide in 2016.Colin published Christmas Trees – A Grower’s Guide in 2016.

Today, Colin runs telephone helplines for both Confor and the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. The former is focused on pesticides, while the latter covers anything and everything relating to Christmas tree growing and marketing. It was while running this helpline – and repeatedly answering similar questions – that Colin was inspired to write a book.

“It seemed to me that there was a need for a standard reference book on growing Christmas trees,” he said. And so it was that Christmas Trees – A Grower’s Guide was published in 2016.

“I think it has been well appreciated in the trade and certainly it would appear to be well read, because some of those questions I was getting, I am no longer getting. So, I think a lot of growers now will have it on their shelves and are referring to it, which is nice.”

From purely growing Norway spruce in the early days, the farm now has a variety of species such as Nordmann fir, balsam fir, Korean fir, blue spruce and Douglas fir. Norway spruce is still the biggest seller, making up some 60 per cent of the crop. Colin believes it has remained a popular species due to many of Coddington Trees’ customers having been buying it for generations. Coddington Trees’ choose-and-cut model also allows for it to be harvested later in the year, ensuring freshness.

“People come, they park their car, wander around the plantation, choose a tree and one of our staff will come and cut it down for them, so they are really fresh,” Colin said. “They don’t need to go for a Nordmann fir because Norway spruce will last perfectly happily. If you cut it in December, it’ll last until New Year’s Day. Whereas, if it’s cut early in November, which is what would tend to happen in the trade, it will not. A Nordmann fir will. You can cut a fir on the 15th of November, put it into a house on the 5th of December and it will still be perfectly fresh.”

Colin’s advice for the aspiring Christmas tree grower/retailer is to first of all decide what kind of income you want and the scale of the enterprise. Taking the view that “small is better”, Colin said: “If you can retail your trees then the profit margins are much higher and the security is much higher, in that, if you take our own example, we sell 1,200 trees a year, every year and as a retailer that’s an ideal situation to be in.

“But if you’re wholesaling then you are very much at the mercy of the market. You’re at the mercy of the market if it’s a year where there are a lot of imports coming into the country, degrading the price; you’re also at the mercy of the market if it is a particularly good year and other wholesalers are producing really high-quality trees and therefore, again, there is price degradation and possibly oversupply. So, my advice would be to think about how you want to market first. Are you actually wanting to sell two, three, four, five thousand trees a year at the farm gate, or are you wanting to go into the 50, 60, 100 thousand trees and selling 15, 20 thousand a year? Having made the decision as to how you are going to market, that will point you towards the size of plantation that you’re going to plant and there are two facets there – soil type and location.”

Forestry Journal:  The Nordmann fir will keep its freshness longer than the Norway spruce when cut earlier. The Nordmann fir will keep its freshness longer than the Norway spruce when cut earlier.

Colin explained that if you are retailing, location is “desperately important”. You need good access, ideally next to a main road, with a large conurbation nearby with a customer base to tap into. However, it is less important when wholesaling as you only have to account for transport costs.

With regard to soil type, Colin said: “There is little doubt that Christmas trees don’t like wet soils; they’re not as happy on heavy soils, it’s often difficult to establish them because of cracking and drying out. Sandy loams are really the preferred soil type, so the ideal situation is for a proposed grower/retailer to find a site which is close to a main road, close to a conurbation and on a sandy loam. That would tick all the boxes.”

One of the biggest challenges the grower/retailer may encounter is trees growing too fast, Nordmann fir in particular. Colin said: “You want to choose a relatively slow-growing provenance. A slow-growing provenance means that the leading shoot will have a better ratio of buds to lengths and it’s that better ratio of buds to lengths that is going to give you bushiness. If you are on really good soil and the tree is going to want to race away, then there are ways of slowing it down. And we can do that in two ways. One is mechanical and the other is through plant growth regulators, and generally speaking, you are talking about a combination of the two.

“There are two mechanical techniques. The most popular is the use of specialist pliers modified to have three blades on one side and two on the other and then you just cut into the cambium of the previous year’s leader to slow the sap growth down. It’s a fairly skilled job; you don’t want to cut too much because you don’t want to destroy the heartwood of the tree and cause weaknesses. That is a very, very effective technique but it has to be backed up by plant growth regulators. We’re fairly fortunate at the moment in that we’ve got two very effective plant growth regulators which have got off-label approvals. We are also looking at other plant growth regulators because we are concerned with the way the European pesticide-approval system is going and we could well lose one or both of them. So, we need to have other options.”

Colin went on: “The other mechanical technique, which isn’t used quite as much, is basically to use a very flexible zip tie to compress the cambium. It has to be a special type of zip tie because it’s got to be one that is sensitive to ultraviolet light so as the stem of the tree expands it will break, and doesn’t then cut in and kill the tree.

“The careful use of nitrogen is also important. We need nitrogen as a normal process for plant growth and green colour. So generally speaking, we will be applying nitrogen when root growth starts in March, but the secret is not to put too much on; a minimal amount just to keep the tree healthy. And, if the tree is showing any signs of yellowing then perhaps top up the nitrogen in mid-August. No later than mid-August because we don’t want the tree to continue to be active through the autumn and into the winter, because if it is active when it’s cut then that will lead to needle loss. We want the tree to have slowed right down by the time of harvest and that means no late nitrogen.”

Taking everything into account, it really comes down to having the motivation to grow a top-quality product. If you aren’t motivated to spend the time looking after the crop, you won’t make any money out of it.

“I could reel off dozens of contacts that I’ve had over the years, often farmers who have looked at Christmas trees as a possible money-spinner but never had the time to look after them and eventually they become firewood,” Colin said. “The market at the moment is good providing you’re growing good-quality trees. I would warn anyone against even considering Christmas trees unless they have the time to do it.”

So, how is this year’s crop looking? Very good, apparently.

“It’s been a good year for trees. This mixture of plenty of sunshine to encourage photosynthesis and sufficient moisture to allow the trees to grow has been pretty good. Not too much disease,” Colin added.

“I think it will be a good season.”