Rural: Don't get needled by your Christmas tree

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The Independent Online
What sort of tree should you buy - and how do you dispose of it once the lights go out? Tom Barber advises.

Christmas trees are a boom market. The threatened takeover by glitzy plastic jobs seems to have receded, and the comforting tradition (even though Germanic in origin) of using a real tree has re-asserted itself. Over the past few years sales have grown steadily, reaching a peak of five million last year. All but 7 per cent of these were home-grown, an enterprise requiring an amazing 12,000 acres of land.

Choice has also expanded. For decades a Christmas tree meant a Norway spruce, picea abies. It still accounts for around two thirds of the total sold, but other contenders are eating into its one-time monopoly. The great failing of the Norway spruce is a tendency to part with its needles - a trifling 150,000 of them on a four-footer.

Two handsome conifers with a greater reluctance to shed their clothing are the Nordmann and Noble firs. But they are both slower growing, so more expensive. They also lack that evocative resinous scent that seems half the point of having the tree in the house in the first place. The only other species you are likely to meet is the Scots pine, which fits the bill admirably as long as it's been encouraged to bush out by clipping.

When choosing a tree, be sure to look at the needles and disregard anything that looks as if it has begun to dry out. Size is obviously down to pocket, accommodation and inclination, but unless you are looking to create a particularly bizarre effect, choose a bushy tree with well spaced branches. Perhaps the most fun, especially with kids is to go to one of the number of "pick your own" enterprises. For a list of outlets send a stamped, addressed envelope to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, 12 Lauriston Road, Wimbledon, London SW19 4TQ. They also produce a useful leaflet about getting the best from your Christmas tree.

Most trees are simply cut off at ground level, but there is an increasing trend towards supplying trees with roots attached. They are more expensive, and I suspect people buy them for two reasons: the belief that trees with roots will shed less needles, and the prospect of subsequently planting the tree in the garden.

Neither of these thoughts stands up to much scrutiny. A cut tree will retain its needles just as well as one with roots, if it is treated considerately and given a supply of water. Cut off a couple of centimetres from the base and leave the tree standing in a bucket of water, just as you would do a bunch of flowers.

Yet an amazing number of people seem to want their tree to have an after- life in the garden. While it is true that a cut tree stands no chance of survival, the outlook for one with roots, be it bare rooted, wrapped in sacking or containerised (dug up from open ground and then stuffed into a pot) is not much better. When the tree is wrenched from open ground, most of the roots are left behind and so its chances of establishing successfully are not good, especially after two weeks in a heated room, smothered in tinsel and baubles.

Perhaps the wish to plant out the tree arises in part from a misplaced environmental conscience that sees binning a tree as a cardinal sin. I'm all for reducing consumer waste and protecting endangered natural habitats - but Christmas trees are just not like that. They are, in truth, a crop like barley or cut flowers; planted and harvested as part of a renewable cycle, albeit over a few years rather than a single season.

Nothing of value is destroyed to accommodate them, and their cultivation is probably less environmentally damaging than the arable crop that might have been growing in their place. So I see nothing wrong in buying a new Christmas tree every year and simply discarding it after the allotted time. And let's be honest, no Christmas tree is ever going to make a particularly valuable addition to the garden.

However, if you're still determined to grow one afterwards, then buy a container grown tree (as opposed to a containerised one) that has spent is life in a pot, and plant it out in open ground. If the real goal is to save money and become self sufficient in Christmas trees, your best bet is plant a dozen or so young saplings in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden and harvest them when they have reached the desired height.

If you're buying a cut tree, perhaps the best way of assuaging any green guilt you may carry is to dispose of the corpse conscientiously. What better than shredding it so it can be returned as mulch to the soil. More and more councils run special shredding days to deal with the mountains of old trees, or you could get together with a group of friends, hire a machine for the day and have a new-year garden party. Just imagine the relief of not having to look out of the kitchen window at yet another slowly dying Christmas reminder.

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