It’s the busy season for Christmas tree growers. Heather Large goes behind the scenes at Leaton Forest as they get ready for harvest time.
There is nothing quite like a real Christmas tree and for many families choosing their own from the field is a much-loved tradition.
At Leaton Forest, near Shrewsbury, around 2,000 trees, planted and cared for by the dedicated team, are sold every year.
Richard Dowman has been involved in nurturing the plantations for the past 12 years and has seen many familiar faces return during the festive season year after year to pick their tree.
“I’ve watched children grow up and I’ve seen teenagers come back when they are older with their own children. It’s nice to see people come back and build a relationship with people,” says the father of three.
Thousands of trees of varying heights and varieties can be found across 14 acres of land, which forms part of the Leaton Knolls Estate.
Every year, the growers replenish the forest by planting new saplings, which are sourced from trusted suppliers.
“We only buy them from sources we know and trust,” explains Richard. “We know then that they’ve got the right start to life and they been well looked after.”
The new trees, which are usually around four-years-old when they go in the ground, are planted in the gaps left behind those that have already been harvested.
Although many growers will plant saplings shortly before the start of spring, Richard prefers to plant Leaton Forest’s crops in the autumn, which he says has many benefits for the young trees.
“There is still moisture in the ground. If you plant in spring, then by summer the moisture has gone. In autumn, the trees are entering dormancy and have a better chance of survival. I think this makes a massive difference,” he explains.
Often growers will plant the same species in the same area but Richard takes a different approach.
“I’m not a traditional Christmas tree grower,” he says.
“My background is in arboriculture and forestry so some of the ideas come from there.
“Traditionally, Christmas trees of the same species are grown together but we vary what we grow each year and mix the species up.”
This reduces the risk of disease spreading throughout the same species and potentially wiping out a large number of trees.
Important members of the team at Leaton Forest are the Shropshire sheep who graze on the grass growing amongst the trees.
“We try not to use too much pesticide and herbicide. The flock graze between the trees and it means we’re not using a strimmer or herbicide so it’s more environmentally friendly.
“Where the sheep don’t go, we will use a strimmer or rough terrain mower,” explains Richard.
There is never a quiet day when managing a Christmas tree forest as they require constant care and attention throughout the year.
“Everything is done by hand. The trees are hand-planted, hand-trimmed and hand-felled. It’s quite labour intensive but it’s worth it,” says Richard.
It can take six to seven years for some species to reach 6ft while Nordmann Firs may require a full decade to reach that height.
Leaton Forest is a member of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, which is dedicated to representing and actively supporting growers across the UK.
Richard says the organisation, with more than 300 members selling approximately six to eight million trees per year, is also on hand to offer advice.
Species grown at Leaton Forest include the Nordmann Fir, which has been the most popular variety sold at the estate and across the UK in recent years.
The tree is dark green and well branched with a silver underside to the soft needles; it also has the most uniform shape.
The team also grows Norway Spruce, which is considered the oldest traditional Christmas tree. It has a bushy shape and it is easy to hang decorations on the many branches.
Other varieties include Douglas Fir, which is very bushy with soft aromatic needles. It is very popular in the USA and Canada where it is indigenous.
They also offer Fraser Fir, which have a similar shape to the Nordmann Fir but with a narrower form and different needle formation.
Other options include the Korean Fir which has a similar colour to the Nordmann with very good branch formation, and the Noble Fir which is more horizontally branched than the other firs and has beautiful silvery blue needles.
It’s no surprise that the run-up to Christmas is the busiest time of year with the team fulfilling orders for trees and welcoming customers on site.
Not only are Leaton Forest’s trees destined for homes across the region, but they are also chosen to be the centrepiece of villages and towns in the county.
Town and parish councils along with Shrewsbury BID are among those who source their trees from the estate.
From November 26 until December 23, the site is open to the public who can choose from trees ready cut in the yard, or out in the plantations.
“People can choose their tree and cut it down with a hand saw,” says Richard. “It’s nice meeting people. It gets a bit stressful at that time of year but it is enjoyable.
“What’s really nice is when I go out for a meal and someone stops me and thanks me for their tree. One time I was ordering a pint of lemonade at the bar and they told me it had already been paid for.
“Across the room was a man waving at me, I had sold him a Christmas tree.”
During November and December, Leaton Forest also offers its popular Christmas wreath-making workshops, run by Richard’s wife Cerys.
This year they take place on November 28 and 30 as well as December 5, 7, 9, 12, 14 and 16.
“They are shown how to make a wreath with friendly people, they have a good time and they don’t have to make a mess in their own house.
“The wreath-making is really popular; we get a lot of returning customers. People started registering in August for it,” says Richard. Participants, just need to bring their own secateurs and gardening gloves, as all the materials they need are provided and hot drinks and cakes are also available on the night.
Growing Christmas trees is a satisfying and rewarding process, Richard says. “The ground conditions and the way we treat the trees works and produces good trees.”
To help customers keep their trees as healthy as possible during the festive season, he recommends keeping the tree outside in water, out of its net and away from frost, until they are ready to bring it indoors.
“Cut two and a half centimetres off the bottom of the stump, use a watering holding stand and don’t let it run dry. Take it into the house as late as possible,” says Richard. He also advises people to keep their tree away from any heat sources such as radiators or log burners once they have brought it indoors.
Alongside the Christmas trees, over the last few years Leaton Forest has been producing and selling good quality, ethically-sourced and managed wood fuel from the woodlands on the Leaton Knolls Estate.
The wood is air-dried, which is a slower but more energy efficient way to dry wood, and the lower moisture content allows the logs to burn better and produce more heat.
For opening times, visit leatonforest.co.uk/christmastrees and for more information about the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, visit www.bctga.co.uk