They might just be for Christmas, but the management of the season’s most famous tree starts far earlier in the year and require increasing attention as they grow. Rachel Lovells visits Dartmoor to find out more.
It is fair to say when Stuart and Jennie Kirkup do something, they do it properly.
This year they floored the UK’s entire Christmas tree growing industry by winning seven national awards from the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, including champion grower.
As a result, not only will their trees now be centre stage outside No 10 Downing Street and in its famous pillared hall, but one of Jennie’s wreaths will also adorn its front door.
But this is not what Stuart originally planned for his career, having graduated with a first-class honours in civil engineering.
He says: “I’m not from a farming family, this all came about after I took on some temporary work with the previous owner, when I moved to Devon in 2000. I spent the first season here helping out, before starting my office job.”
But it was the outdoor life which suited Stuart, and when he heard the business was for sale a year later, he and wife Jennie went for it.
“We bought the original 18 acres of Dartmoor farm for £210,000 in 2002. It had been planted up in sections since 1990, so it was well established and I knew my way around it,” Stuart says.
Initially, the couple sold trees wholesale to garden centres as was the case in the existing business model, but about seven years ago they realised selling the trees direct, and making more of the story of where they are grown, was the best route to go. In 2002 they set up a seasonal shop at Haldon Forest, a local Forestry Commission Reserve just outside Exeter.
“We weren’t sure what to expect at first, but the reaction we had was fantastic.
“Our customers love the fact all our trees are grown within half-hour’s drive of the outlet, and we continually cut trees through December to keep fresh stock coming in.”
After clearing the post-Christmas harvesting debris, the Christmas tree growing cycle starts in late February, when replacement seedlings are planted next to the harvested stumps or laid out in fresh rows on the farm’s newly-leased land.
“We have to wait until the end of February as the moor is so cold mid-winter your fingers are numb after 20 minutes work. It’s usually the time of year we take the family on holiday.”
The young plants are raised by nurseries in Denmark, but their arrival date can be unpredictable, as Stuart explains.
“As it is so much colder there, they can’t always physically get the seedlings out of the ground – it’s just frozen solid.
“We buy them as ‘two plus ones’, which means they have spent two years in a seed bed and one year in a nursery bed.”
Once in the ground it will take up to 10 years for the trees to reach harvest size, although it depends on variety.
“For Fraser Firs, it’s six to eight years, but for Nordmann and Noble Firs it can be more like eight to 10,” says Stuart.
The trees are priced according to species and size, with a 6ft Fraser Fir going for £39.
“Sometimes people question the price, but when you compare a typical £20 spend on a bunch of flowers which take less than a year to grow and last you a week, the centrepiece of your Christmas which takes eight years to grow and lasts you a month for just twice that price is a good deal.”
Planting is generally complete by the end of April or early May, at which point they spray for pests.
“Woolly aphids are the biggest challenge for Fraser Firs, while silver aphids go for the Nordmanns.
“Still, we are one of the few places in the UK which can actually grow Frasers, as the farm here is at 1,000ft altitude, above the Dartmoor snow line, so we get a good winter kill on pests.”
Fertiliser is applied in April and May, while weedkiller is applied by knapsack three times a year.
The farm must also be deer fenced, as the animals will nibble the branches and rub the central trunk with their antlers. This is an issue when the cosmetic appearance of the trees is central to their value.
“I would say most of the work we do is getting the trees to look right,” says Stuart.
To achieve the ideal Christmas tree shape, he and his team spend a huge amount of time pruning trees and rubbing buds’ to encourage the branches to fill properly.
Caning the ‘leaders’, the all-important top of the tree where the star or angel sits, to ensure they are straight is also important. The farm even has perches dotted throughout to stop birds sitting on the tree tops and damaging them.
“A traditional spruce can be pruned in 10 seconds, while Nordmanns are my least favourite as they can take a good two minutes,” Stuart explains.
This may not sound too arduous a task, but when there are 135,000 trees to tend to, you can see how the farming year fills up pretty quickly.
“I can cane 1,200 trees in one day and I think I’m actually the fastest in the country at it.”
It’s certainly a seasonally-weighted business when it comes to staff however. For 10 months each year, it is just Stuart and his assistant Gary on a 16 hours a week contract, but come November there are 25 staff once you count in all the retail, chainsaw and transport operators.
And Christmas came early for Stuart this year, when four frosts hit over a single weekend in October.
“Christmas tree growers get excited by a good frost as it closes the tree down, the sap stops rising, sets solid and the needles are set in place. It means you are nearly there,” Stuart smiles.
“There are certainly some tough times in Christmas tree growing, because for 10 months of the year you are not seeing anything for the efforts you are putting in. But, at the same time, it’s something I absolutely love doing and the sense of reward in the busier times is terrific.”
Meanwhile Jennie has been creating industry-leading wreaths from the farm’s trees for 15 years, and she has won champion wreath and the coveted spot on Number 10’s door five times previously. The Noble Firs are the best species to use, she says, as it holds onto its needles the longest.
But what about Christmas in the Kirkup household? Their four children, Harry, aged nine; Sam, seven; and five-year-old twins Katie and Sophie, are all as enchanted by the magic of Christmas as those in any other family, so their tree has to be just right.
“We always have a Fraser Fir. I’ll choose it in November and remember where it is.”
As for the future of Dartmoor Christmas Tree Farm, Stuart is still planning what’s next after their outstanding set of award wins.
“I took on this business as I wanted to be my own boss and I was passionate about making something work. When I bought the place I said I wanted it to be the best in the country within 10 years. It took me 14, but I got there.”