Keeping it traditional this Christmas

ONE thing that perfume and candle makers have been trying to reproduce for years is the smell of the Christmas tree. There is something very special about the smell of a room in December when a freshly cut tree has been put up, and when it is being decorated.

Some people prefer to have an artificial tree - for lots of reasons, but the real smell of Christmas has to be that of a Christmas tree. It is a smell which for me, is evocative of Christmas Eves, spent decorating the tree at my aunt’s house - she always had a real tree, and it felt very traditional; the smell was the enduring memory - along with the prickles whilst trying to put the baubles on!

It becomes a fairly important part of the festive season for some people, to go along to either a garden centre, or a Christmas tree farm to pick up their tree. I went along to my local Christmas tree farm to talk to the farmer - Neil Rogers.

Neil has been selling Christmas trees from his farm just outside of Little Gaddesden since the early 1980s, and my visit was certainly an eye-opener. I had no idea how much work went into the production of the tree which is in our homes for a few weeks at the end of the year. He told me that for the standard six foot tree that most people might buy, it will have taken him approximately seven years to grow! I had assumed that the trees are planted, and then left to their own devices, but this isn’t the case at all!

The trees need work, and attention throughout the year, and need protecting from pesky birds! I had never thought of the fact that if a bird lands on the top “spike” of the tree... the bit where you or I would put the star, or the angel... it can easily break it off! As Neil quite rightly pointed out, this is a fairly important part of the tree - without somewhere to put the angel, the tree isn’t as desirable, and so they sometimes put a protector on the top - so that the birds have something else to land on, rather than landing on the tree and snapping it. If the unthinkable does happen - and the top spike gets snapped off, Neil will “train” one of the other top spikes to grow upwards, so that there is somewhere for the angel to sit after all... but this all seems like a lot of work to go into a tree which will sit in the corner of the room for a few weeks... but it’s not.

The tree is the central focus point to most people’s Christmas. Not only do we need somewhere to put our presents underneath, but the twinkling lights, and the brightly coloured baubles give an essential source of light in the dark days of December.

The tree, of course, became part of our Christmas traditions in the Victorian times, when Prince Albert brought over traditions from Germany, and it is now firmly central to our Christmas celebrations. The way in which we dress our trees has changed, and now people have all sorts of different decorations to put on their trees - from old fashioned red ribbons, and lovely old baubles, passed down through the generations (my personal preference), to classy colour themes, and designer decorations.

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There are hundreds of different types of lights, some that twinkle, some that run in different rotations... but the tree generally stays the same. There are different types - and Neil sells different types, but it’s mainly the spruce that people want. As well as selling trees to grottoes, Neil sells his trees directly from the farm - to the public. He told me that between wholesale, and retail, he probably sells a couple of thousand trees each year - this is a huge amount, and as I stand looking at the rows upon rows of beautiful Christmas trees, I can hardly get my head around the number that are sold. It’s an incredible sight - the rows of trees, all at their different heights - considering the amount of work which has gone into looking after them. It suddenly makes them seem very cheap when you consider the amount of time and effort which has gone into every tree.

I know when I’m looking after the plants and trees in my own garden, how much work goes into making sure they grow strong and healthy, but on this scale, I wouldn’t even know where to begin! Neil will be selling his trees as of the first weekend of December - from Goose Hill Farm, HP4 1ND, and if you want to get your tree direct from the farmer, you’ll know that a huge amount of skill and experience has gone into the growing of your tree!

Focus on: Mistletoe

MISTLETOE has been a symbol of Christmas for hundreds of years, and although mistletoe is poisonous, kissing underneath it seems to date back as far as the 16th Century.

The mistletoe plant in itself is a semi-parasite, and has to grow on host trees. My parents were desperate to grow their own mistletoe, and spent decades attempting to get the plant to “take” on the apple tree in their orchard.

Finally, a few years ago, they had success, and now the tree is covered in little bundles of mistletoe. They finally have berries too, the result of a cross pollination with the plant of my auntie’s tree, located a mile down the road.

It turned out that she had a male mistletoe, and my mum and dad had a female plant - so they “mated” them, and they now have the resulting berries - it’s only taken 30 years!

They have been able to grow most plants over the years, and the fact that they couldn’t get this to grow, turned into something of a challenge to them - such a mystical plant, and such a traditional symbol of Christmas - which just happens to by my mother’s favourite time of the year.

It’s not easy to tell the difference between a male mistletoe plant, and a female plant, but it is possible to tell which is which whilst they are in flower.

Mistletoe is in the trees all year around, but it’s much easier to see it at this time of the year when the leaves have fallen from the trees. You can see great balls of mistletoe in trees, and a great place to see mistletoe locally is at Hatfield House.

Things to do this month:

ONE of the nicest things that can be done during the next few weeks, and a real way to get yourself in the mood for Christmas, is to make your own Christmas wreath to hang on your front door - or a Christmas table decoration.

Although these aren’t strictly “jobs to do in the garden” - they are a lovely way of bringing a little of the garden into the house, or onto the front door to spread a little festive cheer to your neighbours, and those passing your house.

There are lots of different ways to make a Christmas wreath, but the way that I like to do it - and the way that was taught to me by a lovely florist friend of mine - is to use a florist’s wreath wire, and pack it with damp moss - this gives a good basis for the wreath, which you can then use to add sprigs of holly, and additional bits and pieces - dried oranges, bundles of cinnamon, and walnuts, all of which can be attached with wire, and which attach easily to the moss.

It’s worth considering how heavy this will end up being - pick it up whilst you are making it - as the first time I made one, I was a little over enthusiastic, and made an enormous wreath, which turned out to be massively heavy, and was a nightmare to attach to the front door!!

Another nice thing to do for Christmas, is a decoration for your dining table - often done around the base of a candle. It’s probably easiest to do this in florist’s oasis - you can use fir cones, holly, or maybe buy some little red roses from a florist’s if you are doing something special for your dining table for Christmas Day.

Next month I will be looking forward to the new gardening year, and all of the jobs that you can be getting on with to get ready for spring!