We’re all dreaming of a green Christmas

tom gardening pics.'Autumn cherry in April
tom gardening pics.'Autumn cherry in April

IF you were planning to buy a ready-cut Christmas tree at the last minute in order to get the freshest available, be aware that most have been harvested by now.

The longer you delay, the less choice there will be. Far better strike immediately, then take steps to get the conductive tissue of your tree back into working order and keep it looking fresh.

Choosing a Christmas tree at The Willows in Alnwick.

Choosing a Christmas tree at The Willows in Alnwick.

Apart from the size, there is little difference in requirements between the cut tree and a single flower stem that is destined for a vase.

Once contact with the roots and life-giving water is lost, everything goes downhill fast unless the relevant cells can be encouraged to function just a little longer.

This is achieved by making a fresh cut, as low down the stem as possible, as you do with a cut flower, just before plunging it into water.

The most suitable container for trees has to be a substantial weight, with a screw-in clamp device for support and reservoir at the base. These are on sale at the local garden centre.

Having re-energised your tree, place it in the coolest environment possible if you want it to remain in tip-top condition until twelfth night. In a moderately warm room it will easily process a half-litre of water per day, and that’s without allowing for evaporation. Keeping the reservoir topped up is therefore a key requirement.

The trend towards needle-retentive, even artificial, types is understandable once you’ve been down the route of a needle-strewn carpet in bare feet. Typical of this is the traditional Norway spruce standing without water. It is estimated that a specimen two metres high carries circa 10,000 of them!

The Nordman spruce (Abies nordmanniana) although more costly to buy metre-for-metre, has gained public attention through its needle-holding capacity. Unlike the Norway spruce, every one of its modified leaves is sunk into the branch forming a sound bond so the majority stay in position even as the inevitable drying-out process spreads throughout the tree.

There is a much greater choice of Christmas tree species on the market these days. It’s not unusual to find the Scots and Corsican pines, blue spruce and Fraser fir on offer.

Occasionally, you may find a local outlet which allows a choice a tree while it is still growing, you can then have it cut and collect it on a predetermined date. For example, one in the Alnwick area is The Limery, near Little Mill level crossing on the Denwick to Craster road.

But if the cut form seems like too much work there are other options. A containerised tree might appeal. These are generally smaller in stature but do have a root system, even though it may have been pruned recently to get it into the pot.

If the possibility of transferring such trees to the garden afterwards with next year’s yuletide celebrations in mind appeals, why not push the boat out and buy a container-grown specimen? It is more expensive but as the name suggests, has been grown solely in the pot and suffered no recent root pruning. It will take eventual transfer to the garden and growing-on in its stride.

Then there is the ultimate choice in terms of folding up and storing in the loft until next year – an artificial tree.

Have you ever sat at a dining table in subdued light and pondered whether the small vase of flowers in the centre were the real thing or an imitation? That is almost the situation today with these high-tech Christmas trees.

In days of yore they were so poorly-made but now I find myself touching the needles, even rubbing them gently between finger and thumb to determine their provenance.

The ornamental trees we should really be considering at present are anything but dying or imitation. The annual National Tree Planting Week has just passed but that does not stop us buying and introducing more to our gardens, providing the weather remains open.

As we slide quietly into much cooler weather it’s reassuring to see some old favourites emerge larger than life, close enough to enjoy from the warmer side of a window, yet distant enough to pose no underground threat to the house.

First up for us is the so-called autumn cherry, but don’t believe for one moment that the flowering period is confined to this one season. Blooms open in October and continue in flushes through to April. A severe frost does crush them but replacements quickly appear as if by magic. It’s almost three decades since we introduced Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis Rosea to the garden and are still convinced it is the best form by far.

An old silver birch (Betula pendula) was here when we arrived and continues to be treated with the greatest respect. This lovely tree does much more than keep us informed of the seasons. The diverse bird activity it attracts and supports is reason enough for its being.

Autumn brings a double figure group of long-tailed tits to its bark and branches, but blue, coal and great tits are in evidence year-round. The secretive tree creeper occasionally does a trunk inspection, and the nesting record for a single year is three; wood pigeon, collared dove and blue tit. In keeping with most birches, it is happy to accept pruning once the leaves have gone, and this keeps it well within bounds.

Another birch, Betula jacquemontii, planted front of house, is there because it is simply the most splendid ornamental tree to look at any time of year. The parent lives within sight just down the lane, and ours emerged as a seedling in its shadow little over a decade ago. Right now it has reached the peeling bark stage, and we are only too pleased to assist and reveal the gleaming white beneath. In half light it has a rather spooky appearance but I’m not convinced it’s the cultivar Graystone Ghost. Judging by the very large catkins it serves up in spring, it is more likely to be Jermyns.

People are continually fretting and asking about a rowan, cherry, birch, etc. that appears to be growing too tall for comfort. And fair enough, it is alarming to see the canopy expanding in all directions, but some judicious autumn/winter pruning, depending on the subject, is an effective means of control. But I would be more concerned about what is happening underground as roots spread out in search of moisture and nutritional elements.

Advice on safe planting distances can vary according to the source. Those who insure properties will understandably take the cautious line, whilst others who have spent a lifetime growing and tending trees may tell it as it is. Take the middle path and you will remain on the safe side.

For example, research a safe planting distance for silver birch and you will discover one estimate of ten metres from the house, another of four. Compromise by meeting in the middle and the result is seven metres. Returning to reality, as I did by pacing the actual distance, and it turned out to be six. Conclusions: (a) the house is safe from root invasion (b) this fellow is not in the insurance business.