Gardens: Get Spruced Up

"Think of the Christmas tree as being like a giant cut flower"
"Think of the Christmas tree as being like a giant cut flower"
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Do you know your Noble from your Nordmann? Have you pre-measured the space into which your new purchase will go? The annual expedition to buy a Christmas tree is one of the season’s highlights – assuming all the family can agree on a favourite specimen, of course.

During the darkest days of winter there’s something uplifting about bringing a tree into the house and covering it with glittery things that sparkle. This tradition is nothing new – pagans carried evergreen boughs into their homes to celebrate the solstice, ancient Egyptians brought palm leaves indoors during winter to symbolise life over death and the Romans used metal objects to decorate trees as part of December’s Saturnalia festival. So when you go looking for the perfect Christmas tree, you’re continuing a long tradition.

How do you go about finding the tree that’s going to add the right sort of festive cheer to your home? “You have the trees that have great needle retention, so that’s Nordmann fir, Noble fir and the Fraser fir,” says Duncan Cuthill of 
Dobbies Edinburgh ( “Then you move onto the Norway spruce, which is the traditional tree. It is more prone to dropping its needles, but if you keep watering it and it’s not 30 degrees in the room, that’ll help it to retain them.”

He adds that plenty of customers arrive at the garden centre armed with measurements, determined to find the perfect specimen. “Structure can mean two different things to two different people,” he says. “One person looks at a tree and thinks it’s horrible and another person grabs it and says ‘isn’t it lovely?’ It’s very much a personal thing and you’ll know the tree when you see it.”

The Norway spruce may have a reputation for filling your vacuum cleaner with needles but in its favour, it’s the tree with the strongest scent. The Fraser fir is another winner in the fragrance stakes, combining an almost citrusy scent with the pine aroma. In terms of colour, the Fraser fir has glossy dark green on the top of the needles, but underneath it’s almost a bluish hue. It has the distinction of having been used more times as the Presidential Christmas tree in the US than any other, so if it’s good enough for the President, it must be good enough for the rest of us. Cuthill describes the Noble fir as being bluish in colour with good scented foliage and a very good layered structure, while it’s the Nordmann that tops the sales charts. “It’s a very deep, lush green in colour,” he says. “The scent is not as strong as other trees but its needle retention is second to none.”

If you want to keep your tree looking glossy over the festive period, it’s important to invest in a stand that you can get water into. “Think of the tree as being like a giant cut flower – you put a fresh cut at the base of the trunk when you get home, you put it in a stand that you can get water into and you just keep topping up the water in it and it’ll help it to retain its needles,” Cuthill says. “Just like cut flowers, you can even get an 
additive to put in the water – this 
contains sugars and starches that the tree would get naturally if it was in 
the ground.”

Between garden centres, the Forestry Commission ( and the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (, millions of cut trees are sold every year in the UK – estimates range from six to eight million. Most reputable growers have a practice of planting more trees than they fell, but if you’d rather invest in a living tree, there are plenty of options. The Nordmann fir has, however, been measured in the wild as Europe’s tallest tree, something worth bearing in mind if you are considering buying a pot-grown tree to plant out into the garden after Christmas.

“The Nordmann has an Award of 
Garden Merit – it’s been recognised by the RHS as a fantastic tree,” says Cuthill, “but height is a consideration in buying a pot-grown tree. The smallest of the Christmas trees, the Fraser fir, gets to 15 metres.”

His advice if you want to go down this route is to take good care of your tree when it’s inside the house – it needs to be watered but not drowned. Should you over-water, the roots will rot and when you plant it outside there’s a good chance it won’t survive. It’s also a good idea to acclimatise your tree to the Great Outdoors – moving it gradually to a cooler part of the house rather than shocking it by putting it straight outdoors 
in January.

Cuthill says that buying a second tree has become increasingly popular, with people using a pot-grown tree either outside the house or in a porch or conservatory. “You can keep the tree in a pot but each year you should re-pot it on into something larger,” he says. If you want to plant your Christmas tree in the ground, it’s important to take the time to choose the right position, as conifers don’t take kindly to being dug up 
and moved.

No room for a tree? Cuthill says that a plant such as a standard ficus adds height and structure and can be decorated and made to look festive as an alternative. The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera) is another houseplant that’ll add some cheer with its glossy, succulent foliage and colourful flowers.

“Then there’s the poinsettia and the range of colours they come in these days is vast – you get lots of creamy colours as well as the bright reds,” says Cuthill. “The thing to remember is that it comes from a desert. That’s not to say it doesn’t want watered, but it doesn’t like being over-watered and it’s got to be fairly warm.” Whether you opt for a pot plant wrapped in tinsel or a towering fir, you’ll be taking part in a tradition that shows no signs of dying out.