Cultivation of trees at Wakehurst Place
Until the last 30 years or so cultivation of Christmas trees in Britain was regarded as a by-product of forestry - a useful cash crop from early thinnings. Traditionally foresters did not worry about putting much into such a crop so their Christmas trees were poor quality by modern standards and rather variable. These days there are more specialist Christmas tree growers who need to produce a uniform crop of high quality trees and who cultivate a range of different species each with particular qualities. One aspect of our work at Wakehurst Place is the promotion of sustainable economic use of woodland in the UK, and to that end we have been running trials growing different types of Christmas trees selected from species we already knew did well here. The trials help landowners and growers to choose novel species and grow them as sustainably as possible.
As a working family estate, Wakehurst Place has always depended on products harvested from its woodlands and forestry plantations to meet the changing needs of its owners through the centuries. David Marchant, Wakehurst's machinery manager, recalls that in the 1950s, Sir Henry Price, the last private owner, would dispatch a forester to climb to the top of a good-looking conifer to cut its top out for use as a Christmas tree in the house. The species of tree was not important and no-one (except perhaps the cleaning staff) worried whether it would drop its needles. Sir Henry also provided trees for the village hall, church, school and the local hospitals - a generosity that we are able to continue today. The head gardener would arrange to sell surplus trees to London wholesalers.
When Kew took charge of the estate in 1965, our main preoccupation was transforming the garden from a private estate to a botanic garden and the Forestry Commission was called in to manage the woodlands and plantations. During the first ten years the Commission planted significant areas with fast growing conifers for timber production. Where pockets of these failed, Wakehurst's woodland manager, Geoff Greenough, established clumps of Norway spruce to supply the demand for Christmas trees to decorate the gardens and buildings at Kew.
Production at Wakehurst Place today
The great storm of 1987 changed everything. With 15,000 to 20,000 trees lost in one night, all attention focussed on opening and restoring the garden. The forestry plantations were abandoned for nearly five years. By the end of 1991 we were starting to restore other parts of the estate; the impetus for growing Christmas trees was provided by Lawrence Lennie, a work placement student from Brinsbury College, Sussex. He had taken early retirement from the City and started a new career in countryside management. With his financial background he was set the challenge of identifying ways in which small woodlands could become economically viable.
Lennie focussed on Christmas trees as potentially the most profitable tree
crop. He estimated a gross income of £25,110 per hectare over 7 years.
With the initial capital expenditure of £2528 (excluding fencing)
it seemed a remarkable return. The inevitable footnotes revealed that figures
were based on certain assumptions: all trees were sold directly to the public;
fertilisation, weed and pest control would be required; and a wind-break
could be needed - all of which would have consumed considerable resources
and have a significant impact on the final profit margin. The Christmas
Tree Growers Association told us that a single late spring frost or a pest
outbreak can render a crop almost worthless. We learned, too, of a rector
who had invested in Christmas tree production to fund the restoration of
his church but had not realised that the green spruce aphid could - and,
sadly, did - defoliate his entire crop in the year of sale.