AT A TIME when old traditions are being swept away like so many dead beetles lurking behind a chest of drawers, it’s comforting to know that our taste for real Christmas trees remains as strong as ever. We bought 7m of the things last December and there’s every likelihood we’ll buy even more this Christmas.

They’re not all home-grown though. Some 2m are imported, chiefly from Denmark, where Christmas trees are the second biggest export earner after pigs. Danish farmers have the climate and skills to make them formidable Christmas tree growers; they can have a thousand of them cut, netted and packed on one articulated truck trundling out of a British port, within three days.

One couple whose very existence is intertwined with fir trees of one sort or another is Dave and Sue Brown. Dave has been involved with Christmas tree growing ever since spending his sandwich year on the giant Yattenden estate in Wilts and his Ullingswick-based business, Festive Forestry Services, involves pretty much every aspect of the humble fir.

Branched out

As well as being growers themselves, they provide advice to nearly 50 other growers around the country on every aspect of Christmas tree management and marketing. They’ve also branched out into making wreaths for the fast-expanding Christmas decoration market.

Dave has received two of the highest accolades that the industry can award to a grower. In 2002 he scooped the prize for the best Christmas tree in the annual British

Christmas Tree Growers Association competition, an award that involves the winner’s tree being ceremonially set-up outside No 10 Downing Street to receive admiring glances from the great and the good. And he won the best spruce tree award this year. Christmas tree growers, it seems, are a little like cattle breeders, spotting potential prize-winners early on and lavishing endless care and attention on them. Dave says he knew the 2002 winning tree had that special something as early as 2000.

So what’s his advice to those about to make the annual trek to buy a Christmas tree? “The most important thing is freshness,” he says. “Ideally, make sure you go somewhere where you can see them growing and ask how long ago they were cut. “Anything cut in December should be fine.”

It appears, too, that the British taste for non-drop trees is based on a bit of a misapprehension. The traditional Norway spruce used to make up the bulk of the market but was largely abandoned in favour of non-drop trees like the Nordman Fir when its wayward needles got too much for the nation”s Hoovers. But, says Dave, a fresh Norway spruce that’s looked after won’t drop its needles and costs half as much as a Nordman Fir.

“Make sure it’s been cut really recently,” he says. “Keep it in a water-holding container and make sure you keep an eye on the water level. Many will drink a pint a day.” Finally, he says, keep it away from sunlight (if you can) and away from direct sources of heat like radiators and open fires.

Dave grows, manages or otherwise has some arboricultural input into more than a million trees. He even travels up once a year to one farm in the Black Isle of Scotland where they grow a million Christmas trees. His job is to pick out 60,000 well-shaped trees on behalf of one of a famous-name DIY/garden centre chains. “You get a little dizzy after a couple of days of non-stop viewing,” he admits.

Decorative wreaths

But the other thing that keeps him busy at this time of the year is decorative wreaths. “Back in 1998, Sue made 300 wreaths with foliage left over from pruning the trees. “The following year we made 3000, then 8000 the year after that. This year we’ll sell 25,000 and next year, who knows?”

As the wreath business has expanded, the Browns have had to rent barns on several local farms. Inside each shed, you’ll find a small team of East European students (the Brits aren’t interested) assembling wreaths from mounds of foliage and boxes of berries, holly sprigs, bows, dried flowers and cinnamon sticks. The students work long hours but earn a lot of overtime.

It does involve Dave having to do 18-hour days for the seven weeks running up to Dec 25, but at least it only happens once a year. If the public ever decides it wants to buy wreaths all year round, he could be in trouble.