In The Garden

TIPS on how to keep Christmas trees looking their best throughout the festive season — plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.

How dear is your Christmas tree?

IF you want a real Christmas tree this year you’re likely to have to pay more for it, especially if you want a tall one, according to industry insiders.

Imports of trees have slumped because of the falling value of the pound against the euro, giving growers in this country the opportunity to hike their prices.

The problem has been exacerbated by a shortage of tall trees. Last year, growers saw an increase in demand for 6ft trees, which has left fewer trees to grow any higher. Those who want their tree to be between 7ft and 10ft will have to pay more - if they can find one, that is.

The milder weather has also been a problem for growers, as ideally they need a hard frost before they cut the tree because it fixes the needles onto the trees

There’s likely to be a price war between DIY chains such as B&Q who buy Christmas trees in bulk - mainly from Scotland, and are able to offer competitive pricing - and independent growers whose major selling point is the claim that their trees are fresher, having been cut later.

Around eight million Christmas trees are bought in the UK every year, with 60% of them being Nordmann firs.

Consumers should be able to buy a 5ft non-drop Nordmann fir, the most popular variety, for about £30 and a 6ft tree for between £35 and £40 from independent growers, says Roger Hay, secretary of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association.

A similar 5ft tree from B&Q will come in at around £35 while 6ft-plus will be around £45.

“Undoubtedly the cheapest source is the grower because there’s no middleman,” says Hay. Details of growers near you can be found on the website www.christmastree.org.uk

If you’re on a budget, you may be better off going for a Scots or Lodgepole pine or traditional Norway spruce, which are cheaper, with prices for a 5ft tree coming in at under £25, says Hay.

“The pines won’t drop. The trees which drop quickest are the spruces but one of the great advantages of going to a grower is that you are getting the tree absolutely fresh so they should sustain needles for six weeks.”

Robert Matthews, owner of the Christmas Tree Farm in Chesham, Bucks, which has only just started cutting its trees, says: “Big stores want to sell the trees from mid November, so they tend to be cut earlier. The tree market is at its greatest in the second and third weeks in December and we will be cutting on these days, so we are three weeks’ fresher.”

A Nordmann fir from his farm will cost £22 up to 5ft; £34 up to 6ft; and £47 for a tree over 6ft, while his Norway spruces are considerably cheaper, at £19.50 for a tree up to 6ft.

The most important thing to do to keep trees in good condition throughout the festive season is to saw off the bottom inch of the trunk, which becomes blocked with air or sap soon after cutting, and then immerse the trunk in water.

“Buy a water-holding stand because trees will drink three to four pints a day,” says Matthews. “Never let the water level drop below the water level of the tree because in a matter of hours air pockets will block the capillaries in the branches and the tree will stop drinking. If it stops taking water it will dry out and needles will drop. Nordmann firs won’t drop their needles but they will begin to look desiccated.”

Hay adds: “Make sure the tree you buy is fresh. Look at the colour. When it dries out it loses some of its green hue. Stroke the needles and they should feel moist to the touch. Always put it on the ground to assess the size and shape before you buy. If it starts shedding some of its needles it’s not the freshest.”

Of course, it’s wise to shop around. If you’re prepared to leave the tree until the week before Christmas you may bag a bargain.

Once you have the tree, treat it like any plant being brought into a warm, dry atmosphere. Keep it away from radiators and other direct heat and keep the container topped up with water every day. You will be surprised how much it needs.

Best of the bunch — Wild rose (Rosa moyesii)

Our traditional roses may have finished flowering long ago, but if you have a wild rose or two in your garden, you should now be enjoying their large, crimson, flask-shaped hips. It’s worth growing the variety ‘Geranium’, which is a smaller and more compact shrub rose, and produces orange-red flagon-shaped hips which are better than those on the wild variety. Wild roses have bright red single flowers which appear in May or June, followed by the 5cm-long hips. They may not be fragrant but they will add much-needed colour at this time of year. Other types, such as ‘Wedding Day’ and ‘Rambling Rector’, produce attractive hips in autumn and winter. Roses including the Rosa moyesii hybrids, the Rugosa roses and the ramblers which produce hips shouldn’t be pruned in the summer or autumn after flowering if you want to see the hips. Leave it ‘til late winter to cut them back, when the hips have finished. Wild roses will thrive in any fertile, moist but well-drained soil in sun or light, dappled shade.

Good enough to eat — protecting cauliflowers

Don’t let the frost catch your autumn and winter cauliflower curds - take action now to delay the time when the flowers will open. To do this, fold the inner leaves over the curd so that it isn’t visible - you may have to snap their midribs so they stay in place - and tie them with garden string. If you don’t do this they will easily discolour.

The secret of success is good soil preparation, adding plenty of organic matter well before planting to stop the soil drying out and making sure the soil is firm when you plant them out. The plants need watering well and keeping well watered throughout the summer, you’ll need to keep on top of weeding and give them a general purpose or high nitrogen feed in July or August.

Good varieties include ‘All Year Round’, ‘Autumn Giant’ and ‘Violet Queen’, with mauve heads which turn green when cooked.

Three ways to... Protect perennials in winter

1. Place a thick layer of straw secured with chicken wire or bark chippings over the crowns of frost-vulnerable plants such as fuchsias.

2. Water overwintered perennials very sparingly and do not feed.

3. If you are storing tender perennials in a cold frame over the winter, cover the frame with carpet in extremely cold weather.

What to do this week

Order or buy seeds as soon as possible, especially those which should be sown in mid and late winter, to give them a long growing season.

Check bulbs being forced for Christmas and new year flowering, ensuring they don’t dry out.

Check shrubs for signs of dead or diseased shoots and cut them out when there are no leaves to hide them.

Continue winter digging if the ground is not waterlogged or frozen.

Cut back dahlias once the frost has blackened the leaves and lift and store them indoors over winter if you live in a cold area.

Cut back chrysanthemums, dry them off and store them in a frost-free place until spring, when they can be replanted.

Protect outdoor pots with bubble-wrap or horticultural fleece to stop frost cracking them.

Put a tennis ball in ponds to stop the water freezing.

Take winter hanging baskets under cover, either into the porch or the greenhouse, before the really severe weather arrives and the compost freezes solid.

Lag or protect outdoor pipes if not already done.

Bring under cover herbs potted up for forcing.

Check the greenhouse for pests such as greenfly and scale insects, removing them by hand if there are just a few.