How green is your Christmas tree?

Five years ago, people visiting their local nursery or garden centre to buy a Christmas tree, would ask the usual questions.

"How long will the needles last?" "Does it need water?" and "What do I stand it up in?"

Nowadays, they still ask those questions, but, more importantly, they want to know about sustainability.

"More and more people are asking about this side of growing," says Tony Andrews, pictured, a director of Denholme-based Yorkshire Christmas Trees, one of the county's hot spots for tree buying in the run-up to Christmas. "For a lot of customers, it is the first thing they ask - they want to know where the trees come from and how they have been grown."

Sustainability is the buzzword - people want to buy from a naturally renewable resource.

Every Christmas more than 7.5 million real trees are sold in England. The majority are grown in Europe, but because of the cost of transporting the trees, more and more are being home-grown at local sites. The numbers grown here are increasing year-on-year.

"It also makes sense environmentally, as fewer vehicles are on the roads," says Tony Andrews, of Yorkshire Christmas Trees. "The cost of transporting one tree from the continent is between £7 and £8, so it makes sense to grow them here."

Yorkshire Christmas Trees stopped importing trees, predominantly from Denmark, five years ago in favour of growing their own.

After using up all the available land at their windswept site on the edge of the moors, staff devised an innovative plan to link with farmers across the Yorkshire region who had land available and wanted to diversify.

Says Tony: "We set up a company whereby we supply seedlings and the technical expertise needed to grow healthy trees, they are grown on the farmer's land, and then we buy them back from the farmer. It is their business, but we have a contract with them."

At the moment, Yorkshire Christmas Trees has contracts with 12 "fairly large" farms dotted across the North of England, the closest being outside Huddersfield and the largest near Hull. "The Hull farmer is taking 20,000 seedlings every year," adds Tony.

Despite the seasonal nature of the business, it is bringing financial benefits to farmers across the UK and, for some, growing Christmas trees has acted as a lifeline after the upheavals of recent years. "They are doing very well out of it," says Tony, "There are examples up and down the country of Christmas trees being turned into very successful businesses."

The trees take seven to eight years to grow to the required size. "You have to grow eight times as many trees as you need, which means that, across the country, more than 100million are in the ground at any one time, growing to meet requirements over the coming years and support the seven to eight-year cycle. At any one time, Yorkshire Christmas Trees has 1.2 million trees in the ground.

"Every year that we cut down trees to sell at Christmas, we are planting more to replace them. It is a sustainable practice," says Tony.

He stresses the environmental value of properly managed, organically grown, commercial forests.

"They benefit the environment through cleansing the air, and supporting wildlife. They are generally on higher elevations, and attract birds such as grouse and pheasant," says Tony. They also provide welcome shelter for creatures on more exposed ground.

As the trees fill out, the plantations provide nesting sites for small birds. In spring and summer hover flies feed off the aphids that live on the trees. They and also attract butterflies and moths.

Real trees are carbon-neutral - they absorb as much carbon dioxide during growth as they do if left to decompose or, if they are burned.

Around 75 per cent of trees grown by Yorkshire Christmas Trees - members of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association - are the needle-fast Nordman fir, as Tony calls them, "the Rolls Royce of trees."

"It is a beautiful tree, quite soft, with a lovely smell. They will go on looking good through to Easter."

Other varieties include Fraser fir, Noble fire, Scotch pine and Lodgepole pine.

Customers are encouraged to return trees after Christmas. These, along with any other unsold, cut trees, are mulched and turned into compost.

"More and more people are bringing them back to put the tree to another use. The mulch is then sold back to the public - it is all part of recycling."

As the need to prevent waste becomes part of our lives, people have started asking about different options such as living Christmas trees. "Demand for those has risen sharply," says Tony. "They can be replanted. One family come every year and after Christmas they plant the tree at Ogden Reservoir. It is New Year ritual for them, and great for the children."

He adds: "Some people decide to keep their trees and plant them in the garden. They can grow to around 25 feet over the same period of years."

Once your Christmas tree has served it purpose, Bradford Council operate a mulching scheme, which turns the trees into mulch to be used on flower beds in parks and at other locations.

"The mulch suppresses the weeds, it helps throughout dry spells to keep the ground moist and helps to keep the ground warmer in winter."

In another move to green-up the business, New Coley Nurseries, the base for Yorkshire Christmas Trees, is increasing the number of plants grown on site for the nursery. "We are finding that more and more customers want to know the origins of plants and prefer them to

  • Yorkshire Christmas Trees, Halifax-Keighley Road, Denholme, Bradford BD13 5EA Tel: (01274) 834992 or visit www.yorkshirechristmastrees.co.uk.

To find out about Christmas tree recycling ring the Christmas Recycling helpline on (01274) 438883, or visit www.bradford.gov.uk and click on the environment link.

Which variety should you choose?

  • Nordman fir Requires plenty of attention and takes between six and seven years to mature. They do not drop needles. Beautiful smell and soft to touch.
  • Fraser fir Very popular in America. This makes an ideal container-grown Christmas tree. It is soft - ideal for children to decorate - has dark needles with blue/grey undersides and a pleasant scent. Cut trees are beautifully shapes, with good needle retention.
  • Scots pine A native, bush-like conifer with blue-green foliage and soft needles. Good needle-retention qualities but older needles shed in summer can become trapped in the thick foliage, so needs a good shake.
  • Lodgepole pine A cheerful green colour, tinged slightly with yellow, with a sharp fragrance. They have more branches and shorter, more numerous green needles than the Scots pine. They have good needle retention.

Tips for buying your tree:

  • Try to find an organic or sustainably-managed producer, preferably local.
  • If you have space, consider a living tree with roots that can be replanted after New Year.
  • Try not to use preservative sprays to prevent needle-drop. If that is a problem, buy one of the varieties that holds its needles for longer and keep it as cool as possible over the holiday. Trees that have been recently cut down in the UK will hold their needles better than imported varieties cut down weeks before so they can be shipped here in time.
  • Make sure you take cut trees to your local recycling centre in the New Year.
  • If you're "thinking green" for your tree, do the same for decorations. It is now possible to buy garlands and other decorations made from palm leaves at www.greeneyed frog.co.uk, or decorations made from recycled circuit boards and CDs www.nigelsecostore. com.
  • Real versus artificial: Some argue that artificial trees last for years and save real trees from being chopped down. The average life of an artificial tree is just six years. They are not naturally bio-degradable.

Many fake trees are made from metal and derivatives of Polyvinyl Chloride PVC, the production of which requires large amounts of energy and creates by-products such as lead. The majority sold in the UK are made in Taiwan or China

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