Meet Ockbrook's Mr Christmas Tree
PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 December 2018
mr christmas tree
From our high streets to our homes as seasonal celebrations ramp-up, a family business has branched out to help keep one tradition alive. Viv Micklefield visits Ockbrook's Mr Christmas Tree.
At this time of year, few sights beat walking into a room where there’s a festive tree standing in pride of place, bedecked with baubles and surrounded by wrapped presents. Agreed, there are plenty of reasons for ‘going artificial’, but nothing instantly brings back childhood memories of Christmas past than the real deal, which looks (and smells) as if it’s come straight out of a magical forest.
The tradition, however, hasn’t always existed. With evergreen trees originally used by pagan Norsemen to ward off evil spirits, the idea of a decorated Christmas tree is down to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. By all accounts, German-born Albert had celebrated Christmas with a tree from a young age, and was keen to share this treat with his new wife. So, when the Illustrated London News published a sketch of the royal couple and their family gathered around a festooned tree in 1848, the idea soon caught-on throughout British homes.
These days, around eight million real Christmas trees are sold annually. Yet it’s not until you meet one of Derbyshire’s specialist growers that the hard work that goes into producing a centrepiece fit to light up our lives over the festive season, becomes apparent.
‘We took on this particular plantation five years ago,’ says Rob Massie who, together with his wife Stevie, runs Mr Christmas Tree from Spondon Wood Farm in Ockbrook, near Derby. Today, they currently have around 12 acres of plantation to manage over three locations. And, gazing out over a sea of firs waving gently in the breeze at one of these sites, some of the different species are instantly recognizable.
‘We’ve the Norway Spruce which is the traditional one that everyone used to have, and does lose some needles but is perfect for outside,’ confirms Rob. ‘The most popular one now is the Nordman Fir which is nice and soft with minimal needle drop. The Fraser Fir is also popular, and a bit narrower than the Nordman, and we do have some Blue Spruce in here too.’
Gone are the days when you only had to look at a tree for needles to litter the floor. Now these other varieties trump sales of the Norway Spruce by four-to-one; although, once brought into heated homes they can still lose their shine unless properly cared for.
What is striking within the plantation, as well as the variety of colours and leaf shapes, is the differing size of the specimens growing alongside each other. In addition to those trees reaching skywards, are some just waist high. And to one side, is an area where they’ve planted saplings that will be ready in a few years’ time. As Rob explains, it’s a constant cycle to produce the next season’s trees, so more are due to be added both before and after Christmas.
‘The Norway Spruce grow really quickly, around two feet every year, and will grow pretty much anywhere. The Nordman Firs on the other hand, grow more slowly and these and Fraser Firs like a lighter soil.
‘All of them need to be managed: you have to keep the weeds under control, and aphids can attack firs particularly in springtime so, like any crop, we have to look after them.’
Having successfully fought-off other would-be attackers such as fungal disease and rabbits during their growth, supplying a cut tree that stays in tip-top condition for several weeks sounds like a tall order. But as this expert explains: ‘The fresher they’re cut, the fresher they’ll stay.’ Which means the team usually starts harvesting around six weeks before Christmas Day and will replenish stocks of cut trees regularly to meet demand. This requires an interruption to Rob’s regular day job on his family’s arable and livestock farm but, he says, the idea for a new business venture first took root several decades earlier.
‘I left university 20 years ago and tried selling Christmas trees. My dad had already planted a few so I sold those and it’s evolved from there.
‘The first tree we’ll be putting-up this year is in central Derby. It’s a big process getting a 30- to 40-foot tree out, compared with carrying a three- to six-foot tree, and we usually have two-and-a-half weeks of installing display trees which are now supplied to sites all over the East Midlands. This includes the villages as everyone, it seems, has a tree for their lighting-up ceremonies.’
As well as orders for the bigger trees, Rob points to a growing trend towards trees mounted on the outside of buildings using wall brackets.
‘Up the road in Spondon they have trees on all of the shop fronts which looks really nice. And when they close the main street for the lights switch-on, it brings the community together.’
Being able to contribute towards such a joyful celebration clearly gives him enormous pleasure. That, and converting the farmyard into a Christmas wonderland where, from 24th November onwards, the rows of carefully graded domestic size trees await their new owners. The farm’s heritage buildings provide the perfect backdrop however long it takes to select a tree that’s ‘not too tall’, or ‘not too bushy’, but is ‘just right’.
‘We try and make it a family-friendly experience. The trees aren’t netted in advance, so customers can easily choose the one they want. There are tree stands available to buy which we can fit the tree to if required, or when someone brings their own stand along we’ll find the tree that matches it best.’
And to complete the offering potted trees with roots are also available to buy. So, I wonder, who decides what tree to have in the Massie household?
‘These days we let our three young daughters choose, and usually end up having several trees decorated around the home,’ admits Rob.
For a family that’s used to working long hours on the land, the run-up to the festive season will be just as demanding, from the moment that they harvest the first tree until the farm gate is finally closed after the last customer hurries home on Christmas Eve.
‘Well, you can’t turn people away can you?’ is the response. ‘It’s Christmas!’