When it comes to ethical Christmas trees, there are usually only two sides to the debate: whether to choose real or plastic.
The former without the risk of plastic pollution, but the latter without the need for water use, land and other inputs required by annual planting.
If you favour a real tree, exactly how it is grown and with what environmental impact can be hugely varied, and there is relatively little transparency in the supply chain.
In food and animal feed crops, the organic certification is the highest guarantee of minimal environmental impact and no artificial chemicals, but it has yet to extend its reach to one of our best-loved seasonal crops.
One reason is because Christmas trees are not classified as a food or animal feed crop by the European Commission, they cannot carry the European organic symbol – the green leaf seen on packs – significant when so many trees are imported from Scandinavia and Germany.
In the UK, the same rules do not apply and the Soil Association, the UK’s biggest organic certifier, has certified a small number of growers in the past, but this year says they “don’t really exist”.
“The truth is there’s never been much demand. I don’t think there are many growers out there and it’s difficult for us to create a list as they’re not always registered as an enterprise,” says Sarah Hathway, senior technical manager at the Soil Association. “It might just be your local organic farmer selling them from a field.”
One of the chemicals Hathway flags up as likely to be used on non organic Christmas trees is glyphosate. Weeds are a big issue for emerging tree saplings, she says, and the herbicide is a widely-used antidote.
“There are definitely differences between organic and non organic systems. At the moment, there probably isn’t enough information out there to drive the incentive to buy them,” she says.
John and Jan Hardwick have been growing Christmas trees at Cobbs Cross Farm, their organic mixed farm in Somerset, for more than 20 years. Everything else on the farm is certified as organic, except the 60 acres of trees, says Hardwick, who says he’s “never been asked for an organic tree” – although he did consider becoming certified over a decade ago.
Trees are planted as seedlings and fertilised using manure from the farm, and once established, the Hardwicks use various tactics to protect and nurture them: mowing regularly between rows to cut back weeds, using a tool called a ‘nipper’ to make a small indentation that releases sap and reduces needle loss, and pruning to increase airflow between branches and cut disease risk.
They also try and deter rabbits using electric fencing powered by solar panels, and install ‘bird perches’ to discourage landing on the delicate tree branches.
But not everything can be solved with a manual fix and the Hardwicks also use some inputs, such as sulphur to counter the woolly aphid that attacks the tree, or a pesticide to tackle a caterpillar that often appears in summer and eats the all-important branches at the top of the tree, known as leaders.
“Normally Christmas trees like soil to be a bit acidic so sometimes we put lime or potash on at the start. We don’t put nitrogen on because that forces the tree and it grows too fast, becoming ‘leggy’,” explains Hardwick.
One farm that has made it a point of difference to sell Christmas trees without using chemicals is Suzy Petrides’ Hole Farm, located on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. Petrides says she is “dipping her toe” into Christmas tree growing for the first time this year, selling them locally and delivering to north London on three limited delivery dates in December.
Her four-acre plot of trees are largely left to fend for themselves, she says, after the farm team discovered a way of suppressing weeds using jute matting. “You plant the young trees and then lay out the matting in the field, so they’re growing in the earth but up through the matting,” she says.
“We’ve been learning as we go along, I was a member of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association but they had a slightly different approach – if you have a problem then you douse them in chemicals,” says Petrides, who says she would “consider organic” but at the moment is focused on building up her customer base.
“Our fields run off into a pond and a brook and it’s not something I want to do, put chemicals into the ground,” she adds.
The fact that growers do use chemicals ultimately comes down to our desire for that Christmas-card perfect tree – symmetrically bushy and with no gaps.
It was when visiting a local supermarket and seeing the ranges of ‘wonky veg’ that the Hardwicks hit upon a potential solution to this problem. “We grow Fraser Firs and they tend to be a bit quirky and there are sometimes gaps on our trees. If you think about it, you only ever see one side of a tree,” says Hardwick, who now encourages customers to consider these ‘wonky trees’.
The Hardwicks already lose a percentage of their trees every season due to deer or rabbit damage – out of 15,000 planted, they will harvest around 11,000 – so any further waste due to aesthetic pickiness is a further loss of time, money and energy.
In Devon, Petrides says of her trees: “They’re not all exactly the same, and we don’t fuss over them. I think trees should have a bit of character.
“Quite a few of the Nordmann and Fraser Firs this year have some natural cones on them, they’re utterly beautiful, with a white lichen that looks like snow. You only get that lichen growing in places with really clean air.”
The connection to the land is one of the reasons people continue to love real Christmas trees, and for Hardwick, the value of bringing people onto his farm and connecting with a real farming business is not to be underestimated. “I think local is as important as anything these days,” he says. “We try and make it into an event and hope that brings people into the countryside, to see our animals and the rest of the farm.”
So while organic Christmas trees remain as elusive Saint Nick himself, accepting less than perfect trees, and prioritising transparency and provenance, can still help secure a sustainable supply chain.
Ethical Christmas trees: a how-to guide
If a traditionally-grown tree just isn't for you, consider these alternative ethical options:
Rent. Rental schemes for Christmas trees are "having a moment", according to Huffington Post, and tackle the issue of waste after the festive period is over.
Donate. Trees are vital in countering climate change and they're certainly not just for Christmas. Dedicate a tree to someone through the Woodland's Trust sponshorship scheme and it will last for years to come.
DIY your decs. Dried citrus fruit or chillies, and fallen pine cones, make stunning and original Christmas decorations, avoiding the usual plastic options.