Christmas trees are at the heart of garden centre Christmas sales. In 2011, figures topped more than eight million, says British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTA) secretary Roger Hay. But although the usual scare stories about shortages came and went early, there was a lack of big trees on sale.
A couple of disease stories also hit - current season needle necrosis and mould causing asthma. But according to Needlefresh managing director Christopher Hood, who wholesales 500,000 trees a year, garden centres demanding trees earlier and earlier could be more damaging to public confidence in the market.
He says there is some confusion between needle necrosis, which means trees in the field are unsellable because they go brown, and needle drop, which happens post-cutting.
"The two are completely different," he says. "There was more needle drop this year, which was a result of the warm autumn and additional stress on trees between when they were cut and when they were sold into retailers.
"Unless retailers accept they can't have their trees until the end of November at the earliest we run the risk of spoiling the industry as trees become less saleable as the climate gets warmer," he says.
"Retailer A says it wants trees on 14 November because retailer B has them. There has to be greater attention to resisting commercial pressures to cut trees very early to facilitate retailer demand to have trees on sale when there is little else going on in the garden centre."
Hood says growers tell him trees are being cut too early to last through to new year, with needle drop and drying out meaning that consumers may have a poor experience.
There was also nervousness ahead of Christmas 2011 because of the economy, he adds. Prices at many retailers rose around five per cent after resisting last year. The nervousness was largely unfounded, says Hood, because most retailers sold their trees satisfactorily.
"A number of retailers had more stock left than normal, but not at disastrous levels. Grower/retailers had good sales and some independent garden centres had tremendous sales but some people did not completely sell out."
For 2012, Hood predicts that no fewer trees will be available, although larger trees will again be in short supply.
Sales in 2011 were certainly better than in 2010, when snow ruined the last 10 days' sales before Christmas. Woodcote Green in Surrey ordered 50 extra trees just before the holiday, while Sanders Garden World manager and Garden Centre Group regional manager Peter Burks says: "Trade was very good. The mild weather kept plant sales going well and quite a few of our stores completely sold out of Christmas trees"
BCTGA's Hay adds: "All the reports I am getting in are positive. Most people seem to have done quite well. A number of growers reported that they ran out of trees - some before they expected to." Sales should be up on the 8.2 million British-grown trees sold in 2010, he adds.
Eden Park is part of the Green Team Group, Europe's largest grower and supplier of Christmas trees. It supplies 400,000 trees to garden centres and other retailers in the UK and Scottish plantations bring another 250,000 to the wholesale market. Office manager Martin Coward says the 2011 season beat 2010 and 2009 for sales.
But he also warns that retailers are demanding trees too early, which can lead to needle drop after a dry season and mild autumn: "Unfortunately it is a policy of major retailers to ensure that they have trees before their competitors making the selling season much earlier. As an industry we have to look at how we display the trees and we are going to recommend everything moves back a week from early to mid November, with the bulk going in at the end of November and first week in December because customers won't buy until the first week of December anyway."
He says Polhill garden centre in Kent demonstrated good practice by taking trees out of their nets and displaying outside and ideally an irrigation system used overnight.
Coward adds that educating consumers about how to look after their trees after they get them home is also important. Greenteam included informative labels about how the tree was grown along with care instructions:
"It was more important than ever in 2011 that the consumer knew how to look after their purchase and the retailers that took the time to explain about the trees aftercare received minimal complaints and customer returns."
Larger tree shortfall
For 2012 Coward predicts further shortages of trees above 2m and consequent price rises, although he says prices on under 175cm trees should be stable because of better supply. There may be a shortfall of as many as 200,000 larger trees, he suggests, with Needlefresh's Hood adding that growers find the bigger trees unprofitable and difficult to harvest and transport.
Coward claims that by 2013 Eden Park will be supplying only UK-grown trees to the UK market after planting four million on plantations in Scotland. He regards BCTGA estimates of eight million UK-grown trees sold a year as exaggerated: "We still rely on imports. I'd say it is 50:50 import and export with four million coming from overseas." Needlefresh used haulier Norbert Dentressangle to transport more than 200 trailerloads of trees during the run up to Christmas.
INDUSTRY UNITES TO FIGHT NEEDLE NECROSIS
Christmas trees are under threat from a widespread mystery disease costing some growers hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The condition, called current season needle necrosis, affects the Nordmann fir, causing its needles to turn brown and fall off.
A fungus Sydowia polyspora may be to blame, but it is not known what causes it and how it can be prevented.
The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) is to host an emergency meeting early this year for its 350 members, who comprise three-quarters of UK growers.
Secretary Roger Hay says: "There is some evidence of it affecting Scotland, but it is mainly in the south at the moment.
It is fairly widespread in terms of Europe and the USA.
"We first noticed it three years ago but the effect has not reduced during that time. It's not universal - even within a farm it may just be one or two trees."
One of the country's biggest growers, Hans Alexandersen, revealed that he had already lost a fortune in writing off trees, which take about seven years to grow to 2m.
Alexandersen, who farms 600,000 Nordmann firs in Kent and Surrey, said: "I have been ringing the alarm bell because I have lost several hundred thousand pounds worth of trees.
"The experts have identified a fungus, but they still don't know if it is the culprit. They don't know how it works and have not found a cure for it. Trees can recover in future years, but when you have a plantation that has the disease, you don't want to leave too many trees."
Janet Allen, of consultancy firm ADAS, likens the disease to sunburn. "About five years ago we started to see Nordmann firs showing this sort of necrosis," she says. "We are pretty certain the cause is a fungus, but we don't know how it spores and need to monitor climatic conditions before we can control it. In the past two summers the hot, dry and bright weather in late June and July seem to have led to the fungus being active."