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Photo: Claus Boesen
Photo: Claus Boesen

The Christmas Tree Champion

Every year, 10 million Danish Christmas trees are shipped out of the country to decorate German, British, Dutch, Norwegian and Polish homes. But where did the Christmas tree tradition actually start and why are Danish trees so good? We asked an expert.

Scandinavian Christmas tree preferences

Sweden: 80% choose Norway spruce
Norway: 80% choose Nordmann
Denmark: 40% choose Nordmann, 35% Norway spruce, 25% Douglas fir

It has inspired adventures and songs of praise, and has overtaken nativity scenes and even baby Jesus himself as the symbol of Christmas. The humble Christmas tree, that first came to Scandinavia as a German ­tradition, has gradually become big business – especially for the Danes.

Denmark produces 12 million Christmas trees a year, 10 million of which are exported, primarily to Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Eastern Europe. Export sales of around DKr1.3 billion make it the largest ­exporter of Christmas trees in the world.

One particular type of tree trumps all the other trees on the market – the Nordmann Pine. It has overtaken the Norway spruce, the blue spruce and the pine, primarily because it is sustainable and doesn’t drop needles, which means it lasts a long time indoors without shedding.  

Even though the Nordmann Pine originated in the Caucasus Mountains, the right conditions and plenty of expertise enable the trees to thrive in Denmark. One expert is Bernt Johan Collet, who has been growing Christmas trees on the Lundbygaard Estate for almost 50 years and is one of the biggest producers in Denmark, harvesting some 600,000 trees each year. And trees take time. 

“When you decide to grow Christmas trees, you need to appreciate that it’s a slow process,” Collet says. “It takes four years from sowing the seeds to ­being able to plant them out, and a further eight years for the tree to reach the right size. My friends in the business sector shake their heads when they hear that you have to wait 12 years before you get a return on your investment,” he says. 

To produce Christmas trees of high quality, the climate in the plantation must be mild and the springs frost-free. The soil meanwhile needs to be sandy rather than heavy and mulchy. Ideally, the trees should be on high ground rather than in a valley, as the latter can be more susceptible to frost. And you should adopt caution if planting Christmas trees inland, as frost is more likely there.

“The coastal climate in Denmark is ideal for Christmas trees, unlike the rest of Scandinavia where it is often too cold. That’s why around 75% of Nordmann trees that are sold in Norway actually come from ­Denmark. Here in Sydsjælland we’re surrounded by water on three sides, and we’re on high ground, where there’s seldom a spring frost. We have actually only suffered frost damage once since I took over the farm in 1968.”

Once the location is fixed, the growing process starts with the seeds, that are often sourced from Nordmann firs in Georgia, where the trees originated. However, Collet has been fortunate enough to cultivate seeds from carefully selected trees from his own ­orchard, which gives him the assurance that the trees will inherit the best qualities from the start.

Planting is done with machines that use GPS technology to position the trees with centimeter precision, to ensure optimal growing conditions that mean the trees grow uniformly and as little space as possible is wasted. Up to 20,000 seedlings are planted every day.

How to keep your Christmas tree healthy

Acclimatize it
If possible, allow the tree to ­gradually acclimatize from the cold outdoors to indoor heat. 

Cut off the bottom of the trunk
Christmas trees absorb water better if the base of the trunk is freshly cut. Cut off about a ­centimeter from the trunk before fitting the tree in the holder.

Water it
Use a Christmas tree holder that you can keep topping up with water. If the tree is not watered, the needles will become dry and gray and start shedding more quickly.

“When you fell 600,000 trees at one end, you have to top up with the same number at the other end,” Collet says. 

He points to know-how, innovation and ­mechanization as the essential factors behind good results. 

“Danish farmers have traditionally been good at spotting opportunities. We’re a small country and have to think creatively to exploit what we have. You can see this in the efficient equipment we use, such as pallet machines and GPS planters. I also think that the college culture can take some of the credit, as this has taught farmers to look beyond the plow and think for themselves,” Collet says.

The Christmas season is the culmination of 12 years of work, where, over a three-week period, trees are harvested, packed and palletized before being shipped to 17 different countries. During this period, 1,000 trucks are dispatched and the payroll jumps from 20 permanent employees to 250. 

“This is our busiest time of the year, when we work a three-shift system. It feels a bit like an anthill,” ­Collet says. 

“Before the harvest starts, we have to harvest the cones, eliminate weeds, mark the trees and organize the machinery and pallets. People often ask me what 

I do in the fall and think I sit sunning myself on ­Mallorca. But growing Christmas trees is an ongoing process with several different stages.” 

Text: Lise Hannibal

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