Christmas trees growing in plantation

How to Choose a Christmas Tree 2020

Families often start the festive celebrations by heading out together to choose a tree from their local Christmas Tree Farm but 2020 will be different.

Current lockdown restrictions in England mean that Christmas tree farms are required by law to close until 3rd December, which is a bit of a blow, especially as our local supermarket is (legally) selling Christmas trees next to the fish counter. Crazy isn’t it? The good news is that we can offer a Click-and-Collect service, which allows our customers to pre-order a tree and select one from the display when they arrive to collect it.

(Update 21 Nov) I’m delighted to say that we are now allowed to open for the sale of Christmas trees and would like to thank our local councillor for his impressive work in getting the rules changed (unlike the ineffectual National Farmers Union).

If you’re Clicking-and-Collecting or planning to visit a Christmas Tree Farm, here are some tips from Slamseys for How to Choose the Perfect Christmas Tree in 2020.

The best time to buy a real Christmas tree

Christmas celebrations seem to get earlier every year and this year some British Christmas tree sellers have reported record sales for the beginning of November. It’s been such a dismal year that people have already started to put up their decorations but trees are living things and it’s a bit much to expect them to sit in a hot house for six weeks and still look wonderful for Christmas week.

Most Christmas Tree sellers open for the last weekend of November but many growers like us continue to cut trees throughout December so unless you always put up your tree on the first Sunday of Advent (29th November), wait until December to buy your tree.

Slamseys Christmas Tree Barn will open on Friday 27th November.

Measure up before you buy

Measure the height of the room where your tree will stand rather than taking a wild guess and then cutting off the top half. Add on an allowance for your tree topper and your tree stand. At Slamseys, the trees are displayed in clearly marked height ranges, which makes it easy to choose the right height tree.

Shop a different way

In a normal year, the start of the Christmas season for many families is the day they put on their Christmas hats or antlers and spend ages with grandparents, aunts and uncles choosing the perfect tree. Maybe this year you could elect one person to collect the Christmas tree and celebrate the start of the season when the Christmas tree is brought home. Switch on the Christmas music, heat the mince pies and pour a celebratory drink as the tree is carried through the door. Or buy the tree while the children are at school and let them discover it when they get home and carry it in to decorate.

Duplo man holding Christmas twig. Shop alone 2020

This year, it’s essential to check how you can buy your Christmas tree as many Christmas tree sellers are not allowed to open in the normal way under current Covid regulations. You might be able to use a Click-and-Collect Service or you might need to wait until after 3rd December to visit in the normal way.

The Christmas Tree Farm you visit might look different this year. At Slamseys, we’ve changed the layout of the barn for improved social distancing and have a new display system that makes it easy to choose a tree without removing it from the rack. We’re limiting the number of people in the barn and may ask our customers to queue outside if they come at the busy weekend times. But you can still choose from hundreds of premium Christmas trees.

You can find a list of British growers and sellers at British Christmas Tree Growers Association

Which is the best type of Christmas tree? Nordman Fir or Norway Spruce?

Our customers’ favourite tree is the Nordman Fir with its dark green, glossy foliage and good needle retention. The soft needles make it an ideal Christmas tree in homes with young children or pets and there won’t be too many needles to sweep up if you keep the tree cool and watered.

The Norway Spruce is the traditional Christmas tree with a wonderful smell and shape though the needles are prone to fall off at the merest knock if you stuff a Norway Spruce tree in a hot room for weeks and don’t water it. Norway Spruce are lovely trees if you take them inside for only a couple of weeks or want a fabulous tree to display outside.

How to choose the best tree for you

Are you looking for a pot grown tree or cut tree?

A tree planted as a seedling and grown in the pot (as opposed to one dug out of the ground and put into a pot) can be planted out in the garden after Christmas if it’s only taken inside for a week (or two at most) and kept cool. Pot grown trees are usually sold at no than about 140 cms high, so aren’t suitable if you’re looking for a large tree. If you plan to grow your tree on, remember that they grow to over 5 metres.

You should be able to buy a cut tree in any size from about 90 centimetres to over 3 metres high and they’ll cost you less than a pot grown tree of a comparable size.

Christmas trees growing in a plantation in a range of sizes

A good Christmas tree seller will offer Nordman Firs and Norway Spruce in a range of heights and shapes, so go to the section that has trees in the height you’re looking for and find a tree that you like (or just grab the first one because by the time you’ve decorated it, you probably won’t notice the shape). Some people like dense trees while others like well spaced branches so there’s room for baubles to dangle.

Ask your seller to give the tree a shake before they wrap it in netting. If heaps of needles fall to the floor, reject it and choose another.

Taking the Christmas tree home

Christmas tree twig in toy car

Before you set off to collect your Christmas tree, clear a space in the car for it and protect your car upholstery with an old sheet or blanket. You wouldn’t believe how many people don’t know how to put down the seats in their car or try to cram a tree into a car already loaded with shopping or dogs or children. Or sometimes all three. Be prepared!

Keep your Christmas tree looking good

At home, saw a slice from the bottom of the trunk so that the tree can take up water (like cut flowers), remove the netting (some needles will fall off as they get caught in the netting) and stand the tree outside in a bucket of water for a few hours.

When you take your tree inside, put it in an appropriately sized stand. You can try wedging it in a bucket, but a well-designed stand makes the process much easier. Don’t try to cram the tree into a stand that’s too small as cutting off great chunks of the trunk restricts water uptake and the tree may topple over if it’s in a stand designed for a smaller tree. Your stand should be marked with a safe height guide. Protect the floor from water spills with a large tray or waterproof mat.

Make sure your tree is standing straight and firmly secured in the stand. Trim any straggly branches and if your tree sticks out too far into the room, cut back the branches at the rear; nobody will notice unless you turn the tree around. Fill the stand with water and top it up regularly so that your tree doesn’t dry out.

And finally …

Drape the lights, hang the baubles and balance a star (or angel or fairy or whatever takes your fancy) on the top of the tree. Stand back and admire. What a beautiful tree.

Don’t forget to recycle your tree at the end of Christmas. Your local council may have a recycling service or there may be a local charity who raise funds by collecting trees and recycling them.

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Buy your Christmas tree from Slamseys

Recycle your tree and raise funds for Farleigh Hospice


Preserving Autumn

I have a snapshot memory from my childhood of walking across a field on my way for a swim, with my swimsuit under my clothes and knickers rolled up in the towel, thinking about life and what it was all about. I can pinpoint the exact spot, just past the tin shed, as I wondered if we were merely like dolls and farmyard toys, being played with by some unseen hand and if there was more to life than being born, getting told what to do and then dying.

trug filled with autumn fruit

As we lurch from one set of arbitrary rules to another in this Covic-19 crisis, I get a fleeting reminder of that childhood impotence and crave a little control. Nothing major. Not world domination. It’s enough to gather up some fruit or vegetables, to fill the kitchen with the smell of boiling sugar or gently simmering vinegar and make a batch of jam or chutney. To carefully fill the jars and screw on the lids, label them and line them up on the shelf. A ritual that celebrates the late summer and autumnal abundance of the garden and hedgerows with nobody whispering Hands Face Space, Keep Your Distance, Cover Your Face, Stay Home, Eat Out or whatever the latest slogan may be.

I rarely make the same preserves on consecutive years because I often forget which recipe I used the previous year or there may still be a jar or two left on the shelf, so it seems pointless to make yet more. Also, there’s rarely an excess of the same things every year or I realise too late that everything is past its peak.

quince

The quince tree, while not as burdened with fruit as it has been some years, is having a prolific year and we have an overabundance of quince. The knobbly fruit are pressed (from a suitable distance) into the hands of anyone who happens to call in along with boxes of walnuts, of which there are far too many for us this year, even when shared with the squirrels. We swap with friends: walnuts and quince for their surplus pumpkins and chillies, a jar of chutney for one of pickled onions.

quince poached in syrup

The problem with quince is that they are inedible unless cooked, unlike an apple or plum that you can pick from the tree and pop straight into your mouth. A fruit for the cook. My quince repertoire doesn’t usually extend beyond poached quince, which we eat several days running with lemon ice-cream, Greek yoghurt or custard and, new for this year, Walnut Biscuits.

Quince and Orange Marmalade

For the first time, I’ve also made Quince and Orange Marmalade. It’s funny how I can have a recipe book and use some recipes over and over again, yet completely ignore others. Then, I see something looking delicious in a magazine or on a blog and instantly want to make it, only to realise that I’ve had the recipe for years but, for whatever reason, have never been tempted. Quince and Orange Marmalade is one such recipe. The original recipe is in The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook,  my copy of which is well used and food spattered, but I’ve never lingered on that page. Last week, the photos and descriptions on Fenland Lottie inspired me to find the original recipe and make it. It’s delicious and I wish I’d discovered it years ago. Annie has given a slightly shortened version of the recipe, so try it for yourself if you can get hold of some quince.

It only takes minutes to walk to the nearest shop, so I do all this preserving through choice, not necessity. It seems a little absurd and far-fetched to say it, but having a store of jewel coloured jams and wire clipped jars of chutney gives a feeling of permanence, of laying down stores for the future and being prepared.  If nothing else, should there be another lockdown we’ll be able to dine on jam and slices of quince, which (obviously) we’ll eat with a runcible spoon.


An Autumn Walk

October already! How did that happen?

The long, hot summer days have faded away and autumn has taken hold. Late afternoon yesterday, when I went out to shut my hens away for the night, the sun was shining and there was a pleasant breeze so I thought I’d make the most of it and take a quick walk.

Heading out through the back of the yard, I joined the public bridleway that runs through the farm but there was nobody else around. The blackberries are just about finished but scarlet rosehips still make a splash of colour in the hedges and I resolved to pick some soon to make a little rosehip syrup to mix with this year’s Hedgerow Gin for an autumnal cocktail. This year, I’ve been infusing a few seasonal ingredients like raspberries or blackcurrants or blackberries in a small amount of gin for a week or so. Unlike a traditional, sweetened fruit gin that’s drunk neat, I’ve left them unsweetened and added tonic water to make a colourful drink with a hint of fruit. The hedgerow gin with blackberries, rosehips, haws and sloes has been particularly delicious.

As I walked alongside the ditch where the track changes to a narrow footpath, the water had flooded the path making me glad that I was wearing wellies (even though I don’t like walking in them) as I sloshed through muddy ankle deep water. Further downstream the banks and bottom of the ditch are so overgrown that the water is obscured but I suspect, from the noisy rush of water, that the flooding was caused a fallen branch that has made a dam. That stretch of path is owned by the local council who don’t seem to care too much about maintenance or keeping footpaths passable but they probably have rather more important matters to deal with during this Covid crisis.

crab apples floating in water

On firmer ground, fallen crab apples littered the path making a circle under each tree or floated like the prelude to a giant apple bobbing game where the trees overhang the ditch in Lakes Field. This field has lots of wizened crab apple trees along its boundary with each producing its own shape and size of apple, all of which are disgustingly sour. I often wonder if the trees have sprung up from apple cores discarded by farm workers years ago or if there used to be some sort of dwelling here. A map from the eighteenth century shows small buildings dotted along the main track that runs through the farm, although they’re long gone and have left no trace.

Geese flying over a cultivated field

Walking southwards, the trees cast long shadows across the cultivated earth as geese flew noisily overhead and a hare sat motionless on the headland ahead and then quickly turned to dart through the hedge, across the ditch and over the open field. I lost sight of it as I walked behind a high section of hedge but then I thought I saw him waiting in the middle of the field. Or maybe it was a clod of earth. It’s difficult to tell at that distance, especially in the fading light.

Rain on an autumn day
a

Suddenly, the sky darkened, the wind blew cold and large drops of rain fell in a torrent so that within a minute I was soaked to the skin. The folly of wearing a lightweight jacket in a showery week. Though this was considerably heavier than a shower implies. I thought about sheltering under a tree until the rain had passed but I was cold and didn’t think I could get any wetter, so ploughed on. I was wrong! By the time I reached home, my trousers were so wet that water trickled down the inside of my wellies and water streamed from my hair. Cursing that I walked before I did the hens, I tipped in their food as I did a quick head count and closed the gate.

Across the yard, the lights were on in the house, which is always a welcome sight. I peeled off my dripping clothes just inside the door and by the time I’d had a hot shower and put on dry clothes, there was a pot of tea waiting on the kitchen table. And a slice of millionaire’s shortbread. Perfect.


Poised and Waiting

Life may have changed irrevocably in many ways, but some things are just the same as ever.


This week, everyone is poised and waiting for harvest. Every year in late July and early August, there are constant checks to see if any of the crops are ready to harvest and the weather forecast consulted regularly in the hope of dry sunny days. As usual, this begins way in advance with varying estimates of the likely start date. Today Bill’s forecast was “not before the weekend”.

Bowl of freshly picked raspberries and alpine strawberries from English country garden


The garden is in full production with enough fruit and vegetables to feed us, so long as we don’t object to eating pretty much the same thing every day. As usual, we’re moving rapidly through the sequence of excitement at the first raspberry, bean or whatever, then getting rather bored with eating them every day and then finally, having a great fancy for them when there are none left.

In normal times, I’d be tempted to supplement the garden produce with something we don’t grow, but this year I’m trying to be more imaginative with it all in an effort to cut down the shopping. That said, today we’re having stuffed marrow with runner beans and new potatoes, which is not at all imaginative as I’ve probably eaten that every summer of my life.

wildflowers and weeds in a vase


There are always wildflowers and weeds to pick around the farm and yesterday I saw the first ripe blackberries, though I wasn’t tempted to pick them as they were next to the road.

peacock


Rather unusually, a peacock has taken up residence on the farm for the past couple of weeks and comes across the field each morning when I let the hens out, though they are deeply unimpressed by the tail waving, bottom waggling shuffle that he performs for them. The other day he flew onto the netting that covers the top of the hen run as he tried to join them or perhaps impress them with his flying prowess. I was worried that he’d get tangled up in the loose net but he just sort of bounced across it, as if it was a trampoline, and shook himself down when he reached the side pole. I suspect he’ll wander off soon, but he’s brought a vivid splash of colour to the farm.


Saturday is Lammas Day. Lammas was originally an Anglo Saxo festival that marked the beginning of harvest. The first grains of the new harvest would be baked into a loaf of bread that was taken into the church to be blessed, hence Loaf Mass. Normally, I’d say that bread is taken for granted, a basic foodstuff that’s thrown in the shopping trolley with little thought, but maybe it’s valued a tiny bit more after the bread and flour shortages earlier in the year.

Perhaps this year we should all bake a loaf to celebrate Lammas Day. If we can get the yeast, which still seems in very short supply.


It was upon a Lammas night,
   When corn rigs are bonie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
   I held awa to Annie;
The time flew by, wi tentless heed;
   Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi sma’ persuasion she agreed
   To see me thro the barley.

Robert Burns: The Rigs o’ Barley

elderflowers and roses

Sparkling Elderflower and Rose Drink

The elder has flowered early this year, no doubt duped by the endless days of sunshine this year. As ever, the flowers closest to home are either too high for me to reach, on the wrong side of a wide ditch or next to a busy track along which lorries thunder past all day.

But, as I walked around the farm, I’ve kept an eye on a lone elder that overhangs the wide ditch running between Lakes Field and Great Forest, the branches dipping down just low enough for me to reach. If I stand on tiptoe. And reach precariously across the ditch. This week I decided the large saucer shaped flowers were ripe for picking and duly collected a small bagful of elderflower heads.


I flip flop each year between making elderflower cordial and a sparkling elderflower drink. I like cordial because it’s concentrated and keeps for a long time but I have to remember to buy soda water to mix with it as I prefer it fizzy. On the other hand, sparkling elderflower needs no soda water but takes up more room because it’s already diluted and needs careful storing so the bottles don’t explode.


This year, my mind has been made up for me. I have no desire to stand in a long, socially distanced queue at the pharmacy to buy citric acid (or more likely, try to buy it as they inevitably sell out), which is needed for the cordial recipes. So, it’s sparkling elderflower for 2020.

elderflowers and roses


This year, I’ve added a few scented rose petals to the mix. I hoped the rose petals would turn the drink pink as they do with the Elderflower and Rose Cordial but I didn’t use enough deep coloured petals so I have the flavour but not the colour. Which is fine by me.


If you’d like to make Sparkling Elderflower & Rose, the recipe is below. Leave out the rose petals for a Sparkling Elderflower drink.


Pick the elderflowers on a dry day, choosing the creamy new heads (rather than old and browning ones) and give them a shake to dislodge any lurking insects. Back home, use them straight away.

Sparkling Elderflower and Rose Drink


Ingredients

700g granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cider (or white wine) vinegar

20 good sized elderflower heads – flowers pulled or cut from main stem

4 roses – petals only (I snip them off with scissors)

1 lemon – juice and zest (use a vegetable peeler)

1 lemon – sliced

Directions


Put everything into a large bowl or a bucket and add 1 gallon (4.5 litres) of cold water.

Cover the bowl with a cloth (not cling film as it needs to breathe) and leave for 48 hours. Stir occasionally to help dissolve the sugar.

Strain and pour into sterilised bottles. Use bottles with corks or fizzy drinks bottles otherwise your bottles might explode (I speak from experience).

Leave the bottles in a cool, dry place for two or three weeks. If you use plastic bottles, you’ll know when it’s ready to drink as the gas will fill the bottles so that the sides are very firm.

Open carefully!