An evergreen interest in Christmas trees
IRISH LIVES:Champion grower Christy Kavanagh is working flat out until Christmas
“Just like cars, you can get top-of-the-range Christmas trees and clapped-out old bangers,” says champion Christmas tree grower Christy Kavanagh.
For the past few weeks Kavanagh has been working around the clock to ensure his 50 acres of needle-retaining American trees will be ready and shipped to families across the country in time for Christmas. His father started the business, based in Newtownmountkennedy, Co Wicklow, in the 1950s, and at this time of year all the family rows in – brothers, spouses and children – to ensure the orders are met.
“She’s got to have a full body. Not too large in any one area,” Kavanagh says of his perfect tree. “It needs to be well fed so that the needles are long and luscious. People want a nice elegant tree, not something that looks like a brush. They want it pretty full at the top and symmetrical and also it should be nice and fresh.”
Kavanagh is the current Irish champion grower of Christmas trees, an award given by the Irish Christmas Tree Growers association. It used to be that most Christmas trees grown and sold in Ireland were Norwegian spruce, but latterly there has been a greater demand for species that don’t shed needles. For a time, real trees were not as popular as their flashy, reusable plastic alternatives.
“From about the late 1990s until the early 2000s people wanted trees that came with flashing lights and all that stuff,” says Kavanagh. “I think, though, we’ve become more conscious of the environment and buying local. Also, lots of the plastic trees end up in a landfill and will linger there for most of our lives and our children’s lives.”
In order to get his trees looking the way he wants, there are a few tricks of the trade, such as strategic pruning and adding growth hormones to the process. “We have an advantage in that we are 1,000ft up from sea level here, so trees grow nice and slow,” Kavanagh says.
“If they grow too fast we slow them down with growth hormones. We also have a technique in relation to bud-picking where we break off 50 per cent of the bud and this tricks the tree into producing more buds and that gives a fuller tree.”
In recent years there have been stories about Christmas tree scarcities across the EU, particularly since 2009.
Some growers have blamed adverse weather conditions, or poor exchange rates, while at one point a Norwegian fungus was seen to have had an adverse impact on stock levels. The tree scarcity announcements are sometimes made just a few weeks before Christmas, resulting in panic buying by consumers. Is this just a clever marketing strategy by growers or is there a genuine lack of availability across Europe?
“There is a scarcity in Europe at the moment,” says Kavanagh. “I have seen reports that we are short about seven million trees right across the EU this Christmas. Really it is a cyclical thing. When the price dropped a few years ago a lot of farmers got out of the business. You get that a lot in other types of farming also and it changes from year to year.”
So how much should someone expect to pay for a decent Christmas tree and when is the best time to buy it?
“If it is a good retailer then they should have decent trees right up to Christmas Eve. Normally you’re going to be paying somewhere between €40 and €60 for a tree that shouldn’t shed. You’ll always have a few dead needles fall off but generally there shouldn’t be a whole lot.”
The night before we spoke, Kavanagh had got just over an hour’s sleep. He’ll be flat out now before Santa comes, working seven days a week, and generally existing on four to five hours’ sleep a night.
Whereas in decades past trees were sold from the backs of vans or at local markets, the company now runs a very successful online business at kavanaghchristmastrees.ie. So, I’m guessing he has his own tree hand-picked and erected since early December?
“To be honest, I have very little to do with it. My children pick it and I leave it to them. We actually do it late and will be lucky to have it up by about December 20th. We’re more focused on trying to get everyone else’s out first.”