11 DECEMBER 1993, Page 53

Gardens

All spruced up

Ursula Buchan

Ihave expatiated at length in the recent past about how carefully one must consider before cutting down trees in gardens, and that the predisposition should always be to leave them, if possible. But there is one exception to this right and proper proposi- tion — the Norway spruce, a.k.a. Picea abies or, more often, simply the Christmas Tree.

This country contains hundreds of thou- sands of them, not in commercial planta- tions where they belong, but in gardens. The needles are at the same time infuriat- ingly prickly yet irritatingly insubstantial, and the growth (what we gardener johnnies call 'habit') is foreign without being attrac- tive or exotic — the arboreal equivalent of Ostend, in fact.

They are Christmas leftovers as unap- pealing as cold Brussels sprouts and con- gealed turkey gravy. People buy them in December with their roots attached, in the hope that (a) a live tree will not drop nee- dles so quickly and (b) they can plant it out for the next year and save themselves a few quid. I know because I have done it myself.

In fact, torn and shattered roots are not much better at sucking up water than a cut stump. What preserves needles best is leav- ing the buying of a tree until now, acquir- ing it from a British rather than a Continental source, and not bringing it into the warm until the latest moment before the children become apoplectic with frus- tration.

Moreover, as anyone who has ever plant- ed out a Norway spruce after Christmas knows, many turn yellow and die by the fol- lowing July and those that do not grow so leggily and lopsidedly that, when Christmas comes round again, it seems best to go and buy another one anyway. That is why, in gardens up and down the country, there are overgrown Christmas Trees, often unsuitably planted in the front garden or in some drear corner of the vegetable patch, where they grow up to shade the tomatoes.

There is no doubt that Christmas Trees, suitably decorated, can be charming and cheering. However, there are more attrac- tive alternatives, for anyone not entirely hidebound by tradition, which could be bought growing in a pot now and safely planted in the garden after Christmas. Always assuming, that is, that there is space for them to develop properly.

For example, there are pines, like the native Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) and also the Swiss mountain pine, Pinus mugo `Gnom', which only grows to six feet. Firs do not have such scratchy needles or stems: the Korean fir, Abies koreana, also pro- duces lovely grey-blue cones even when small. Those who feel they must have a spruce might consider the rather hand- some, narrowly columnar Serbian spruce, Picea omorika, which has upward-tilting branches, or even the silver-blue spruce (Picea pungens `Glauca'). All of these will act as successful hangers for tinsel and baubles, yet can play their proper part in the garden thereafter. In fact, you could choose anything which is evergreen and has sturdy branches. Some of the loveliest effects can be achieved by decorating a standard bay tree, as Londoners know.

Of course, if you want a cut tree, the best species for retaining their needles are the noble fir, Abies nobilis, and the Nordmann spruce, Picea nordmanniana. The latter also has thicker, less prickly, more attrac- tive needles than the Norway spruce.

It is not just the time of year which brings Christmas Trees to mind. We were, until last week, the not very proud owners of a plantation of some 200 of them situat- ed towards the end of our new garden. They were the neglected remnant of a small enterprise, but had outgrown their usefulness for the local and informal Christmas market. Many were at least 15 feet tall and, after two years of higher than average rainfall and competing weed growth, had become distinctly straggly. It was not difficult to decide to pull them up so that we could plant a small spinney of native broad-leaved trees instead.

It says something for my dislike of the Norway spruce that, when most of ours had been felled, I refused the offer to retain a few small spindly ones, to grow up big and strong out of the shadow of their fallen peers. I could not contemplate having a single one in the garden and happily saw them all disappear into the chipping machine.

Only gardeners will appreciate the full impact of that. They will ignore the ruth- lessness and recognise that I had gained an invaluable asset. Provided that the one- inch chippings are given a few months to dry out and degrade a little, they will make an excellent, long-lasting mulch to put on my borders next year. They are acidic in composition but, on the heavy alkaline clay which it is my lot to try to cultivate, that is a bonus. I do not have to be psychic to foresee a very happy New Year.