Dig It – December tips from the Secret Gardener

trees for sale

If you are in the process of decorating your home, why not choose a potted Christmas tree this year. If you look after it and you decide to plant it in the garden afterwards, you could end up providing a home for a variety of moths.

Fir folklore

Even before Christianity, there is a long tradition of taking greenery into the house at this time of year. Plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. The Ancient Egyptians were part of a long line of cultures that treasured evergreens. When the winter solstice (the shortest day and longest night of the year) arrived they filled their homes with green palm rushes which symbolized the triumph of life over death. Early Romans marked the solstice with a festival called Saturnalia in honour of Saturn, the god of agriculture. They decorated their houses with evergreens and lights. Late in the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians placed decorated evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring.

Christmas treeThere are many stories which tell how the fir tree became a special part of Christmas. In the 8th century, St Boniface, an English monk, was sent to be a missionary in Germany. He is said to have come across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. To save the boy, St. Boniface cut down the oak tree and then noticed a small fir tree growing amongst its roots. As its branches pointed to heaven he declared it a symbol of the Christ child, who pointed us to God. Its evergreen nature was a symbol of everlasting life.

Another legend is that Martin Luther - the German, 16th century, Protestant reformer - first added lighted candles to a tree in his house after being inspired by brilliant stars twinkling through evergreens while walking home one night. It reminded him of Jesus, who left heaven to come to earth at Christmas.

In 1841, the German Prince Albert arranged for the first Christmas tree to come to Britain for Queen Victoria and his children, as he had been used to them in his childhood. After that, they became very popular.

It was thought be a bad omen to bring evergreens into the house before Christmas Eve or to leave them up after 6 January, but nowadays people decorate much earlier.

Types of Christmas tree

There are several types of conifer - pine, spruce and fir - that can be brought indoors, including:

  • Scot’s Pine Pinus sylvestris
  • Norway Spruce Picea abies, Blue Spruce Picea pungens Glauca group,
  • Nordmann Fir Abies nordmanniana, Fraser Fir Abies fraseri, Noble Fir Abies procera, Douglas Fir Pseudotsuga menziesii

The traditional British Christmas tree is the Norway Spruce. The Blue Spruce has an attractive colour but it is prickly. The Scot’s Pine is native to the UK. Trees vary in how likely they are to drop their needles, with the bestselling ‘non-drop’ tree being the Nordmann Fir.

Most are available as cut trees but they are also available in containers. Those which have been grown in a container, last longer than containerised trees, which have been grown in the ground and then put into a pot. Try to choose a tree that has been grown locally, but at least in the UK rather than abroad.

How to care for a potted Christmas tree

If you want your tree to thrive outside in the new year, then you need to bring it inside as late as possible before Christmas and keep it well watered and in a cool room. After the festive season, harden it off by putting it outside during the day and bringing it in at night for a while.  

You can plant it in the garden, once the ground is free from frost, but don’t forget that some trees such as the Norway Spruce can grow to a height of 25m. If you keep it in a container then the growth will be limited.

Moths of Christmas trees

Spruce Carpet CaterpillarScot’s Pine and Norway Spruce between them can support around 20 species of larger moths. Species you might get in your garden include the Spruce Carpet, Grey Pine Carpet and Pine Hawk-moth.

The Spruce Carpet is found throughout the UK, though less common in Scotland and Ireland.

The caterpillars feed over the winter on many coniferous trees including Norway Spruce, Scot’s Pine and Douglas Fir. Adults fly twice a year – from May to July and September to November.

The Grey Pine Carpet is fairly common throughout Britain and Ireland. The caterpillars feed over the winter mainly on pine and spruce but sometimes other conifers. Adults fly at the same time as the Spruce Carpet.

The Pine Hawk-moth is found in the south and east of Britain. The adults fly in May to early August and caterpillars feed on the needles of Scot’s Pine in June to mid-September.

Let me know how you get on with giving moths a home in your Christmas tree.

Happy Christmas!

The Secret Gardener