IN THE MEDIA
The Guardian - 16th December, 2011
|The Christmas tree grower: Paul Rose|
| Round the back of a used tyre shop and down a track off the main road lies Paul Rose's vision of Christmas future. First impressions of this overgrown scrubland patch in South Benfleet, Essex, do not exactly invoke feelings of goodwill towards all men. But, having well-advisedly changed into our boots, he leads me determinedly into the tangle of wiry thicket and crackling twigs.
Paul and his wife, Jayne, only bought the land in August but have been working on it since the turn of the year. Exactly why becomes apparent when we arrive at a clearing, illuminated by pale winter sun, filled with pristine rows of tightly-planted, 2ft tall Nordmann fir sapling Christmas trees. Until he can get a proper fence put up, Paul is deliberately leaving the land overgrown as it deters local flytippers, although several abandoned fridge-freezers jut out of the undergrowth like tombstones. On our right is a burnt-out shipping container. "That's going to be my office," he says cheerfully.
This is the Roses' first year of trading for their fledgling business, Forever Green Christmas Trees. Unlike more conventional traders in this market, they have hit upon the idea of growing and renting out living trees to customers in their local area, rather than harvesting and discarding them.
As environmentally friendly ideas go it seems like a brainwave but, understandably, Paul is apprehensive as his first season of sales approaches.
"It's been going OK," he sighs, "a bit slower than I expected, but my main worry was it would explode and we wouldn't be able to cope. I know how to grow trees but marketing and shipping them is a different thing altogether."
Unlike ordinary pot-grown trees, Paul's saplings are grown in special containers with holes in the side, enabling them to be sunk into the ground for most of the year then extracted temporarily during December. Customers pay a flat-rate rental of between £25 and £65 depending on tree size, and also get a delivery and collection service thrown in. "The trees are our living stock," he points out, "so it's in our interests to make sure they're carefully handled."
|Inspiration for the idea came when Paul was offered the opportunity to buy the land and saw in it a chance to escape from a long-term career in electrical contracting, which, he says, was "not going anywhere".
In fact, the land was first offered to him 20 years ago by a local builder, at which point he had neither the money nor the inclination to buy it. "But it came round again and suddenly I thought, what could I do with it? There's planning permission for stables, so we looked at using it for livery and even for industrial hemp, which there is apparently a big demand for. Then, somewhere along the line, we came up with Christmas trees."
A little research around the idea led him to a Scottish company that manufactured the special containers and from there the idea – not to mention the trees – quickly took root.
Although Forever Green's entire revenue is generated around December, plenty of hard graft needs to be put in throughout the year. Since January, Paul has dug out three large willow trees by hand, using a shovel and a one-tonne car winch to drag the debris away.
Then there is the growing season, which begins in spring. Another 200 saplings will arrive in April and once the site is cleared he estimates there will be room for about 3,500 trees.
There has been plenty of learning on the job. Having realised that the unusually dry summer this year had a slowing effect on growth, Paul has made a proper irrigation system for the land a high priority. To further enrich the soil, he has had to drag half a tonne of horse manure through the woods so far, although improvements to road access and the purchase of a digger should make life easier next year.
At that point he should finally be able to start removing the fridge-freezers – I politely decline his offer of a free one – and get to work on clearing the site and renovating the fire-damaged shipping container-office.
Until then, the business will continue to be run from the family home in Grays, which is where the Roses also keep their temporary supply of more mature trees while they wait for the Benfleet planted stock to mature.
"The back garden looks like Narnia at the moment," Paul says, grinning. An overgrown back patch of industrial south Essex it may be, but the festive spirit is alive and well.