Christmas trees are traditionally adorned with decorative baubles, sparkly tinsel and fairy lights, but nestled amongst the branches of one of the radiata pines on an expansive Rutherglen rural property is a baby bird that’s just hatched.
It took Rutherglen Christmas Trees owner Neil Hewitt several weeks to trawl the paddocks and select his own family’s tree for this year’s festive season, and just before he was about to saw the trunk to place the 7-foot sized tree in his own home, he spotted the nest, and then opted to leave the beautiful birds to grow, and begin the task of choosing a different one.
He says whilst the process to carefully select a tree can be challenging with some families pondering over the sizes and shapes, others decide on their tree in a matter of minutes, it’s certainly a process he is passionate about, from adults aged across three generations, to a child who is experiencing the magic of the festive season, get excited over his farm.
Rutherglen Christmas Trees has grown significantly since the first seedlings were planted in 2009, and more than 5000 trees are now sprawled across a number of paddocks at the 37-acre property, bordering what is a beautiful timber two-storey country cottage that is Neil’s home, perhaps most reminiscent of a country winter wonderland Christmas scene in the northern hemisphere, rather than one fitting with our hot Australian summer.
“The paddocks were quite bare here and I eventually saw it as a good way of using a small acreage. The idea just clicked because it doesn’t tie me to the property 24/7, the bulk of work is done before Christmas, it’s not like having animals where you have to look after them, and of course, it’s really different for the area,” Neil says.
“We are now in our fourth year and are really pleased with its continued growth. In the first year, no one really knew we were offering the service but we still sold 30 trees, then it grew over the next two years to 160, and this year, through various families sharing their experience on social media, we will exceed that, having sold more than 100 trees in just one weekend.”
The pine trees originate from the Hancock plantations in Victoria, are taken from seedlings from a nursery in Gippsland, before being re-planted on the Rutherglen property. It takes between four and six years for the trees to mature and reach the popular Christmas tree heights of between 5 and 8 foot.
“It’s funny, people who do come in find it hard to resist the larger trees. This year we are seeing a lot more trees around the 7-foot height, but it all depends on the space in individual homes and ceiling heights. It’s always interesting to see the ways our customers try to squash them into their vehicles too…”
“We had a young American girl come in and tell us about a friend of hers who traditionally buys a 20-foot sized tree and they need to place decorations using a large pole. We haven’t had that demand yet…”
Customers visit the Christmas tree farm, a unique offering for southern NSW/northern Victoria, from as far as the Albury/Wodonga region, Tocumwal, Berrigan, Bright, Myrtleford, Benalla, Corowa and Yarrawonga, otherwise buying their real trees from Melbourne suppliers, or those in the region that have originated from that area.
“They’re cut a day earlier and because they have to be transported they aren’t as fresh, so they don’t have that distinct scent, and of course don’t last as long,” Neil explains, also mentioning that whilst he’s had some offers to sell wholesale, he relishes seeing customers during their festive tradition, enjoying having people visit the farm.
Neil says the plants themselves are relatively low maintenance, however he spent time in the early days visiting other Christmas tree farms and has consulted with various sources on pruning and shaping the trees.
“Because we re-plant seedlings where other trees have been taken, the trees will need additional watering during summer. The average rainfall in this Rutherglen area is around 600mm, and it is recommended the trees receive 700mm of water. We have irrigation systems with water from the bore and dams here. It was a particularly wet winter this year so some of the trees did suffer in those lower lying areas but they’ve all come back from those conditions reasonably well,” Neil explains.
“We try and promote sustainability and I did try and regrow a tree off the same stump, but with the hot summers, it’s very difficult. There was nothing in these paddocks here before, and now there’s several trees sequestering those carbon emissions and providing a wonderful habitat for bird species.”
And what are Neil’s top tips to ensuring your tree will withstand the festive season?
“Once we’ve cut them down we pack the end with wet newspaper and wrap the end. The secret to keeping a tree healthy for four to six weeks is to keep the water up to it, cut the bottom off the trunk and put it straight into water into a purpose-built stand or a large bucket filled with stones or other weights,” he says. “The plants take quite a bit of water in the first week, but when the trunk is cut off, it re-opens the pores. If they are sealed off quite quickly after cutting the tree down, they can die off rather quickly.
After another successful festive season, Neil is looking ahead to further expansion of his unique farming enterprise.
“We are considering wrapping machines for next year, a specialised Christmas shop and a new entrance. We also eventually hope to do deliveries. I’ve got a 1948 Austin truck I’d like to restore, and of course, they’ll be plenty more planting happening over the winter/summer months.”
Words & Pictures: Rosie O’Keeffe