Sam Lyle is the co-founder of Pines and Needles, purveyor of Christmas trees to the stars. Here he shares his dos and don’ts of buying a tree.

Sam Lyle, and his brother Josh, were just teenagers when their dad gave them a patch of land in Scotland to muck about with. As gifts go, it would prove transformative; together, back in the mid-1990s, they began by growing a few Christmas trees as an experiment. Fast forward 24 years, and their business, the superbly named Pines and Needles, grows, delivers and even dresses Christmas trees for a host of A-listers (Harry and Meghan are said to be fans), among, of course, many thousands of others.

We grabbed a few minutes with Sam at his busiest time of the year to grill him on all our big burning Christmas tree questions. Here, he explains what to look for, why looks should trump size, and how, when it comes to decorating, two heads are always, always better than one.

It’s the time of year when people start to think about making the house look festive. As leading purveyors of the all-important tree, what tips can you share for choosing the perfect Christmas centrepiece?

I know a lot of people dread Christmas when they hear the first strains of Noddy Holder in October, but now it's December you really are allowed to celebrate. And it all starts with the tree – it's the epicentre of all your festive celebrations so it's important to get it right. First and foremost, choosing a tree should be something for all the family, so whether you go with your children or nieces and nephews, or godchildren – or even your parents – make the most of the time together. Of course, that doesn't mean you'll all agree, but that's half the fun. We always say you should look for a handsome tree with good proportions; avoid the temptation to wedge a giant tree into a humble living room and, instead, go for looks over size. Our star-seller is the 6ft Nordmann Fir. It’s the perfect kind of bushy and not too tall to dominate the room.

There are, of course, a number of different types of tree. Can you tell us what characterises each?

We sell three varieties of tree, all grown on our plantations in Scotland: Nordmann Fir, Norway Spruce and Fraser Fir, all of which are the perfect addition to any home. Every one of our trees comes in sizes from 3ft-12ft so they can work in rooms of all proportions.

The Nordmann Fir is the king of the trees because it's hardy and packed with character. Its needles will stay attached throughout the festive season (as long as you don't stick it next to a radiator) and it will attract admiring glances from all your yuletide visitors. The Norway Spruce is the epitome of a traditional tree with a shape and scent to die for... think Christmas in the 1980s; it’s a tree with a better silhouette but less density. Finally, we have our Fraser Fir, whose dark blue-green foliage has a trimmer yet more distinctive shape when compared to our other trees. We grow these in pots because they look great and stay fresh throughout the season and are well known for their needle retention and rich orangey scent.

Can you outline the Pines and Needles story – you started out with your brother Josh when you were very young, didn’t you?

Yes, we started our Pines and Needles journey when we were just 15. It's a long time ago now! Dad had given us a patch of land to ‘do something with’, so my brother Josh and I decided it would be ideal to grow Christmas trees. We started selling them outside our older brother’s launderette in London and now we are one of the biggest Christmas tree companies in Britain.

Tell us how the business then grew to become one of the foremost in the capital – and beyond?

With lots of hard work! It's a pretty crazy business to be in. We start planning in March and run right the way through to the end of January before we take February off to reboot. There are about four or five staff through the off-season and then we grow to more than 300 in the thick of the festive season. It's wonderfully busy but we love it.

What have been our standout memories over the past 24 years since you began?

I’d say every time we open a store is a great experience, however we really love giving at this time of year. We've raised thousands of pounds for Action for Children and our sister company, The Christmas Forest, has planted nearly 300,000 trees in Africa. For the past two years we’ve worked with Human-Resource Development and Language Foundation (HDLF) and provided full-time scholarships for two students to receive their degrees. We hope to provide many more students with the same opportunity in the years to come.

Christmas is a time with so many attendant trends and traditions. Can you tell us your top five quirkiest ones?

I’ve certainly seen a few trends come and go but I’ll just give you a few.

1. Putting a crown on top instead of a star. This is one I’ve seen more and more over the years. Lots of people are over the traditional angels and stars and want to add a little royal flair to their decorations. It definitely made more sense when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle bought their tree from us!

2. Unusual decorations. I’ve seen so many unusual decorations this year, from glittery avocados to ceramic French fries – it seems like the funkier the better this year. I do like a more traditional outlook personally, but it's fun to see trees getting designed in the same way our homes do.

3. Double the fun! We’ve had a spike in families ordering not just one but two Christmas trees for their home. It’s a great idea I think as it allows kids to have some creativity with their decorations, while the grown-ups get a less chaotic version.

4. Presents after The Queen's speech. We used to have some family friends who were so traditional they made their children wait until after The Queen's speech before opening their presents. It must have been torture. I'm lucky if my daughter waits until 6am!

5. Brussels sprouts. This has to be one Christmas tradition that deserves to go up the chimney in a puff of smoke. Why anyone wants either the smell or the taste of a Brussels sprout on Christmas Day is beyond me.

You also dress trees for those who want the full service. Can you share any golden rules of decorating?

Of course! Firstly, it may sound obvious, but when it comes to decorating two people are better than one. Lights go on first and it's great if one person can feed them to the other as they wind it round and round, starting at?the?bottom. Embed the lights in?the lush greenery and then move out as you go up, ensuring an even spread. Then when decorating your tree, it is all about textures and layering no matter which theme you choose.

Decide on which of your decorations you would like to be featured most prominently and place those first (those tend to be the largest or most detailed) and then use those as a basis to dress your tree, using your most small simple decks as ‘fillers’. Tinsel has been dying out for a while but ribbon is en?vogue. Do go horizontally?rather than at an angle - it's a much cleaner look.

Last but not least is the tree topper. Whether it’s a beautifully ornate star or a cherished angel made by a child, ceremonially placing it atop the tree is one of the most satisfying ways to signal the official start of the festive period.

How will you be decorating your tree for 2019?

I think this we’ll be going for the classic, traditional look, which is rich in style and texture but remaining effortlessly stylish at the same time. I’m thinking deep red velvets, gold glass, some ribbons and we’ve got some great decorations we’ve collected over the years. Some say pink is the look of the year but I quite like digging out the old decs and getting that pang of nostalgia when unwrapping them from their tissue.

And how will you be spending Christmas?

It's always pretty frantic as we sell trees right up until Christmas Day and then we start collecting them with our recycling service from the 27th. No rest for the wicked! However, I will take some time to spend time with my daughter Sophia and see my brother Josh and his family for Christmas dinner. A long holiday beckons in February and then we'll be raring to go once again in March 2020!


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By Nancy Alsop
December 2019