Keng Tan, the Christmas Tree man, demonstrates the unusual way he prunes his Christmas trees – with a samurai sword!

Keng Tan, the Christmas Tree man, demonstrates the unusual way he prunes his Christmas trees – with a samurai sword! Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Christmas is a big deal in our home, so, earlier this month when it was decided that the relatives would be pulling bon bons at our house this year, Mrs Yowie Man decided an extra effort had to be made.

The first casualty of our pre- Christmas spruce-up was the dilapidated old plastic tree that for most of the year props up cobwebs in the attic. This year, it was to be replaced by a real Christmas tree.

Now, this presented a significant challenge for me. Not because the plastic tree was a sentimental heirloom (although I’ve still got the Kmart box it came in if anyone wants it), and not because I’m averse to the distinctive aroma of freshly cut pine, rather because I am prone to excessive bouts of procrastination.

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What tree should I choose? To make matters worse, the relatives are from the United States, where the real Christmas tree is a much bigger tradition than here in Australia. In fact, for some Americans, having the best-decorated tree is almost as big as Christmas itself, So last weekend, armed with an explicit brief to bring back a tree ‘‘that everyone would be impressed by’’, I made the short journey up the Federal Highway to Keng’s Christmas Tree Farm at Bywong.

I’d read that Keng’s supplies the trees for many of Canberra’s more prestigious customers, including Parliament House. If the trees at this place were good enough for Julia and Tony to stick their presents under then surely it would meet the approval of the most discerning of relatives?

As I pull up at the farm gate, I’m met by the likeable owner, Keng Tan. Wanting to make sure I’m well versed in the history of any tree I choose here (a good Christmas lunch topic to impress the in-laws) I enthusiastically enquire about the origins of Keng’s trees. It’s soon obvious that Keng knows his trees.

Regular customers reserve their favourite tree sometimes, months out from Christmas, by placing distinctive ribbons over it.

Regular customers reserve their favourite tree sometimes, months out from Christmas, by placing distinctive ribbons over it. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

‘‘I’ve chosen the provenances that are best suited for Christmas trees,’’ explains the now retired public servant, whose career included a lengthy stint at CSIRO Forestry. I further quiz Keng as to what makes a good tree. ‘‘Both colour and shape,’’ he replies before claiming, with a smirk on his face, that he hand prunes and shapes each tree with ... a samurai sword!

‘‘It’s a tribute to my maternal grandmother who is Japanese and has one of the 36 samurai surnames (hers being Kato),’’ deadpans Keng.

He continues to entertain me with stories about the farm’s origins. ‘‘Nine years ago, I stocked my three dams with 400 Murray cod, 200 golden perch and 100 silver perch and planted thousands of pines trees,’’ Keng says.

Decorations in Bywong's (near Canberra) Christmas Tree Cottage

Decorations in Bywong's (near Canberra) Christmas Tree Cottage Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

‘‘My retirement plan was to spend my days catching fish and watching the trees go.’’ Keng’s piscatorial prowess hasn’t proved too successful, confessing that he has only caught two fish from his dams.

‘‘Can you believe that! Only two fish out of all those fish,’’ he mutters, shaking his head in disbelief, just as a cormorant with a suspiciously large belly dives into one of his dams.

As for the trees? Well they’ve done a lot better, and despite the prolonged drought, recent rains have his current stock of about 5000 trees looking in good nick.

But which one to chose? And what colour stand should I buy to complement the tree? Red? Or green? There’s too much choice.

By now, it’s 4pm and Keng has other (less demanding) customers to deal with. He hands me a handsaw (you get to cut your own tree here if you like) and wishes me luck. I head off, wandering aimlessly through the trees, saw at the ready,

Will that one be okay, will that one look better? I can’t decide. Each tree I look at is either too small, too tall, or is too bushy,

Will Sarah (my three-year-old) like it? What about the mother-in-law – she needs to reach the top of the tree to put the angel on. That one looks nice, but will it fit all the decorations?

After three hours and with the rain pouring down again, I trudge back, empty-handed, to the gate.

Sensing my predicament, Keng explains that, ‘‘some customers take just a minute or two to choose a tree and then they’re off, whereas others make a trip of it, bring a picnic and the whole family walk around the farm before deciding which tree they want.’’ I explain to Keng that I must return with ‘‘a tree to impress’’ and almost as a joke, he responds by pointing towards the gatehouse that he and his wife run as a farm stay.

Under the circumstances, it’s an offer I can’t refuse.

‘‘We have many tourists who stay in our Christmas Tree Cottage, but you are the only person who has stayed here while trying to decide on a tree,’’ teases Keng as he hands me the keys for the night. Ten minutes later, sitting on the deck watching the rain tumble over the trees, I eventually conjure up know that my tree-buying exercise is going to take, well, a little longer than I thought.

Not surprisingly, I’m delivered an ultimatum – ‘‘be home by 8am with a tree, or not at all.’’ It’s almost dark now; I grab my torch (usually reserved for more professional nocturnal pursuits such as animal spotlighting) and Driza-Bone and creep through the head-high stands of radiate.

The light reflects off tiny droplets of water on the tips of the pine needles – twinkling, almost as if they are fairy lights. Finally, at around 9.30pm I find the perfect tree. It ticks all the boxes. I gleefully mark it with some ribbons so to easily identify it next morning and scurry back to the cottage.

To the sound of rain tumbling on the roof I try to sleep.

Normally this would be a comforting sound, but it merely adds to my procrastination-induced insomnia as I toss and turn, still wondering if I’ve chosen the right tree.

In the morning, still wiping sleep from my eyes (I did eventually catch a few hours, although I did have a dream that Keng overzealously pruned my tree in the dead of the night), I make a dash to the tree I’d marked the evening before.

Phew! It’s still there.

The rain hasn’t affected it, and more importantly Keng hasn’t taken to it in some secret midnight samurai pruning rage. In fact it looks just as it did last night. Just perfect.

With 8am fast approaching, I pull out the saw and hack away at its trunk and with a triumphant thud it crashes into the grass.

Yippee, I’ve done it! I load it up in the back of my Jeep and finally, about 16 hours after first arriving, head for home. Just as I cross the border, I realise I’ve forgotten to buy a stand for the tree. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be given the job of going back for it.

FACT FILE

Keng’s Christmas Tree Farm: 242 Shingle Hill Way, Bywong (about 20 minutes north of Civic). Phone: 6236 9689. For directions: www.christmastreekeng.com.au Trees $50 each (no EFTPOS) and stands are $35 (green) and $45 (red). Open 9am – 5pm weekends, and 10am – 6pm weekdays.

Christmas Tree Cottage: Self-contained accommodation for up to eight people. From $200 per night (cheaper rates available if you are stranded looking for that perfect tree and just after a bed for the night!).

Keng’s tip: To keep your tree fresh, cut into the base of the trunk and keep the water level in your stand above the fresh cuts. If the water level falls below these cuts, a seal of sap will form, preventing the tree from absorbing water, If this happens make another cut.

Did You Know?

  • One hectare of Christmas Trees produces the daily oxygen requirements of about 30 people.
  • The world’s biggest Christmas tree is in Rio de Janeiro. It is 82m tall and decorated with over 2.8 million colourful bulbs.
  • An average Christmas Tree will absorb about 4 litres of water in the first 24 hours after being cut, and about 1 litre each day after that.

Please note: This is an updated version of a story that first appeared in hard copy-only in The Canberra Times in December 2010.