A Christmas Tree farmer’s year in review
By Patrick White
Walking through a large chain store this past October – at least a week before Halloween – I stumbled upon a display of decorations. Not witches and pumpkins, but trees and bells. There’s no question that retailers are intent on pushing the start of the Christmas season earlier and earlier, but we Christmas tree growers still have them beat; for us, it’s a nearly year-round endeavor.
Spring is one of the busiest times on a Christmas tree farm, yet it sometimes requires an agonizingly long wait before work can get started. It can take weeks of warmer weather to thaw the soil enough to plant the next rotation of trees.
Large tree farms often use planting machines pulled by tractors. Hand-planting – using either a special spade or motorized auger – is much slower, but it’s the method that we and many other farms rely on because we are interplanting among larger trees (in spaces where trees were cut the prior season) which prevent a tractor from passing through.
In late spring, the hillsides seem to come back to life with the growth of new leaves on deciduous trees. Harder to spot in the distance is the new growth of evergreens. But most Christmas tree growers are out in their fields at this time of year, carefully monitoring their trees as the buds on the end of each branch redden and swell and finally “break” to allow new tender shoots to emerge. The process is a marvel to observe, and sometimes it’s possible to see progress hour to hour on a warm spring day. Trees are particularly vulnerable at this time of year; once bud break occurs, a late frost can kill off any new growth, effectively stunting the tree for a year.
In late June, it’s time to begin the process of shearing (shaping) each tree. It’s a tough chore, usually done manually by swinging a long, sharp knife at an angle to create the traditional conical Christmas tree shape. Hand pruners are used to eliminate double (or triple) leaders at the top of the tree. Birds love to land on these tall tops, which causes many to break off while still tender. That’s why many growers wait until the new growth has completely hardened before selecting the best top and cutting out the others.
Another summer job is mowing between the rows of trees; the goal is to keep grass and weeds from overtaking the trees, as well as to help promote air circulation which can reduce the risks of some needle diseases, and to make it easier to walk and work in the field. I hold off as long as possible on my first mowing each year in order to allow bobolinks and other grassland birds time to nest. There are others using the tall grass, too: One year I was mowing when something ahead caught my eye and caused me to slam on the brakes: a young fawn was lying almost completely hidden from view!
It was yet another reminder that we’re not alone in calling this farm our home. Nearly every time I walk through the trees I have some sort of wildlife interaction: deer grazing, turkeys marching, songbirds nesting, butterflies, foxes, rabbits, moles, even the occasional turtle.
Fall usually means finishing up the shearing that was begun in early summer. It’s the most pleasant time of the year to work, with none of summer’s salty sweat running into my eyes. In the fall I find I’m more apt to take breaks and just sit to look: at the trees I’ve been shaping for months, at the colors beginning to change on hillsides in the distance, at the crickets and grasshoppers that seem to cover every inch of the field.
Late fall brings a whole new look to the farm. I’m not sure why, but once the first hard frost hits, the trees seem to turn at least one shade darker green. That’s when I know it’s time to turn some attention to the logistics of selling trees (ordering hot chocolate, placing advertisements, setting up the parking area, decorating wreaths). Every year, we are fortunate to be visited by hundreds of eager families, all searching for their perfect tree. Little do most of them realize all the activity that takes place here the rest of the year, long before Bing Crosby and Burl Ives take over the radio airwaves.
Patrick White is assistant editor of Northern Woodlands magazine and operates Meadow Ridge Farm in Middlesex, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: firstname.lastname@example.org