Growing Christmas trees
Have you ever thought of starting your own tree farm? I’m not talking about growing just any trees; I’m talking about Christmas trees. It’s actually easier than you might think, and startup costs are relatively low. Although you can begin with a plot of land as small as you’d like, I recommend a minimum of a quarter acre, so you have room to rotate your crop as the trees are harvested — and you’ll always have trees maturing for the following year.
The tools you need at the very minimum include a spade for planting, a bow saw for harvesting, and pruning snips. After you are in the business for a couple of years and have quite a few trees, you may want to upgrade to a tree planting bar and a Christmas tree knife or hedge clippers for pruning, but start out small and see how things work out before you invest in the more expensive tools.
The first step in getting started is to find a suitable location to plant your trees — rolling terrain is OK, but flat ground is best. You will need well-drained soil with a somewhat neutral pH balance, and fertilizer may be needed if you’re planting on a poor site — when in doubt, pull a soil sample and have it analyzed.
Next, you’ll need to decide on your tree farm’s layout, and from that calculate how many trees you will be able to grow. Planting on a 6-by-6-foot grid allows plenty of room for the trees to grow, and also provides you with plenty of working room between them. Some growers plant on 8- or 9-foot centers as determined by the width of their mowing and spraying equipment. For the sake of this article, based on planting on 6-foot centers, you could plant 302 trees, give or take. Depending on the tree species, you can expect them to grow between 6 inches and 1 foot per year. A tree intended to mature at 6 feet will take six to 12 years to do so. In order to have a harvest every year, you will need to plant only a proportion of the trees each year; if you choose a species that will grow only 6 inches per year, planting about 25 trees each year will keep you in business. Many species are suited for Christmas trees, including pine, fir and spruce. I suggest starting with a couple of varieties to see which work best for you and your soil. Personally, I love white pine and the ease of working with them.
Once your farm is laid out and marked, it’s time to begin planting — when the soils are cool and the trees are dormant is best. Source your seedlings well ahead of time, and they’ll be shipped at the proper planting time. Many private and state-operated nurseries typically sell seedlings in batches of 25 or more. In my area, the cost generally starts around $1 per tree — and decreases the more you buy.
The manner in which you will lay out your rows for planting will depend on how precise you want to be. I know the length of my paces, so I use that to measure my rows. However, if you want to be a little more exact, you can certainly use a tape measure. Plant the first tree 3 feet from your boundary, then continue planting another tree every 6 feet.
Planting is one of the easiest parts of growing Christmas trees due to the fact that the seedling trees are so small. Be sure the planting holes have adequate room for the root system, but don’t waste time making them extremely large. The hard part comes after the trees are in the ground.
If you live in an area where deer are abundant, you may have to take precautions to keep your new plants safe. Several options are available, so choose whatever works best for you. One option is to spray your trees with a strong solution of water and dish detergent; deer don’t like the taste. While this is an inexpensive option, it’s also labor intensive because the solution will need to be reapplied at minimum after every rain. A better, but also more expensive, solution is to install tree guards around each tree. Uncontrolled deer browsing can cause your trees to grow irregularly and not maintain the appearance you want, or in some cases it can even completely kill them, so protecting your young stock is essential in areas with an abundance of deer. Protective sleeves also make the trees more visible while you mow around them.
Although mowing can be biweekly through the growing season, there are herbicides on the market that can be mixed to a concentration level that will only kill grass, and will not harm the conifer trees at all. Using pesticides is a personal decision based on safety and health, as well as on added costs for chemicals versus the added labor of mowing. Check with your local agricultural extension service or state forester’s office to see what blights and insects could be a problem for certain species in your area. In most cases, the use of pesticides can be avoided simply by planting species that are not as susceptible to local infestations.
Maintaining the farm
Every year requires planting of new trees and pruning the existing trees. Christmas trees need pruned in midsummer when the foliage is at its fullest to better shape the tree. Start pruning at the top and work your way down the tree. The first cut is made on the single upright branch atop the tree — this is referred to as the central leader. Conifers grow with each year’s branches in a whirl pattern around the trunk of the tree, and the point you select to trim the central leader to will determine where the following year’s branches will whirl out from. The shorter you trim the central leader, the thicker the tree’s foliage will be; it is typically trimmed to around 6 inches to 1 foot in length, depending on the species. Once the first cut is made, everything else is based on what shape you want your trees to be — tall and slender, short and plump, or anything in between. You will most likely learn quickly what your customers demand most.
Take care not to cut the lateral branches behind all the needle growth of a particular limb to reduce the chance of that limb dying back. You can snip each branch individually with hand pruners, or you can use a knife to slice through several at a time. If using a knife, be sure to wear leg guards to protect yourself. Take it slow on the first few trees you shape, and take frequent breaks to step back and be sure you are happy with the shape it is taking. As the years pass and you prune more and more trees, the process will become second nature.
After six to 12 years of planting and pruning, it will finally be time to reap your rewards. There are several options for marketing your harvested product. You can let folks pick and cut their own tree, you can cut them yourself and sell them wholesale to a supplier, or you can open your own tree lot. The main consideration is the flow of traffic and the amount of customers you will be able to attract. If you are near a busy roadway, the “pick and cut your own” sign is a great bet, just be sure to have a couple of bow saws handy to loan out to your customers — and take care that your liability insurance policy has you covered.
After the initial six to 12 years it takes to produce mature trees, you should have 25 to 50 trees per year to sell. Sell those trees for an average price of $25 each (some places charge in the neighborhood of $60 to $80 for larger trees), and you will have a nice bonus for the holidays — just think of the possibilities for a full acre or more.
Need to prune the tree? Learn which basic pruning tools to have on hand in Guide to Basic Pruning Tools.
Ronnie Ashmore is a lifelong resident of southern West Virginia, where he enjoys spending as much time outdoors as possible, whether for work or play. While he has dabbled in raising chickens and rabbits, honeybees have become his biggest interest over the past few years.