Few Christmas decorations can top the Christmas tree. At this time of year, it is usually the focal point that brings families together. There is just something about the twinkling lights and the warm glow that speaks for the season.
As with everything, manufacturers strive every year to make a better fake tree. Artificial trees are shaped with perfect branches that make the real deal look like Charlie Brown trees; they are pre-lit and are even scented with evergreen. They are flawless. Even so, I have fond memories of cutting down a tree from the woodlot and decorating it with strings of popcorn, pinecones, and homemade ornaments. That is still my favorite kind of tree.
Apparently, many other folks prefer the real deal, too, because Christmas tree farms are thriving. Growing evergreens is an ideal either project for either spare time or full time. One of the biggest attractions of this type of farming is the small amount of work it actually takes.
According to the American Christmas Tree Association, the average price for a tree at a U-cut lot was 46 dollars last year. The costs for growing are mostly labor for mowing, weed control, and trimming. This means that small growers can keep most of their profits.
I was lucky enough to talk to one of these small growers. Gordon McPherson of Ellsworth, Michigan has been growing evergreens for 40 years, ever since he and his wife, Phyllis, started the business. “It has been good to us,” he says with a smile.
He has 20 acres of trees, but also sells centerpieces, wreaths, and garland. However, it is the trees that bring him joy. “You have to be diversified, but I like the trees. Families come in and cut their own. It is fun to watch them search for just the right one.”
There are as many arguments as to what is the best variety of tree. “To each their own,” Gordon explains, “but my favorite is the Frazier fir. I just think it makes the best tree.”
The top three most popular are Balsam fir, Douglas fir, and Scotch pine. The Balsam fir has a natural cone shape and likes the colder winters and cooler summers of the eastern United States. The Douglas fir also has a natural cone shape, holds its needles well after cutting, and is mostly grown in the northwest because it is attracted to the milder growing climate. The Scotch pine is a little fussier. It is a fast grower in a wide range of soils and climates and has a deep tap root, making it more drought-tolerant. However, it does require regular shearing.
Gordon knows the Scotch pine very well. “We start in June and trim them all by hand to get the classic Christmas tree shape.”
His other two big jobs are spraying the trees and planting new seedlings. He sprays twice a year, spring and fall. However, three years ago his pest problem was a little larger in size. Deer were dining on his favorite, the Frazier fir, and he had to put fence up to keep them out.
Normally 1000 trees are cut each year on his farm, and he replants a 1000. It’s all about balance; by planting a portion of the acreage with new trees each year, the farm will provide a steady income as the trees mature in roughly eight years to a height of five to seven feet. As a general rule, most growers plant 1/8 of their acreage — or 200 trees per acre — each year. With each tree given five feet of space on all sides to allow for plenty of sunlight, each acre can sustain 1500 trees. Some acreage is lost because after every 12 to 15 rows space is left for loading and access roads.
Some tree farmers practice stump culture, which is a very old, practical way of growing trees. With this method, trees are cut above several tiers of branches, which keep the stumps alive. The following year, the stump puts out thousands of sprouts; the chosen ones are cut and the rest promote re-forestation. With this method using the established root system, trees grow quickly and are less susceptible to drought. It also saves labor, as there is no need to plant seedlings or to mow between the rows.
Whatever method is used, growing Christmas trees is a win/win venture. They are excellent for erosion control, plus the trees provide a wildlife habitat and improve the environment. “We also get a little Christmas all year round,” Gordon says with a chuckle.
There are many legends surrounding the Christmas tree and how it became such a prevalent part of our Christmas celebrations. The story goes that Martin Luther, a 16th-century German preacher, was walking through the woods one evening and saw the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful that he went home and told his kids that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth. So he decided to bring some of that beauty inside his home by bringing a tree inside and decorating it with candles.
That is how it should be, I think. There is nothing wrong with artificial trees; everything has its place, and they do not shed needles inside. But I know the secret that Gordon and all the other Christmas tree farmers know: There is nothing like the real thing. So that little metal tree that sits in the basement most of the year and I will soon part company. I am going for the small, potted tree that will give us joy throughout the holiday season inside, and then for many years to come it will find a home in our yard. Its branches won’t be uniform, and it will not be a perfect tree except to me. Nature teaches us that “perfect” comes in a lot of different forms. That’s close enough for me. I want the real deal.