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Grow your own Christmas trees

It takes some work and skill, but look at what you get after a few years!
Cindy Stacy has been growing Christmas trees with her husband, Marshall, on their farm in western Maryland for 37 years. It takes eight to 14 years to grow a living room-size evergreen.

It can't be done without diligence, but growing Christmas trees on a few acres is a beautiful way to work with nature and maybe even make a buck. A variety of evergreens from soft-needled white pine to the majestic Douglas fir can be cultivated in soil not suitable for other crops. And talk about environmentally friendly!

Christmas trees provide wildlife habitat and soil stability, and 1 acre of Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Even after they're harvested and used as a fragrant symbol of the holidays, cut trees will decompose quickly if they're chipped and used as mulch.

Sounds like a good idea, right? Stick a few seedlings in the ground and watch them grow. Well, not exactly. But there are plenty of experts available to help you.

"Don't go it alone," says Wayne Thomas, president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association. "Join your state or regional tree association for a wealth of experienced-based knowledge from other tree farmers." The National Christmas Tree Association also includes a large community of Christmas tree professionals sharing information.

"I joined the Maryland association even before I had a tree in the ground," says Fred Clark, a construction engineer, who three years ago began planting 200 trees a year on his acreage. "Our first planting actually looks like Christmas trees now."

You don't have to be a full-time professional grower. Most Christmas trees in the U.S. are being raised by part-timers or property owners who grow trees as a sideline. Here's how to get started.

Analyze and prepare your planting site
Your site will dictate what kinds of trees you can grow. For example, pines can grow on south and west slopes; spruces and firs prefer north and east slopes to take advantage of later bud break for less frost damage. It's best to have a 5% to 20% slope for good air and water drainage. No Christmas tree species can stand wet feet. Have your soil tested before you plant and make adjustments based on site and species. For example, Fraser fir grows best at 3,000- to 5,000-foot elevation on fertile, well-drained soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Then prepare the field similar to a garden: smooth (no stumps or rocks) and with a low-competition cover crop.

Plant seedlings
Successful tree growing starts with quality seedlings, first grown in greenhouses and then put out in transplant beds before final planting in specially prepared fields. Transplants are identified in nursery catalogs by the number of years they've been growing in seed and transplant beds. A 2-2 rating means it spent two years in a seedbed and two years in a transplant; a 2-0 grew two years in a seedbed. Transplants are best for spruce and fir; 2-0 and 3-0 seedlings are best for pine.

Keep the seedlings moist, then hand plant using a shovel or auger to dig the hole. A common problem in hand planting is keeping the tree's roots untangled, so it's helpful to shove the seedling all the way to the bottom of the hole and then lift it back to the proper planting depth. Don't twist or screw a seedling down into the hole because tangled or twisted roots will kill the tree. Once the planting slit or hole is opened, the seedling should be inserted and the slit quickly closed.

Start cultural practices
If you don't already own a good tractor/mower, invest in one for mowing between tree rows. Consult with your local Extension and/or tree associations for the best herbicides to use. For controlling insects and diseases, you can hire an integrated pest management consultant.

The most important cultural practice is shaping the Christmas tree by pruning and shearing. The first year after planting, remove trees' double tops and extremely misshapen branches. After that, when trees are knee-high, annual shearing begins to produce trees that are full and tapered gracefully from top to bottom. If you have just a few trees, you can shear by hand. Pines should be sheared when needles on the new growth are 3/4 to 1 inch long. Spruces and firs, on the other hand, are trimmed after buds become visible on new growth, because you prune back to a bud or branchlet.

Harvest your trees and celebrate Christmas
After eight to 14 years, the trees are ready to cut. It's best to cut them when they're full of moisture - as opposed to after the ground freezes - so needles will stay green and supple when they're displayed indoors. Come Christmas, nothing compares to the scent and beauty of a real tree, especially one you have carefully nurtured.

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