- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Christmas tree shoppers need only wait until the end of November for that perfect tree. Local roadside stands, retail stores and Christmas tree farms have plenty of trees just waiting for a home of their own.

For those who grow the Scotch pines, Douglas firs and blue spruces that brighten the holidays, however, the wait for perfect trees is much longer, typically between five and eight years. It takes that long for a Christmas tree seedling to mature into a marketable tree.

Growing trees for Christmas takes patience, hard work and a little help from Mother Nature. The St. Louis-based National Christmas Tree Association says this season has had no major weather disruptions, which will positively impact the final sales figures. The group says 35 percent of tree-buying consumers this year will buy their live trees at Christmas tree farms, while 59 percent will opt for pre-cut trees from a retail lot or chain store.

According to a national survey released last month by the Reston-based market research firm Wirthlin Worldwide, about 25 percent of U.S. households reported they planned to purchase a real Christmas tree this season.

Wade Butler, part owner of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, says tree farmers have to dodge both extreme weather and the animal kingdom to reap a full harvest.

“Too much rainfall can be a problem,” Mr. Butler says, but so, too, can wintry weather. “Folks in New England [several years ago] had an ice storm that broke a lot of limbs,” he says.

Locally, deer can eat some tree branches or use the branches to rub the velvet off their antlers, causing further damage.

“The trees are small, and they’ll break the limbs off on one side,” he says.

When Mr. Butler buys a seedling, it typically has been grown for two years inside a greenhouse and then for two more years in an outdoor liner. Then it’s ready to strike out on its own.

“We’ll plant them in the spring as early as we can, before it’s hot,” he says of the seedlings, which stand 12 to 18 inches tall.

Many farms set aside some land for experimentation, he says. His farm, for example, has been toying with Canaan firs for years. The trees tend to be tougher than other Christmas trees, able to withstand droughts better and thrive in less than ideal conditions. He planted 300 Canaan firs in 1994, and the farm has some in the sellable 6- to 8-foot range. Butler’s Orchard since has planted more seedlings, but won’t know for years how they’ll turn out.

Trees typically grow about a foot a year, so if a tree isn’t cut down this season, it still has a year or two more before it gets too big for most homes.

According to the University of Illinois Extension in Chicago, more than 2,000 trees are planted per acre on the average Christmas tree farm. Of that, between 1,000 and 1,500 survive. Those figures drop to around 750 trees in northern climates. Each year, 34 million to 36 million Christmas trees are produced and ready for cutting.

Each of the more popular Christmas tree species has its own characteristics to separate it from the rest.

The Douglas fir offers a strong fragrance and lush blue-green needles that only get more aromatic when crushed. Fraser firs grow darker green needles with branches that turn upward, while Scotch pines provide stiff branches with needles that stay put long into the holiday season. Blue spruces shift from dark green to powdery blue needles. Their branches often can support heavier decorations than other trees.

Trees might seem like a simple investment for a future Christmas season, but Ron Wolford, an urban gardening educator with the University of Illinois Extension, argues otherwise.

“A lot of people think, ‘I can just have a few acres of land, and eight years later I’ve got something I can sell,’” Mr. Wolford says. “There’s a constant labor-management problem, shearing and shaping the tree to get it to that perfect conical shape when it’s mature.

“It’s a year-round job,” he says. “After the third or fourth year, you’re constantly shaping it … nobody wants a natural-looking tree. They want this perfect, cone-shaped tree,” he says.

The trees, on average, are planted about five feet apart in rows also set about five feet apart or more to accommodate mowers.

Doug Johnston, general manager of Ticonderoga Farms Inc. in Chantilly, says a combination of drought and soaring temperatures can doom a Christmas tree crop. That’s what happened three years ago at his 1,000-acre farm in southern Loudoun County.

A good, hard frost, however, can benefit a farm.

“That helps to set the needles,” Mr. Johnston says. The fluid in the trees stops moving then, rendering the trees dormant. A dormant tree will preserve better, he says.

Mr. Johnston says homeowners should pick Christmas trees with straight trunks and bright green needles. A healthy tree will have pliable branches that bend like plastic straws.

Mr. Johnston says once a homeowner selects a tree and brings it home, it should be set in water as soon as possible.

“We recommend about a 1 quart per inch diameter of the tree trunk, or a gallon of water for the average tree,” he says.

Never let the water level go below the stump’s cut line.

“If you deprive it of water, it will seal itself off,” he says.

A tree properly looked after, one that has been watered consistently and kept away from severe heat like that generated by a fireplace, will last for a good month.

Once the holidays are over, Christmas trees can be recycled in a number of fruitful ways. Recycled trees can help support sand and soil erosion barriers or be placed in ponds for fish shelters.

Jim Corliss, president of the National Christmas Tree Association in Newburgh, Maine, says many communities offer chipping programs to turn old trees into new mulch.

Homeowners might be tempted to burn the trees in their fireplaces a few branches at a time. The fragrance alone from smoldering Christmas trees seems enticing, but he says the trees’ sap is flammable and could spark a chimney fire.

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