- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Needles spray from the power shearer that Matt Elliott uses to shape the top of a 6-foot Fraser fir, releasing the potent, familiar smell of Christmas trees and sap.

In the 95-degree air, however, there is no feeling of Christmas. Needles stick in the sweat running down Mr. Elliott’s forehead.

Most people won’t start thinking about Christmas trees for months, but Mr. Elliott, 80, and his wife, Peggy, 74, can’t afford to wait until November to tend to the 2,000 trees they’re growing at Fox Hill Farm in Beech Grove, near Wintergreen.

“So many people come [at Christmastime] and say, ‘You mean you have to do something to it? You don’t just plant it?’” Mrs. Elliott said.

The Elliotts prune all of their trees in the summer, but Tom Saunders, who owns Kris Kringle’s Tree Farm in Arrington, just concentrates on his pines.

“The hottest job that we despise is pruning the pines,” Mr. Saunders said.

He can wait until the weather gets cooler for his spruces and firs, but the pine trees must be pruned before August. Otherwise, new buds won’t form, and the trees won’t grow.

For his hot, hard work, Mr. Saunders’ customers cut down pines at Christmas for $15 to $30 a tree. The higher-budget spruces and firs cost anywhere from $19 to $50.

Timing is also tricky.

Steve Satterfield said he doesn’t want to shape trees too early at Elysium Tree Farm in Orange County because the growth he cuts off will just grow back.

“If you’re too early, that doesn’t work, and if you’re too late, that doesn’t work very well either,” he said.

But the trees might grow back anyway, if there are long dry periods followed by rain.

Mr. Satterfield said he spends about three to four weeks every June shearing his 12,000 trees.

“Of course, weeks in this business are seven-day weeks,” he said, adding that he works from early morning until late.

The Elliotts must drive 20 or so miles from their home in Waynesboro to their farm four or five times a week.

Not only do the trees have to be pruned to keep their Christmas tree shape, but there’s also watering to do if there’s not enough rain. They use a 50-gallon plastic spray container that fastens onto the tractor.

Then there are the weeds and the bugs.

“In a week or so, it’ll be brown,” Mrs. Elliott said, looking at a 2-foot-high weed that she sprays with herbicide.

Shearing the trees can be painful work.

“They are so prickly and tough, we sometimes go in with our arms bleeding,” she said.

All their work might not amount to much come fall, when deer sometimes rub their horns against the trees, stripping the branches and causing large bald spots.

Mr. Satterfield said the 250 hours he spends pruning his trees every June are forgotten once it’s over, especially when customers start coming to get their trees.

But he always felt bad sending his wife, Jo, to help with the work.

“I would feel real sorry seeing her go up the road, and it would be 95 degrees and humid,” he said. “I knew it was my idea, so I’d feel guilty.”

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