Although we’ve only been open a few years, we’ve been asked more than once “What do you do all summer?” or “What do you do when you’re not ‘selling’ trees?” Although Bruce sometimes wishes we could just plant the trees in the spring, then go fishing all summer, it’s not quite that simple.
Raising Christmas trees is a bit like raising children. Planting them is the easy part, then the real work begins. We have to care for them (weeding, mowing), treat their ailments (insects, pests), feed them (water and fertilize), discipline them (shearing), and so on for 10-12 years. As with kids it is a combination of smiles, frowns, and tears.
Christmas trees are considered to be one of the most labor intensive farm crops. We’ve created a month by month look at the operational aspects of tree farming to give you a better feel for what we do all year long, year after year, to create the “best ever” Christmas tree for your family’s holiday experience.
This page is a work in progress. Look for additional photos and tasks, as there’s always something new to do on the tree farm.
January allows for a little rest after cleaning up from December sales. We catch up on office work, process bills and income from the November/December sales season. It’s also time to get started on taxes. Attending the annual NH/VT Christmas Tree Association meeting held at the farm show is always fun and informative. This month is a priority for ordering other farm products, i.e., berry plants, meat chickens, etc.
February means finalizing the taxes as we’ll be gearing up for spring planting by mid-March. This is a planning month for us – what projects need to be done – goals for the following year- create a schedule for spring (as much as possible). This is more of a down month and feels like we’re on a mini vacation, having weekends free to entertain and relax.
March means preparing for April planting. This includes cutting fabric mat and making fabric mat pegs. (photos will be taken next March). We set up in the garage to cut the fabric mat. This task takes about 4-6 hours to make 300-400 2×2′ squares. The pegs are made out of hung ceiling wire – cut to 9″ lengths and folded in half. The folding usually takes place in front of the tv. Each mat requires 4-5 pegs, so we make about 1,200. This is labor intensive, but the cost to buy pre-made pegs makes the job worth it.
April is a busy month. We either pick up the new trees or harvest them from our “tree nursery”. We want to get the trees that we pick up in the ground as soon as possible. These transplants are often 2-2. That means they were in a seedling bed for 2 years and then transferred to transplant bed for 2 years. We have started our own nursery, allowing them one more year of growth and more flexibility for us regarding planting. This produces a much hardier tree stock with more developed root structure.
Due to our Northern VT weather, we usually cannot plant before April 20th. Our first task is to fertilize the trees. We use the least amount of nitrogen possible and never use Phosphorus.
We hand plant using a tree planter and shovel. Much of our soil is heavy and dense with lots of clay. Because of this we add a bucket full of good soil to each tree to help the roots get a good start. We then place fabric mat around each tree to help block weed growth and reduce hand weeding. Growing a natural tree means a constant battle against weeds and insects. Young trees and weeds are not compatible.
Now that we have our basic footprint of approximately 3,000 trees we plant about 200-300 trees per year, replacing harvested trees and trees that didn’t survive.
We originally had hoped we could rip out the old stumps using our 4 wheeler and a chain. Difficulties were getting into tight spaces, the gaping hole it leaves, not having the stump left high enough to get a good grip, and the wear and tear of the 4 wheeler on the ground in early spring. The funny part is how proud folks were when they left hardly any stump. So, we decided to try a stump grinder. Much to our surprise and glee, this worked remarkably well and in less time than expected. Some tree farmers with lots of planting room leave the stumps and plant right next to it. They then hire someone to clean the stumps out every 4-5 years. Stump removal is important because the rotting stumps can spread disease to the healthy trees. Stumps are then composted.
May brings about a beautiful site, the bright lime green glow of “candles”, the new buds breaking open for this year’s growth. This is also a scary time because the Balsam Fir tree breaks bud early risking frost damage. Unfortunately this has happened to us for 3 years in a row. In the photo the little brown tips on the branches were hit by frost, eliminating all growth for that year. The Canaan Fir (a hybrid of the Balsam and Fraser Fir) breaks bud later and is better suited for our climate.
Early May ends planting that didn’t get finished in April. Then, it’s mow, mow, mow we go, gently down the rows. Because we don’t have a specially designed Christmas tree mower, we need to mow more often. Approximately 2-4 hours mowing is done every day around the farm, weather permitting, from May through October.
A sticky job each May is removing cones off the trees. If not removed, by fall you’ll have crumbling pine cones, an unsightly stick where the cone was and less branch structure that could have developed. This is a very sappy job that involves a step ladder, as most of the cones form in the top third of the tree. One tree this year had over 120 cones on it! Trees start to form cones by their 4th year. So thousands of trees need pine cone picking!
In May Witch’s broom starts to form on the trees. We go through all trees and remove as many as we can. This is an on-going process throughout the year as you see them growing. Witch’s broom can be caused by a number of organisms, including fungi, insects, mites, nematodes, etc. If you don’t catch them early, they can get really big and cause what looks like a hole in the tree after their removal.
June mainly centers around weed growth and mowing. If we’re on top of things we have sprayed in May or early June just before or during bud break for aphids and other insects. Aphids cause a leaf curl which is somewhat unsightly, but doesn’t kill the tree. We spray with a diluted solution of 35% food grade hydrogen peroxide. We love peroxide as a natural insect repellent, oxygenator and healthy alternative to pesticides. Spraying is done with a 30 gallon tank on the back of our 4 wheeler, requiring many refills.
July is the time Bruce starts saying “I need to get shearing”. He’s experimented with shearing early and shearing late. The branches are too soft during early growth, but you don’t want to wait too long as they need time to form new buds for next year’s growth. Christmas trees do not form their beautiful shape naturally. Through trial and error we’ve learned that you need to start shearing (a few snips here and there) as early as year three. That means almost every tree on the farm needs shearing. If you miss it, their branches quickly become to wild to tame.
August focuses on mowing and shearing. Shearing is a long, hard job. It helps to feel like an artist creating your sculpture. You can shear a tree to have very tight branches and a thick filled in look, or to have a less manicured, natural look. We tend to go for the more natural look. The photo is Bruce forming the tops, a separate job with a different tool than used for shearing the tree body. Look for other shearing pictures next year.
September is a little lighter work load on the tree farm section of our farm. Shearing is mostly done and tops are being finished. A complete mow, even sideways in tight spots is done. This year we rented a small mower to accomplish this. We do this to make it easier and safer for people to roam about picking out their tree. It also removes cover for mice, rabbits, ground hogs, etc. to take up home and chew on the bark during winter.
October brings an end to mowing and a “yeah” from Sally. We walk through the farm and get a general count of how many trees are sale size. We clean the barn, switch out equipment, bringing the baler and shaker to the front and prepping them for the season. A scary thing that happens in the fall is watching some of the trees turn yellow. This can happen for a variety of reasons. The other scary thing is that pine trees shed their inside needles every fall, some do it a little more than we care for. This does not mean your tree will die when you get it in the house.
November is gearing up for sales. We’re finishing the barn set-up, putting up a large tarp, making a nice sale section that can be decorated with hay bales and room for displays, hot cocoa and cookies. We walk through the field again spending some time brushing off those inner brown needles that can scare people away from a perfectly good tree. We set up the basement, covering the ping-pong table to make kissing balls, wreaths and gift baskets. Two weeks before opening is concentrated on making bows, tying pine cones and creating these extra decorating items for your home. We open the weekend after Thanksgiving and remain open on weekends until we’re sold out.
December weekends are devoted to sales and making sure inventory is adequate. Friday is set-up day, make cookies day, prep the hot cocoa machine, and make sure we’re ready to open early Saturday morning.
It’s a really fun time and we love seeing the families excited about their Christmas tree. Children love to feed the chickens, play on the playground and now visit our two ponies! We look forward to building relationships with returning customers. It’s exciting to drive by a home knowing that our tree is in their picture window and the centerpiece of their family holiday tradition. As you gather around your tree to open gifts and create beautiful holiday memories our fondest wish is that someone says, “this is the best tree ever” making all our efforts worthwhile! Merry Christmas!