Robert Miller: It takes a lot of effort to grow the perfect Christmas tree
Across the state this month, soon-to-be-celebrants are traipsing across the fields, bow saws in hand, looking for the perfect Christmas tree. When they find that tree, they saw it, transport it, stand it upright and decorate it.
And next spring, the state’s Christmas tree farmers will replace what’s been cut, trying to estimate how many trees they’ll need a decade hence. It takes patience, long-term planning and the faith the weather won’t be ruinous every year to keep the Yuletide evergreen.
“Last year, we sold 10,000 trees,” said Jamie Jones of the Jones Family Farms in Shelton, one of the biggest tree farms in the state. “That means we’ll probably plant 15,000 trees.”
“I sell 300 to 400 trees a year,” said Stephen Paproski of Castle Hill Farm in Newtown.. “I plant about 500.”
There’s probably no exact way to figure out the environmental impact of all these Christmas trees in Connecticut — there are too many variables.
But Kathy Kogut, executive director of the Connecticut Christmas Tree Growers Association, said about 5,000 acres of land are dedicated to commercial fa-la-la-ing spruce and fir in the state — some Mr. & Mrs. Claus operations of only a few acres, some serious growers.
Each acre can grow about 1,000 trees, if not more. That makes 5 million Christmas trees growing in the state — some just seedlings, some young trees, some ready for lights. About 100,000 are cut down every season for sale, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Because they’re being renewed, those 100,000 will have others ready to take their place next year.
Getting them ready takes work — planting, spraying, pruning. Only God can make a tree. Only human care and sweat can make a perfectly conical Fraser fir for your living room.
“It’s seasonal sales, but it’s year round work,” Kogut said.
Tom Lappala of New Milford is a licensed arborist who leases about 9 acres of land from the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust to grow Christmas trees.
“I start in the spring,” he said. “Most people have no idea of the work it takes. Unless I have other obligations, it’s every weekend.”
Connecticut has a naturally growing tree suitable for Christmas — the white spruce.
“They’re easy to grow,” said Richard Cowles., an agricultural scientist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Valley Laboratory in Windsor Locks and a weekend Christmas tree farmer. “But they have relatively poor needle retention.” Not the best tree to buy after Thanksgiving if you want it to last until Christmas.
Which is why Connecticut growers depend more on non-native trees: Fraser firs native to the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina; Douglas and Noble firs, which are Western state trees; and balsam firs, which grow best farther to the north.
“For a while it was concolor firs,” said Kobach of the state Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Martha Stewart had one, so everybody wanted one.”
But there are problems with these non-native species. Fraser fir, for example are prone to phytophthora root rot, caused by damp soil.
“They don’t like to get their feet wet,” Kobach said.
Drought years can dry them out. Get a lot of snow in late November, and they’re inaccessible.
“It’s Mother Nature,” Kogut said.
Cowles is testing whether Mediterranean fir tree species — Turkish firs, Trojan firs — could be suitable for Christmas tree farms in the state. They’re not as fragrant as other trees, Cowles said — they lack than piney smell. But they’re resistant to root rot, have beautifully green, dense foliage and have great needle retention.
The trick, Cowles said, is to find a way to asexually reproduce the best of the best of these trees — to clone them and make them commercially available.
“The rub is that these trees are very difficult to use in asexual propagation,” he said.
Cowles is now trying to find a way to do this.
“We should try to crack this nut,” he said.
In the meantime, the Christmas tree farms in the state grow trees, slowly — about a foot a year. Those trees sequester carbon dioxide. At the end of the year, they get chopped up and turned into mulch.
They provide food and shelter for birds.
“I was out one day and saw a flock of bluebirds,” Lappala of New Milford said. “There was a dozen of them.”
And, alas, browse for white-tailed deer.
“I grow Douglas fir, white spruce, Colorado spruce, Fraser and balsam,” Lappala said. “But the deer…ohhh.”
Contact Robert Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org