How we grow the trees you love.
Christmas trees are one of the most difficult crops to grow. See, when growing a cash crop like corn, the factors for failure must be managed for only a year. With Christmas trees it's up to a 10 year process! This process includes meticulous genetic selection to precision trimming. Plus, from the day a tree is planted to the day it gets cut down, it could be handled up to 30 times! Read below to learn the steps behind growing and harvesting Christmas tree.
When we begin the cycle of growing your tree, we start by planting a young, bare-root, transplanted seedling. These little guys are around two years old when they get planted in the ground.
However, before these trees go into the ground we have to add a lot of nutrients. To do this, we plant sorghum as a cover crop the proceeding year to planting a field. Sorghum adds 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of organic matter to the ground per acre. This organic matter frees up nutrients in the ground to be more accessible to the young trees' roots in addition to adding some natural fertilizer through the breakdown of the Sorghum stalks. Also, because Sorghum stalks grow to be tall and cover a large area once fully grown, the cover crop completely reduces the risk of weeds seeding in and can protect the ground around the young trees from weed infestations for up to a year following the planting of the seedlings.
While selecting a seedling variant to plant, we like to focus on ADD THIS INFO things. The first thing we'll look at is where the seedling originates from and how that places' climate compares to where we're growing. For example, when growing Concolor Fir we'll only plant the seedlings sourced from New Mexico. This is because these seedlings have evolved with waxy needles and are far more resistant to fungus' that is prevalent in humid areas.
The second thing we'll look for is any genetic mixing that has occurred in a seedling, whether that is naturally or artificially induced. One of the most recent advancements in genetic mixing is shown in the Fralsam Fir species. This tree species is a mix between the Fraser Fir and Balsam Fir. The main advantage behind growing this species comes down to labor costs associated with growing Fraser Firs; these trees produce pinecones that must be picked off of each tree every year. If these pinecones aren't picked, the trees' growth will be hindered significantly. The Fralsam Fir combines the unique color and limb strength of a Fraser Fir without production of pinecones each year.
The final thing we take into account is growth rates. Within each tree species there are different growth rates that vary from region-to-region. When finding Norway Spruce to plant, we typically source our seedlings from a tree that's from the southern region of the Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria. These trees grow much faster than their Scandinavian counterparts.
After selecting the seedlings to plant, our farmers get to planting! This process hasn't really changed much over the past century: we use a manual planter that gets pulled behind a tractor. This planter creates a small opening in the ground for us to insert the seedling into. After the tree has been inserted into the ground through the space created by the planter, the planting machine gives the tree an initial packing. Following this initial packing, we manually "step in" the trees in order to ensure the tree has been packed into the ground properly.
Every plant needs something to eat to help it grow. That's why we take careful attention to the nutrients we provide each tree, both through environmental and manual intervention.
Mentioned above, we make sure the tree has a proper foundation in healthy soil. By using cover crops like sorghum we can create a natural environment for the tree to begin its' life in.
We make sure to select fields in regions where the amount of rain matches the trees' needs. Areas that receive little to no rainfall are a "no-go" for planting Christmas trees. However, regions that are oversaturated with rainfall are also off limits for planting Christmas trees.
One of the unique properties of Christmas trees are that they are incredibly flexible regarding the soil condition they grow in. A Christmas tree can grow in soil conditions that most crops would have little to no chance of growing in. Specific species of Christmas trees like Fraser Fir actually grow far better in rocky soil with rolling hills!
It is critical to maintain a soil PH level of between 5.0-6.5 for the trees we grow. By periodically adding supplements like calcium carbonate to the soil, our farmers can control the PH levels in the soil.
PH is just the beginning of the journey for controlling the nutrients in the ground. Our farmers regulate the levels of nitrogen, carbon, and phosphate in the ground to promote a healthier environment for our trees to grow in.
Nitrogen has the unique property of creating greener, more lush foliage on the trees. It is the key nutrient that aids in the growth of needles; if a farmer suspects that a tree needs to have longer needles, they'll add more nitrogen to the fertilizer mix.
Potassium is the key nutrient that helps a tree grow a strong system of limbs and a trunk. When a farmer uses a potassium focused fertilizer, they can change the strength of the limbs and the efficiency of how a tree processes the water in absorbs through its roots.
Phosphorus is the nutrient that helps a tree to develop strong roots. In order for a tree to flourish in its' growth cycle, this nutrient is added to the soil early on in the cycle.
In addition to these nutrients, we'll add supplements to the ground to help loosen up the soil. If the soil is hard and filled with clay, our farmers add Gypsum across the field. This helps the trees' roots to better penetrate the soil and establish stronger roots that can receive more water and fertilizer. We'll also add Vermiculite if the ground is really firm and has a problem draining properly.
Spraying happens throughout the year and we perform three types of spraying. These three spraying types are: Herbicide, Fungicide, and Insecticide application.
First, let's take a look at Herbicide usage. Our farmers apply herbicide directly to the ground or foliage of weeds and vines that grow in our fields. This prevents the growth of invasive weeds that take away from the nutrients our Christmas trees receive. We've used both pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides in the past. Pre-emergents are applied in the early spring in order to destroy the seed or spore that creates weeds before they have a chance to sprout out of the ground. Post-emergents are used once the weed or vine has created foliage and is visible out of the ground. The active ingredient in most of the pre-emergent herbicides we use is called Flumioxazin. The active ingredient in most of the post emergent herbicides we use is called Glyphosate. We've reeled back our usage of herbicides in recent years for many reasons, explore these below.
- We've found that using less (or even zero) herbicide can be advantageous to a trees' growth. This is due to the issue of field grubs munching on the roots of our Christmas trees. The more roots in a field, the lower chance these grubs will attack the Christmas tree roots; not killing the grass with herbicide gives these little guys something else to eat.
- Also, the use of strong herbicides has been directly linked to the rapid evolution of super-weeds that are nearly impossible to take out; even after rotor-tilling the ground.
- In addition to these things, herbicide is pretty good at poisoning the groundwater. We like being able to drink water straight from our wells and we only have one earth.
Fungi on trees are not fun! That's why we use Fungicide. As discussed in the above planting section, one of the main issues that we try to combat through seedling selection is to root out any tree species that are easily susceptible to local fungi infestations. That being said, not every tree is perfectly protected from being struck with a fungal infection. That's when we bring in the Fungicide. This chemical is sprayed directly onto the trees foliage, this spray gives the trees a protective layer and destroys the fungus our farmers are targeting. Usually a fungus will decay the trees' needles, or sometimes infect the roots of the tree and slowly kill it.
Insecticide must be applied right before or as insects or other bugs are hatching. This is done to hit the "window" when these bugs are the most vulnerable. Insecticide is applied directly to each tree where an infestation is occurring and great effort is put into not over-spraying into other areas where native bugs may be hatching. In fact, most of the bugs that our farmers spray for aren't even from our hemisphere! Bugs like Gypsy moths, Cooley and Eastern Gall, and a plethora of beetles are all from Asian or European origin.
As we started to move away from spraying herbicide, we had to control the weeds and grass in our fields somehow, so we started mowing; a lot. As of right now, we outfit our field workers with self-propelled, walk behind mowers for larger trees. For smaller trees, we use small tractors with a deck mower to mow between the rows of trees. This keeps the grass at a low level that doesn't disturb the trees' growth process while simultaneously keeping the roots of the grass strong and as the perfect food for grubs.
Trimming is another vital part of the Christmas tree growing equation. Commonly referred to as pruning, this practice happens yearly on every tree. This process is performed in order to get the desired "cone" shape Christmas trees are known for.
Pruning is performed with two different tools: a pair of pruning clippers and a machete. It is our farmers' commitment to quality that they perform this task by hand; there is no better substitution that derives the same high quality results
To begin, there are a few different parts of the tree that should be identified. The single top limb that grows vertically originating directly from the trunk of the tree is called the "leader" of the tree. Directly under the leader you will find the "crown" of the tree, this is the first set of limbs below the leader that sets the vertex angle that each tree will be pruned at. Further down the tree, you will find the body of the tree. The body makes up a majority of a tree.
Early in the trees' life cycle, the pruning process emphasizes growth. Specifically, adding as much height as possible to the tree. In order to achieve this, the pruner will leave the leader of the tree longer while trimming the crown and sides to be narrower. This is done in an effort to direct all of the trees' energy towards the top and 'stretch' the tree out. In addition to leaving the leader of the tree longer, the pruner will cut out any vertical growing limbs that aren't the leader. These vertical, non-leader limbs are called candles; you don't want candles in a Christmas tree.
As the tree reaches three to four feet in height, the strategy changes completely. Now the pruner will focus on maintaining a constant rate of vertical growth while emphasizing the filling in of any gaps the tree may have developed during its' first few years. A pruner will now cut the leader to match the already existing side angles of the tree and use his machete to regulate the length of the side branches.
Preceding the year a tree will be harvested, the pruning strategy changes completely again. This strategy only lasts for one year, but it is arguable the most important year of pruning. This period is called the "harvest prune." During this period the pruner will only shave off a few centimeters from the body of the tree and will make sure the leader follows the general shape of the tree's body limbs. With so little trimming during this period, you might wonder "why is this so important?" Well, this pruning period ensures that any unwanted gaps between limbs fill correctly. Pruning using this strategy also adds strength to the limbs.
After up to 8 long years, the time has finally come to cut your Christmas tree. The process is long from over though; Christmas trees have to be cut, packaged, and loaded by hand. Let's explore how Packaged Pines harvests your Christmas tree.
First, we go out into the field and find the trees that have been purchased from our online inventory. We use a software that geographically maps our inventory in each field (pretty cool eh?) Once we locate these trees and double check that the barcode matches the order barcode, we get to cutting. As stated above, this process is almost entirely done by hand: we use chainsaws to cut the trees.
Following the cutting of your tree, we Packaged the Pines (or firs/spruce) right there in the field. This process involves securing the tree in a plastic sleeve, attaching your tree stand, then fitting the box over the body of the tree. Once the box is over the top of the tree, we print the shipping label and seal up the box. The next stop your tree makes is at our distribution center.
Once your Christmas tree hits our distribution center, we organize by shipping date and get them ready for delivery. We keep all of the trees in a cool location within our distribution center in order to ensure freshness of your Packaged Pine!