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PHOTO: Kevin Fogle
Tired of trudging to your local big box hardware store only to fight off hordes of holiday shoppers for a subpar Christmas tree or driving 50 miles to the closest tree farm with a car full of children hyped up on sugar cookies? It may be time to consider growing your own Christmas trees.
Why Grow Your Own Christmas Tree?
While it takes some forward thinking, growing your own Christmas trees from seedlings can be a fun project for your entire family that helps builds relationships and can teach children important lessons about nature. Growing your own fir or pine can save you money in the long run and gives your family a chance to enjoy the freshest possible trees that were grown in an environmentally responsible manner.
Choosing Your Tree
Not all evergreen trees are created equally. When deciding what type of Christmas trees you want to grow, understand the differences between the different species and weigh the pros and cons of each.
Firs are some of the most successful commercial Christmas trees sold today. The popularity of firs is due to their fragrant scent, beautiful colors and ability to retain their needles. Most fir species tend to grow best in cooler climates or in areas of higher elevation with the Douglas and Concolor firs able to handle slightly warmer conditions.
- Fraser Fir: native to high elevations in the Appalachians Mountains (zones 4-7)
- Douglas Fir: most common Christmas tree species in the United States (zones 4-6)
- Concolor Fir: aka, the White Fir (zones 4-7)
- Balsam Fir: best fir for colder climates (zones 3-6)
- Noble Fir: largest native fir in North America (zones 4-5)
Unlike most firs, pines are known for being hardy and can be grown in both warm and cool climate zones. Pines are quick growing and will reach a viable height of 6 to 7 feet in 6 years given optimal growing conditions.
- White Pine: tallest native pine species in North America (zones 3-8)
- Virginia Pine: thrives in the poorest soils and features prickly cones (zones 4-8)
- Scotch Pine: high reseeding ability and tolerant of poor soils (zones 3-7)
- Sand Pine: great for very warm climates (zones 7-10)
If you are searching for a colorful old-time Christmas tree feel, spruce trees may be the right choice for you. However, there are some major drawbacks when utilizing spruces for Christmas trees, including sharp needles and poor needle retention when displayed for more than a week or two. Most spruce species tend to prefer cooler climate zones.
- Norway Spruce: widespread use in North America, but native to Europe (zones 2-7)
- Colorado Blue Spruce: native known for its striking blue-green needles (zone 4 to 7a)
Cypresses and Cedars
Looking for a unique Christmas tree this year? Consider utilizing non-traditional species like the Leyland cypress or the native Eastern Redcedar. Both species require relatively little shaping and the Leyland cypresses can reach 6 to 7 feet in a relatively short amount of time: four years.
- Leyland Cypress: fast growers adding 3 feet per year in optimal conditions (zones 6-10)
- Arizona Cypress: another fast-growing native species (zones 7-9)
- Eastern Redcedar: dense foliage with attractive blue berries (zones 2-9)
If you have questions about whether a certain tree species is appropriate for your local climate zone a great resource is your local cooperative extension agent. Visit the USDA extension locator site to find the contact information for your state extension service.
Prepping the Land for Christmas Trees
Most pines, firs and spruces that serve as traditional Christmas trees can be grown without issue provided that you have a good planting site that receives full sun and has well-drained soil. Heavy clay soils are detrimental to most of these trees unless the planting site is located on a slope, allowing excess moisture to runoff. The only preparation needed for planting is to eliminate or reduce the existing vegetation at the site by mowing the area or through mechanical cultivation the season before planting.
Christmas Tree Planting Tips
Spacing and plant depth are two of the most important issues when planting tree seedlings. The basic guidance for most Christmas trees is that they should be planted in rows spaced 8 feet apart. Within each row, seedlings should be planted roughly 7 or 8 feet apart. Proper spacing is essential to allow airflow between trees to lessen the chance of disease and pest issues.
The depth of each seeding is critical to the success of your young trees. Seedlings need to be planted at the exact depth they were grown at in the nursery. If the seedlings are planted deeper or shallower, it will weaken or kill the tree. To find the correct depth, look for a noticeable color shift on the trunk that marks the surface level the seedling was originally grown at. After placing the seedling in the hole, be sure to spread the roots gently and give the give the trees a good watering after planting is complete.
Another consideration is staggering your plantings. By planting a new batch of seedlings each spring, rather than all at once, growers are able to ensure that you will have well-sized trees for many years to come.
Evergreen Tree Care and Maintenance
Christmas trees are relatively low maintenance aside from watering, weed control and shaping. For the first year, seedlings need to be watered weekly from late spring to early fall. After the first year, trees become established and only require watering during periods of prolonged drought. The planting site must be maintained regularly to remove weeds around the young trees either through mowing the rows, hoe cultivation or careful weed-eating around the trees. If left unchecked, grasses and weeds will out-compete the young trees for water and nutrients and tall weeds can even shade out vulnerable seedlings.
After the first two or three years, young evergreen trees will need to be shaped by pruning or shearing each year after the trees flush their new growth (typically mid-summer). When shaping the tree, attempt to maintain a classic Christmas tree shape and remove imperfections, such as double tops. The year you’re going to harvest your tree, keep the shearing to a minimum to avoid visible cuts on exterior branches.
Shedding Needles—Is This Normal?
All evergreens drop approximately 30 percent of their needles every year. This natural shedding process involves the older interior needles of the tree, not the new exterior needles. Visible needle drop on the exterior or external yellowing are signs of disease or pest problems that will need to be addressed.
When to Harvest Your Christmas Tree
Given decent growing conditions, most Christmas tree species will reach 6 or 7 feet within six to nine years. Once your tree reaches your desired height, they can been successfully harvested with a handsaw or chainsaw. After the initial cut, immediately place the tree in a container with water or the cut will reseal, preventing the tree from taking up water and shortening the lifespan of your Christmas tree. Alternately, you can harvest the tree earlier and then take a second thin slice off the trunk with a saw when you are ready to display it.
Growing your own Christmas tree is great pastime that you and your family can enjoy for many holiday seasons. The time and effort required is certainly rewarded with the freshest possible Christmas trees.