CAN WE AGREE that Americans can’t agree on much these days? Differences of opinion surround even the Christmas tree supply. Drought, fires, economic recession and labor shortages support the scarcity theory, but locally at least, firs, pines and spruces are easily found on tree farms and sales lots. But having been wait-listed for a new refrigerator for 10 months now, and seeing shelves bereft of toilet paper and cat food, I’m tempted to grow my own Christmas trees from now on.
No worry that c it will take at least seven years: as a gardener, I know what is required. To start, site matters. Most tree species prefer that elusive well-drained, loamy soil that many plants crave, and while Christmas trees can be grown on areas too marginal for field crops, the results may be slower or less optimal. Wet soils are out—very few conifers tolerate “damp feet”—but overly dry sites can be limiting, too. Slopes too steep for mowing are not good, and areas of thin soil, ledge, or multitudinous rocks are less than ideal. Especially windy spots can desiccate needles, which is not good, since even Charlie Brown doesn’t want a brown tree. Full sun is mandatory—just like tomatoes or dahlias, maximum light is needed to produce bushiness.
But it takes more to make density, and overall shape is crucial. Most trees are sheared once a year or every-other year, and this takes skill and plain hard work. A good leader must be maintained, otherwise there is no place to put the star. And as in mate selection, some people prefer a tall, thin tree while others like shorter and perhaps chunkier. Just like other forms of garden produce, I’ll tolerate more imperfections in my home-grown Christmas tree than one that costs real money.
Then there are the pests. White pine or Scotch pine tops will be destroyed by white pine weevil, but pine has few other problems. Too bad most people (myself included) aren’t big fans of these species for holiday duty. Douglasfir makes a nice tree and grows quickly, but is susceptible to rhabdocline and other needlecast diseases which turn them a horrendous brown, and again, no one wants a brown tree. Spraying fungicide, praying for less rain and trying to find resistant types are options, but like many local growers, I’ll avoid Doug-fir. Fraser fir and balsam fir are better options.
White and blue Colorado spruces have some serious insect and disease pests, but they are otherwise easy to grow and have tough constitutions. Blue Colorado spruces make for some of the swankiest looking Christmas trees around, and often command a premium price. Personally, my favorite is concolor fir, a long-needled tree of bluish color with a level of beauty similar to blue Colorado but many fewer problems. It grows at a slow to medium pace and forms a shapely, dense pyramid. If I can plant, prune, water, and protect my concolor seedlings, given today’s rate of inflation, they’re better than money in the bank.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email