When it comes time to put up the family Christmas tree, many Americans skip the corner lot and head straight to the attic.
Out comes the plastic tree, looking a little bit more bedraggled than the year before. Meanwhile, the neighbors are creating family traditions by making a trip to the local choose-and-cut farm.
Many artificial tree buyers think they’re doing the right thing, environmentally speaking, by going fake. But plastic and metal parts take resources and energy to produce. And the cardboard box the tree comes in? That was made from a real tree.
A 2009 report by sustainable development consulting firm Ellipsos found an artificial tree would have to be re-used for 20 years before it became the better environmental choice.
Naturally, tree growers have little good to say about artificial Christmas trees.
“There are still people who believe that Christmas trees are cut out in the forest lands,” said Brady Christmas tree grower Ed Hedlund. He’s spent decades fighting the perception that Christmas is a tree killer.
With a few controlled exceptions (see box on National Forests) all Christmas trees come from farms. When a tree is cut, it’s quickly replaced with a seedling. While they grow, trees absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Tree farms like Hedlund’s maintain open and agricultural spaces. And when Christmas is over the trees can be recycled like any other yard trimming.
Artificial tree buyers cite cost savings as a factor – a real Christmas tree is an annual expense. But a 6-foot tall “most realistic” noble fir at online retailer Balsam Hill will set you back $629 – on sale. That’s 10 times the cost of a real tree. But at least the fake one comes with lights.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Hedlund has been working with trees for so long he might as well have sap running in his veins. As a 30-year forester for timber company Rayonier he was responsible for planting 4.5 million timber seedlings a year. In 1980, he started his Christmas tree farm on 30 acres in Grays Harbor County.
Some might call that a busman’s holiday. But Hedland soon learned that the two industries have nothing in common — except for trees, of course.
“They’re completely different. Christmas trees are labor intensive. I learned by hard knocks how to do things,” Hedlund said.
Today, he grows about 40,000 Christmas trees for both his choose-and-cut and wholesale operations.
But Hedlund’s trees are more than just numbers. Two of his best were chosen as the official White House Christmas trees in 1999 and 2002. This year, he won best Douglas fir, best Noble fir and best Fraser fir at the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association Tree Fair. He also grows grand and Nordmann firs.
Why so many different kinds?
His customers demand it, he said.
“I can pick 10 people and they’ll pick 10 different trees. I’ve seen married couples get in huge arguments,” Hedlund said. After three decades in the business, he’s learned the best method for avoiding arguments: Designate one person in the family to pick the tree. Couples and family members can alternate through the years.
Though everyone seems to have an idea on what the perfect tree should look like, it’s just not aesthetics that drive the decision making.
Few Christmas traditions telegraph the arrival of the holidays as quickly as the aroma of a fresh tree. Some customers buy trees based solely on the smell. “I’ll break a needle off and they’ll say, ‘that’s the one’,” Hedlund said.
Most of the trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are firs, both true firs like the noble and the Douglas fir (which, despite its name, isn’t really a fir.) A small portion of spruce and pine make up the rest.
Hedlund likes to remind people that while his trees are a crop, they are far more individual than, say, a field of corn.
“Some grow up quickly, some slowly. Some are fat, some are skinny. Some are dark, some are light. It’s amazing how trees are like people. That’s how I relate to them.”
And like people, they spend a fair amount of time at the barber and beauty shops.
Universally, customers want their trees to have the classic cone shape. But trees are not always eager to cooperate. One of the major Christmas tree species grown in California is the Monterey pine. It has as open, circular shape in nature. Christmas tree growers severely prune the tree to give it a conical shape it seldom ever has in the wild.
Firs, by contrast, have a natural cone shape. But because customers want their trees to be perfect, Hedlund and other growers shear wayward branches and shorten tops. This practice also forces the tree to grow more interior limbs.
“That’s why it takes eight to 10 years (to grow a tree),” Hedlund said. “We hold the growth down. True firs tend to be more open. Culturing makes them thicker.”
It’s that balance of keeping a tree natural looking while making it thick enough to appeal to customers that Hedlund strives for.
“I know what trees are supposed to look like. There’s a fine line between too thick and too open.”
Customers in the Northwest prefer the natural open look, while customers in California prefer the thick bushy look, Hedlund’s son Thomas said.
While their crew was busy baling up trees in a steady drizzle on a recent afternoon, Ed Hedlund pointed out an open, gracefully branched noble fir with perhaps half of the foliage of a thicker cultivated version.
“That tree will be gone the first weekend we open,” he predicted.
Hedlund and other growers and arborists offer these tips on choosing and caring for a real tree:
• Freshness: This isn’t an issue if you cut your own, but it will be at the corner lot. It doesn’t take any special knowledge to determine freshness, says Sumner arborist Dennis Tompkins. If the green needles look droopy, or an inordinate amount drop when the tree is brushed or shaken, avoid it. Bump it on the ground: green needles will not drop off. Fresh fir needles will break in two when fresh. Pines will not. Don’t be concerned with brown interior needles — all trees will have some. Hedlund said to look for lots displaying their trees in water. Those trees will last longer. Small corner lots tend to have fresher stock than the big-box stores, Hedlund said
• Cut the butt: If your tree, whether you cut it or purchased it at a lot, has been out of water for more than four hours, it’s a good idea to give the butt a fresh cut. Trees will naturally seal over cut cells after a few hours out of water, disabling their ability to take up water. Cut a 1/4 inch off the end of the butt before placing it in a water stand.
• Placement: Don’t place the tree near a heater, register or wood stove. If possible, place it near a window which generally will be the coldest part of your home. Did you find the almost perfect tree with a defect on one side? No worries: place that side against a wall.
• Care: Treat your tree as if it were a gigantic flower bouquet, Tompkins said. It’s vitally important to keep the butt of the tree in a water filled stand. That way it will look and smell fresh weeks longer than if left to dry and it will drop fewer needles when removed. Add water daily. Research has found that a tree can use up to one quart of water a day for every inch of stem diameter. Research has also shown that plain water without any commercial or home remedy preservatives is the best method to keep your tree hydrated. “There’s nothing that out performs water,” Hedlund said.
• Meet the flockers: There are some who can’t imagine Christmas without their tree covered in simulated snow. Others wouldn’t be caught dead with them. Aside from aesthetics, flocking adds fire protection to trees and hides imperfections. Bonus: UW and WSU alumni can get their trees done in school colors.
• Recycle: Just about every municipality has a tree recycling program. Often it’s as simple as putting the tree in your yard waste container or leaving in curbside. Boy Scout troops often set up recycling centers and ask for a small donation. Remove tinsel and all decorations before recycling.