Lifelong gardener and Horticulture columnist Greg Coppa shares his memories and advice on growing a Christmas tree:
A few years back I was fortunate enough to have had a short story of mine made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, November Christmas. In my favorite scene, the characters, including those played by John Corbett and Sam Elliott, hitch up a farm wagon and go out into the fields with a wide-eyed six-year-old girl to find the perfect Christmas tree.
My own four children are now in or approaching their thirties. For most of their Christmas seasons as children and returning adults we have cut our own trees from my back yard. If you have a bit of sunny space and expect to be in your home for many years, planting a Christmas tree may be for you.
Early in our marriage Abby and I bought a five-foot burlap-balled tree because we had a relatively bare lot that needed greenery. We used it as a Christmas tree that year before setting it out. That Norway spruce grew so well and so symmetrically in 14 years that when a house addition put its future in doubt we arranged for it to be donated to the state of Rhode Island as the State House Christmas Tree. If I may say so, it was as beautiful as any tree that ever graced Rockefeller Center.
Our bare lot became a canvas for interesting planting specimens but certain spots were reserved for trees that we knew would never reach maturity. We obtained some of these Christmas trees from local and online nurseries and others from the side of country roads or the backyards of friends. Several beautiful Fraser firs came from a local farm our children visited with their kindergarten classes during the holiday season. The youngsters proudly clutched their little treasures as they took them home, the roots snugly anchored in a transport container about the size of a large test tube. Teachers followed the field trip with lessons on how to grow the small seedlings. What a valuable experience this was for our children.
In large measure, though, our Christmas trees were rescued trees, growing close enough to northern New England’s country roads or driveways that they were mowed down or plowed up every few years. Often we took them home in a coffee cup or sandwich bag, their roots wrapped in a moistened napkin. (For several years, of course, we had nothing harvestable except for an occasional tabletop tree. Until our assorted Christmas tree plantings became legitimate candidates, we enjoyed going to our local tree farms.)
How to Grow a Christmas Tree
If you have access to roadside trees, do not worry if your 12-inch specimen is misshapen as long as it is healthy and the nearby trees—probably its parents—look good. (This is sort of like evaluating your husband’s father to see what you can expect to see down the line.) The fact is, though we have had differences in color, scent and fullness in our trees, we have never had a bad one grace our home.
All “Christmas trees” will do best in full sun, but you may be able to get away with a mostly sunny location. It may make harvesting somewhat delayed. Keep trees well watered and stimulate healthy growth with fertilizer stakes or a slow-release fertilizer high in nitrogen. I find that once trees are established (a couple of years after planting), liquid fertilizer every two weeks in the form of a standard manure tea in late spring and early summer will greatly accelerate their growth rate. At no other time of year is it as beneficial to fawn over a tree with plant nutrients and water to propel it upward and outward. In wild-caught fir, spruce and the intoxicatingly fragrant balsam fir, I have frequently measured a seasonal height increase of 12to 24 inches, which allows some of my roadside runts to be harvested at a good height in 5 to 8 years. Bare-root, nursery-grown Frasers are much slower growing, but they make up for it with their distinctive deep green, soft needles and appealing natural shape.
I have successfully planted trees in all seasons, but if you classify yourself as a less-attentive gardener, fall planting will bring the best results. Never use a string trimmer around your trees, especially the young ones. You will lose a year’s growth sooner or later if you do. Guaranteed. And though I personally don’t like the heavily sheared look, some shearing is necessary to maintain symmetry and fullness for your perfect specimen.
I still have a 10-year supply of trees tucked here and there around the yard. Given my age and the fact that I do not know how much longer I will stay in this house, I instituted a planting moratorium a few years ago. I have since rethought that policy and may again resort to picking up a tree a year if the opportunity presents itself. When you plant trees you are showing that you are optimistic about the future. You come to accept that you are planting and making pleasant memories for the next generation. A good gardener can’t wish for much more than that.