In this strange year, we’ve seen shortages of surprising things. From toilet paper to seeds, mason jars to pressure-treated lumber, we’ve been running short of all kinds of things we once took for granted. And this month, we added Christmas trees to the list.
In Muskoka, many stores were sold out of live trees by the end of the first week of December as people rushed to embrace a bit of light, joy, and warmth by putting up their holiday decorations earlier than usual.
Growing your own tree won’t help you this year — or for quite a few years to come — but if you’ve got a bit of land and patience, you can be cutting your own tree before the end of the 2020s.
Most of the species we use as Christmas trees grow roughly a foot in height every year, so planting in spring will yield you a seven-foot tree by Christmas 2027.
While that may seem like a long time to wait between planting your crop and harvesting it, there’s not a whole lot you need to do in between those events. Christmas trees are remarkably easy to care for — all they need is sunlight, the right amount of moisture, a bit of pruning and weed control.
The ideal site is sunny and open with well-drained soil. Clay soils are not good for Christmas trees, unless the site is on a slope where the water can drain. And yes, you can grow your trees on slopes — as long as you can access the spot to plant, prune, and harvest, you can grow your tree there.
You’ll want to plan for a series of plantings, putting in a few trees each year so you can choose the best tree each year, and continue harvesting new trees annually as they reach maturity.
There’s a wide array of species to choose from, but most are either spruce, fir or pine. Fir trees like balsam fir, Douglas fir or Fraser fir are known for their rich scent and strong branches. Pine trees like white pine and scotch pine have longer needles but aren’t ideal if you have a lot of heavy ornaments. White spruce is a classic old variety with strong branches, although the needles tend to be sharp.
You can also mix things up a bit by planting a couple of different varieties. Or try a less traditional tree like a blue spruce or a cedar.
Whatever species you choose, be sure to give them lots of room. They need about eight feet between them so they can enjoy sufficient air flow as well as plenty of light.
Lots of space also allows you to keep weeds at bay. Most tree farms are in grassy fields, which should be mowed from time to time to ensure the trees get full access to light and air, and to prevent other tree species from taking root and outcompeting your trees.
When you plant the seedlings initially, it’s a good idea to surround them with a ring of mulch. Not only will this keep the weeds down, but it will also help them retain moisture. Young seedlings in particular need regular watering — about an inch of water a week which you will need to provide if there’s not enough rain. As the trees grow larger, their deep tap roots become highly effective at pulling moisture from the ground, but the trees will still need supplemental watering in a dry summer.
As for pruning, it’s just a matter of giving them an annual trim to preserve the classic Christmas tree shape. Mid or late summer is the ideal time, when the year’s new growth is established but the tree has time to recover from the pruning before winter sets in.
Professional growers have an array of instruments to prune their trees, ranging from gas trimmers with a five-foot vertical blade to swords that look just like a samurai’s katana. It’s impressive to watch some using two swords to prune a tree (you can see a video here), but unless you’re pruning 2,000 trees a day like these guys do, you’re probably best to stick to hedge trimmers.
Be sure your trimmers are sharp, and just go around the tree nipping off all the stray branches that protrude from the desired shape. You’ll probably need to shorten the growing tip to keep the tree from getting too sparse and leggy as it grows.
Go back and repeat the process every year, and before you know it you’ll have a gorgeous Christmas tree, all ready to harvest and bring indoors.
*Image by Taylor Rooney