When Paul O’Connor purchased a piece of land in Sutton, MA, he didn’t have a plan for the thickly wooded plot other than to simply appreciate the quiet space. After considering some options, Paul and his wife Barbara agreed they had enjoyed visiting choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms, and discussed the possibility of creating a Christmas tree farm on their land.
“We talked with some Christmas tree farmers who lived near us, and they invited us to twilight meetings of the Massachusetts Christmas Tree Association,” said Barbara, noting that the organization holds on-farm events and provides education and support for Christmas tree growers. “It was a way for us to get our feet wet. Then we talked with a state forester, and he walked the land with us. He made suggestions and we came up with a plan on the best way to use the land.”
The O’Connor’s first planted Scotch pines for what would become Sleighbell Christmas Tree Farm and Gift Barn. They selected that variety because it was the most popular species in the 80s. “They grew fast, but trunks weren’t always straight,” said Barbara. “We ended up using those for wreath material. Then we got into Fraser firs because that’s what people in New England wanted, and added Grand Fir and Concolor fir.”
Although the O’Connor’s stopped planting Scotch Pine in favor of more popular trees, they’ve recently reconsidered that species. “People are nostalgic and are going back to what they grew up with,” said Barbara, “so we started planting Scotch Pine again.”
Some of the young trees arrive as 3-2 seedlings, but Barbara has learned the advantages of putting plugs in the ground. “A lot of growers are using plugs because they tend to grow faster,” she said. “I’ll buy 3-1 if it’s a plug because it will have a better root system.”
The O’Connor’s realized there would be work involved with a Christmas tree farm, but they didn’t count on deer and caterpillar damage. Although cull and deer-damaged trees can be salvaged for wreaths and other fresh greenery items, a more significant problem proved to be a challenge this year. “Our part of New England was hit hard with gypsy moth caterpillars,” said Barbara. “They go after oak, but once they eat the oak leaves they go after firs, and they love Concolor firs. We have trees that didn’t die, but they have severe damage. They’ll spring back next year if we don’t get hit with gypsy moths again.” Barbara says they spent a lot of time removing caterpillars by hand, but that wasn’t enough to stop the damage. After discussing the problem with state foresters, Barbara learned that that there is a bacillus species that can applied to the firs to prevent gypsy moth damage.
But gypsy moths weren’t the only problem — trees were severely stressed from this year’s dry conditions. “New England has had an incredibly bad drought,” said Barbara. “Our trees are suffering from lack of rain. Most of the seedlings we planted in spring didn’t survive. They made it through July but started to yellow in August and now they’re starting to die.”
Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Paul and Barbara are looking forward to the Christmas season. Prior to the first weekend Sleighbell Christmas Tree Farm is open, Paul creates a giant wreath of white pine, which makes a perfect backdrop for photos. He also fashions a large archway using pine boughs. Barbara prepares the farm’s popular gift barn, which started small but has grown over the years. She shops year-round for unique items to put in the shop and chooses American or locally made products when possible. Popular attractions in the gift barn include Paul’s childhood train, a Christmas village and Barbara’s extensive Santa collection.
Barbara enjoys offering a wide variety of wreaths, roping, swags and kissing balls constructed from fresh greens. In addition to material from cull trees, Barbara uses mountain laurel, cedar, juniper and pinecones to create unique, natural-looking décor that is different from what customers can purchase at big box stores.
Guests who come to Sleighbell Christmas Tree Farm to select a tree are provided with a tree cart and saw and are free to select a tree from anywhere on the farm. Outside the gift barn, trees are shaken and netted for transport. Guests also enjoy hayrides around the farm, a fire pit and having pictures taken at Christmas-themed cartoon character cutouts that Barbara has created.
Barbara has noticed that many customers are looking for taller trees to fill the space of a cathedral ceiling. “It’s hard to get trees that large because we let people cut wherever they want on the property,” she said. “We don’t close a field, which would allow some of the trees get 12 to 15 feet, so we purchase fresh cut trees from other New England tree farms to keep up with the demand. Those trees are usually the taller 10 to 12 foot tall trees, but we also have some 6 to 8 feet trees that people are happy to purchase if the weather isn’t good. They can still have the experience of coming to a farm.”
Barbara says despite the ease and convenience of shopping at big box stores, Christmas tree farms have survived. “People can go to a big box store and get a cut tree, but they like to come to the farm for the experience of Santa, a fire pit, a hay ride and hot cider or cocoa,” she said. “Some people bring a picnic and enjoy listening to Christmas music. It’s fun for us, and people enjoy coming out.” The O’Connor’s adult children help throughout the season and keep the farm prominent on social media such as Instagram and Facebook.
This year, the O’Connors will be celebrating their 20th anniversary of selling Christmas trees at Sleighbell Christmas Tree Farm. “It’s fun watching families grow,” said Barbara. “Kids come back from college and people return with grandchildren.”