by Sally Colby
As the Gaver family is winding down from hosting a variety of fall activities on their Mount Airy, MD farm, they’re also planning for Christmas.
Mike and Lisa Gaver operate the generational farm with the help of their son Greg, their daughter Laura House and Laura’s husband Brian. The farm was originally a dairy operation, but the cows were sold about 10 years ago.
“The Christmas tree venture was Mike’s,” said Lisa. “He planted his first Christmas trees in 1978 when he was 17 years old. His granddad wanted to get him involved in something that would be his own. We had a limited supply of trees the first year we sold them, which was 1984.”
Mike had grown up farming, so growing Christmas trees was a matter of learning about a crop that had a longer turnaround than corn or soybeans. “We say that the average turnaround for Christmas trees is around 10 years,” said Lisa. “Some varieties, like white pine and Scotch pine, grow faster. But when we first started out, that’s all we had. We still grow those, but peoples’ preferences have changed over the years.”
Gaver Farm is known for growing exquisite blue spruce, and they’ve worked hard to find the best possible seed source and learn shearing techniques to create highly desirable trees for customers who prefer this species. “The nature of the blue spruce is to grow short and wide,” said Lisa. “We have tall, narrow blue spruce with deep color.”
Lisa explains that blue spruce grow slowly, which is why many growers don’t grow a lot of them. “We overplanted blue spruce because of the deer pressure, and because we had so many coming on, we worked on the technique,” said Lisa. “We’re proud of the stands we have. Most blue spruce are sheared twice — before Christmas and after Christmas. Mike has a saying, ‘shear to go or shear to grow’. If a tree is ready to be sold, we leave fingers on it for that season. If it’s staying, we tighten it up and work on making it more narrow so it’s ready for its peak year.”
Despite the fact that blue spruce are prickly, customers appreciate their fragrance, superior longevity and their ability to hold heavy ornaments. Lisa noted that many customers who select a blue spruce have a home with a cathedral ceiling and love to see a blue spruce in that space.
In addition to blue spruce, the farm is home to stands of Douglas fir, Canaan fir and Fraser fir. “Douglas fir used to be way ahead in popularity,” said Lisa, “but today, they’re all popular. Each has qualities that people like. Fraser and Canaan look almost exactly alike, and unless someone is a grower, they can’t tell the difference. Canaan fir has a deeper green that appeals to a lot of customers and the Fraser fir is a little sturdier.” The Gavers also grow balsam fir, concolor fir and Nordmann fir.
Gaver Farm is starting to grow small potted trees, a new venture for them. “We’re doing pot-in-pot trees, and we also have some potted trees,” said Lisa. “We’ll see which do better, and whether the labor is worth it. They are versatile and make wonderful Christmas presents – you can put a potted tree on a deck, water it all winter then plant it in spring, or keep on the patio for a year or two and then decide where to plant it.” Species grown in pots include Canaan fir, blue spruce and Norway spruce.
The protocol for managing each Christmas tree field is carefully planned years in advance. A crew goes through the fields after the season and stump grinds any trees that have been cut too high. Since the Gavers grow about 400 acres of corn, 400 acres of soybeans and several hundred acres of hay, there’s plenty of acreage for rotation to help with weed management and to enhance soil fertility. Most fields are cut for three seasons, then after the third year, Greg and Mike have already determined which tree species will be planted the following spring.
“If we’re going to rotate a field out of another crop for a year, that field will have a cover crop,” said Lisa, adding that soil tests help determine which amendments are needed. “If not, in spring we’ll plant a mixture of grass and clover. That mix is planted the day prior to tree planting. Mike has favorites for each variety, but we prefer bare root to plugs, and usually plant 2-2 seedlings on 6’ x 6’ spacing.
If a field has been cleared the prior year, we’ll plant trees 3’ over. We have to have a variety of trees to suit all tastes. I think people want a perfect, cylinder-type tree, but they don’t want it to be bush-like — they want it to have fingers to hold ornaments.”
The Gavers realize the importance of making each customer feel welcome as they arrive at the farm. A preplanned parking layout helps maximize parking space and enhance good traffic flow. “We’re very customer-service oriented,” said Lisa. “We have the traffic flow down to a science. We have a big parking area and overflow in the hay field. We’ll start each morning with an employee’s car positioned in the first space in every row. If the parking starts wrong in the morning, it’s wrong all day. We can also use parking attendants if we need to.”
During the Christmas season, the front section of the large farm market building is devoted to wreaths and greenery. Lisa has found most people prefer to purchase a decorated wreath, even if the decorations are just pinecones and a bow. The Gavers use some deer damaged trees for greens in flower arrangements and kissing balls. The back section of the market building is used for precut trees, also known as the indoor forest, and represents the variety of trees available on the farm. “They’re fresh cut daily,” said Lisa. “It’s a good place for people to see the tree varieties before they go to the field. We try to answer every question before it’s asked.”
Customers are provided with bow saws and tree carts as they head to the fields. The farm also offers hayrides to the field, but Lisa has found most people choose to walk. “Customers’ trees are shaken, baled, drilled and prepared for transport,” said Lisa. “Our crew will straighten the bottom if it wasn’t cut perfectly. There’s a receiving area where customers can load up.”
In 2007, the same year the cows were sold, the family started a fall festival. Visitors enjoy a variety of fall-themed activities for all ages including pick-your-own pumpkins and a corn maze. The Gavers’ most recent crop addition is a u-pick apple orchard, and the farm was one of the first in Frederick County to use a tall spindle system. “We’ve done three plantings,” said Lisa, adding that growing apples has involved a lot of learning. “The last planting was this spring. We have Cameo, Fuji, Empire, Gala and yellow delicious.”
Visit Gaver Farm online at www.gaverfarm.com .
Family fun for fall through Christmas
by Sally Colby