For some, growing Christmas trees may be the ideal way to make use of farmland that’s otherwise vacant or needs a rest. David Shiley, University of Illinois Extension educator, urges potential growers to consider some important points.

“Are you willing to plant trees every April?” said Shiley. “Are you willing to shear or prune every tree, every year, and are you willing to control weeds and grass around trees?”

Christmas tree production involves time and energy for marketing in November and December, and investment in land and labor in a project that has no returns for at least six years. It also requires willingness to seek ongoing education to remain informed about current industry trends as well as pests and disease. Potential growers must be willing to accept heavy losses due to natural occurrences such as drought, hail, insects or disease.

“Location relative to the market is an important consideration,” said Shiley. “It might also determine the type of operation you have. Farther away from concentrated client base, you might have to harvest some trees and market as wholesale.”

Consider the proximity of competing farms in the region and determine potential customers – what is the area demographic? Marketing and explaining the benefits of the experience is critical for U-cut farms. Good signage is critical, especially for remote farms. If you’re inviting visitors to the farm, consider access to the property and suitable parking.

In general, Christmas trees do best on well-drained soil. “Most conifers don’t like wet feet,” said Shiley. “That might limit options as far as species you can grow. Poor soil and site conditions are more suitable for adaptable species such as pines.”

Severely sloping land means mowing and shearing trees into a suitable shape can be challenging. Shade also influences suitability for growth – trees that create shade can impact growth because conifers are shade intolerant.

“Selecting tree species to match soil conditions will improve growth and quality of the tree,” said Shiley. “Trees may struggle but not die on a poor-quality site, but the goal is to develop a quality product.”

Soils with high clay content typically drain poorly; soils with high sand content tend to drain quickly and trees can be prone to suffering from drought. Proper pH is critical – Christmas trees thrive in slightly acidic soil with pH of 5.5 to 6.0. While slopes improve drainage, they can also reduce water percolation and retention and are prone to erosion.

Shiley described two location aspects for growing Christmas trees: southwest and northeast. “On a northeast-facing slope, the sun’s rays don’t directly hit that so it’s a cooler, moister site than a southwest-facing slope,” he said. “You don’t want to plant species that aren’t drought tolerant on a southwest-facing slope.”

Purchased seedlings will have two numbers – the first number refers to the age of the seedling and the second number indicates how many times it’s been transplanted. In general, firs do better if they’re a 2-2 or 2-3 (two years old and transplanted two or three times).

In describing some of the most commonly grown trees, Shiley said the Scotch pine, a two-needled pine, has been a standard Christmas tree for a long time. However, it’s declining in popularity in favor of shorter-needled pines.

“There are multiple varieties of Scotch pine,” he said. “Some, like French Blue, have a nice blue color but stems tend to be crooked in a lot of varieties.” Varieties are based on seed origin, and Shiley urged growers to research seed origin and growth habits.

Planting arrangement and equipment for managing vegetation around Christmas trees are important considerations prior to establishment. Photo by Sally Colby

Eastern white pine has five needles with flexible needles and branches. “Some customers don’t like them because branches don’t support heavy ornaments,” he said, adding that tree species is a matter of personal preference among customers. “They grow on well-drained soils but tolerate seasonally wet sites. It isn’t as drought-tolerant as Scotch pine, which is fairly drought tolerant.”

Firs and spruces have shorter needles that are attached singly to the twig. Fir buds open early, and if there’s a late frost or the tree is in a frost pocket, buds are knocked back.

Canaan fir is a variety of Balsam fir. “Canaan fir has two important characteristics,” said Shiley. “It tolerates wetter soils and has more resistance to spring frost injury.”

Concolor is a fairly recent Christmas tree introduction and like all firs, requires fertile soil. Clay soil or low fertility soil will require more fertilization. “Along with the other firs, Concolor has good needle retention after it’s cut,” said Shiley. “It grows better in northern regions and does better as a 2-2 or 2-3.”

Douglas fir, which isn’t a true fir, has flat needles and is popular among customers. However, it can be challenging to grow. “It doesn’t tolerate excessively wet or dry soil,” said Shiley. “It has to have perfect, well-drained soil conditions. It’s also sensitive to spring frost injury.” Orchard- type slopes facing the northeast are best for this tree and it does best with proper fertilization.

Spruce needles are attached singly to the twig. One of the challenges with spruce varieties is needle retention. Despite its sharp, rigid needles, Colorado blue spruce is a popular choice among customers. It tolerates heavier clay and wet soils better than some other Christmas tree species and is suitable for wet sections. Norway spruce, with dark blue-green needles, benefits from increased fertility.

Recent research on all spruces indicates delaying harvest until December to improve needle retention. Shiley said pre-tagging is a good practice for this tree for optimum needle retention.

White spruce is fairly popular and has better needle retention than Norway and blue spruce. Some white spruce varieties have needles with blue-green color and are more tolerant of poor drainage.

Shading is an important consideration when planning a Christmas tree planting. Large trees or forests to the east, south and west will impact growth. “You end up with a tree that has three good sides,” said Shiley. “The back side doesn’t get enough sunlight and is thinner.”

Although some customers tolerate an uneven tree, such trees may end up being culls that are only suitable for cut greens.

Small farms with limited acreage tend to plant trees closer. “When you have a mature seven-foot tree, the goal is to have the basal width of the canopy at about 60% of the height,” said Shiley. “In five-foot foot spacing, those trees will almost be touching. It’s harder to prune and shear them and there will be some shading.”

Marketing is a critical consideration when planning. In a 2009 Census of Horticultural Specialties, of 2,700 Christmas tree operations, three-quarters sold trees retail and about half sold some trees wholesale. Determine whether there’s wholesale potential such as grocery stores or fundraising in your area.

For U-cut farms, be aware of other similar operations in the area. Understand the power of social media to promote your operation prior to and during the season. Growers who are willing to add agritourism features often find additional success with a larger customer base.

by Sally Colby