by Sally Colby
Christmas tree growers have a variety of tree species to select when it’s time to plant and some are willing to try unique species. Paul Shealer of Evergreen Acres Tree Farm in Auburn, PA and Glenn Bustard of Bustard’s Christmas Trees in Lansdale, PA discussed their experiences with Nordmann and Turkish fir at the summer meeting of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association.
Both growers agree seed source for these two varieties is the main challenge. After that, it’s a matter of becoming familiar with species that aren’t normally grown in most parts of the United States.
“In Europe, it’s a natural grown tree,” said Shealer. “They want a slow-growing tree that gives them layers without shearing the tree. The trees are very open between the layers. In the states, we prefer a much fuller tree — a thicker tree that requires shearing. They do their work without shearing. That’s why we have to look more into what varieties give us those growth habits to give us what we need for our markets.”
Bustard experimented with pH in numerous blocks of Nordmann and Turkish fir on his farm. “The CoFirGE Project (Fir Germplasm Evaluation Project) consists of 3,000 trees in three blocks,” he said. “One block started at a pH of 6.2, another at 5.6 (both originally Douglas fir ground) and one at 5.0 (Fraser ground). We raised them all to 6.2 to 6.6 between 2013 and 2017.”
Shealer says his experience with pH has been different. In his first experience with raising Nordmann, he planted a block of Frasers then planted Nordmanns at the end of the block. “I planted a block a certain distance with Frasers and finished the rest of the block with Nordmanns,” he explained. “They were in pH 5.5 and they have done absolutely phenomenal at those lower pH levels.” Shealer says the bottom line is we don’t know what the ideal pH is for Nordmanns and they seem to be adaptable to a wide range of pH conditions.
“When it comes to fertility, Nordmanns are very nutrient demanding, just like Frasers,” said Shealer. “They respond extremely well to fertilizer and we get good color and good growth. We’re treating ours like Frasers. In my case, my Frasers are getting from four to five feet on up. I’m shooting for 50 to 90 pounds of actual nitrogen to the acre. So with a 25 percent nitrogen ratio in the mix, it’s roughly 300 pounds to the acre.”
Shealer says he’s getting good side growth with plenty of growth to shear. The leaders seem to be coming nice and strong and he doesn’t see as many crooked leaders as in Frasers which are the result of excess nitrogen. “They’re very slow growing in the beginning and it seems that they have to get a root system underneath them,” he said. “The more kick we can give them with fertilizer in spring and fall, we can try to stimulate that root system and push them along a little faster.”
In regard to site selection, Bustard has one planting of Nordmanns in dry, rocky ground and another planting in wet ground that tends to accumulate puddles. “They’re doing fine in both places except the wet ground has a lot of deer, and the deer have basal pruned them to about five feet high,” he said. Shealer’s experience is similar, although he hasn’t planted Nordmanns on wet ground because his wet ground is in a valley which tends to be a frost pocket.
“I originally put them in good Fraser ground,” said Shealer. “But I’m not going to waste good Fraser ground on Nordmann and Turkish in the future. I’m going to put them in my hard, bony southwest-facing site where I can only raise Douglas and Concolor.” Shealer used trickle irrigation to start Nordmanns, but found they do well on dry sites and irrigation isn’t worth the investment or effort.
Bustard says both Nordmann and Turkish firs tend to get frost damage easily. “We get frost damage on Nordmanns and Turkish and not get it on anything else,” he said. “Some bud break early and some bud break late, so some are getting frost damage every other year.”
Like with other species, weed management on these species is critical and similar to programs for other species. “They seem very tolerant to herbicides and I haven’t seen any herbicide injury from the regime I use,” said Shealer. “In fall, I use Roundup® at one quart and I’ve bumped up Princep® from one quart to two quarts and get a little bit better winter annual weed control with that mix. In spring, I use SureGuard, Prowl® and Roundup® and weeds respond well with no damage.” Shealer noted that trees seem to harden off well, like Frasers, so blocks can be sprayed in early September.
Bustard did some experimenting with basal pruning and had interesting results. “One thought we had that while the trees are establishing roots and growing wide is to take the branches off the bottom and try to force the tree up,” he said. “We have a block of Nordmann fir planted in 2010 and in March 2013 I basal pruned four inches off every tree in four rows. The next four rows I took eight inches off every tree. I left four rows untouched. I came back at the end of August and measured the leaders on some of the trees and I found that the non-basal pruned trees had an average leader of seven inches. The four-inch basal pruned trees had an average leader of 7.9 inches and the eight-inch basal pruned trees had an average leader of 8.25 inches. We were gaining growth by taking the bottom branches off.”
Shealer says one downside to Turkish and Nordmann firs is the butt size. “They get big,” he said. “And they’re heavy. We’ve found that earlier butt pruning keeps that trunk just a little bit smaller. They’re not getting as large a caliper at the time of harvest as the trees that are not butt pruned.” Shealer says the main benefit of butt pruning is getting upward growth sooner instead of the tree growing slowly and putting out short leaders and becoming “fat” before they grow upward.
One issue both growers noticed is a problem with bud abortion. “It’s an issue throughout the life cycle of the tree, but to me it’s a bigger issue when the trees are young,” said Shealer. “They’re only throwing short leaders out and there’s nothing there to top off. Then the next spring you have a four-bud whorl and a lead bud. All will abort or you’ll have one or two of the whorl buds break and the terminal bud will abort. I haven’t been shearing trees during the growing season — I’ve been waiting for the following spring and I wait for the tree to decide which bud’s going to break when I cut that leader.”
Both Turkish and Nordmann have relatively short leaders, so it’s important to get the root system established with butt pruning and fertilizer. “It’s the nature of the beast,” said Shealer. “They have shorter leader length early on, but once they get moving with good fertilizer it’s not uncommon to see a good leader.”