Dr. Bert Cregg, Extension specialist in the Department of Horticulture and Department of Forestry at Michigan State, has years of experience in the Christmas tree industry. He shares the basics with those who are interested in a Christmas tree enterprise.

Those who grow Christmas trees do so on a wide variety of scales and business models, from wholesale production to U-cut. After planning the enterprise, site selection is the first task. Most tree species can be grown on a range of sites. Some species tend to bud early, so it’s important to avoid planting such species in climates that encourage early bud break and potential exposure to frost.

Christmas trees do best in full sun. Most species are sensitive to pH and drainage, so soil is an important factor for site consideration. Soil testing should be conducted prior to planting.

Deciding which species to grow is next. Consider the most important attributes of Christmas tree species including adaptability, growth rate, color, form, branch structure, scent and needle retention.

“At least 10 inches to a foot a year is the desired leader length,” said Cregg, discussing growth rates. “Color is important for Christmas trees – people want a dark green or blue tree. Form is the desired taper – a conical pyramid. Branch structure varies, with some more dense and some open. Ideally, the structure holds up well and there aren’t a lot of holes.”

Tree options include firs, spruces, Douglas firs and pines. Worldwide, firs are among the most popular Christmas trees. “There are many fir options including Fraser, Balsam, Canaan, Concolor, Corkbark, Korean and Turkish,” Cregg said. “Firs are excellent Christmas trees, and Fraser fir is among most popular. They have excellent form, dark green needles with silvery underside and hold up well to harvest and handling with excellent needle retention.”

Concolor fir is native to the western U.S. and has long, blue-green needles, a citrus scent and is more tolerant of poor soils than other firs. Balsam fir is native to eastern North America, popular among consumers and known for its characteristic scent.

Spruces have sharp, single needles. Several types of spruces grown for Christmas trees include Colorado blue, white and Black Hills. Colorado blue spruce are popular and are fairly easy to grow (and not as finicky as Fraser fir). While Douglas fir is not a true fir, it’s a popular Christmas tree.

Pines are recognizable by needle grouping on branches. The most popular pines include Eastern, white and Scotch. Scotch pine is a long-time mainstay of the Christmas tree industry. It tolerates heat and drought stress, has dark green color and a dense form with proper shearing.

Site preparation is critical for optimum tree growth. Cregg suggested growers consider site prep in relation to the future of the business – what scale you’re operating on and if you’ll need vehicle/tractor access or paths for U-cut. If the land is former woodland, remove stumps and level the ground. If it’s former pasture or grassland, chemical prep with glyphosate can eliminate weeds. Cregg said some growers establish a cover crop the first year and plant trees the following year.

Regeneration is an important consideration for Christmas tree growers because of the long growing cycle. Most purchase nursery-grown transplants that are between one and three years old. Larger transplants cost more but may have a higher survival rate. Seedlings can be planted mechanically or by hand, depending on available labor. Cregg suggested a planting density of 5.5-foot spacing that allows about 1,440 trees/acre, or six-foot spacing for 1,210 trees/acre. Tabletop trees (at three to four feet) can be grown much closer together. Taller trees for churches, businesses and homes with cathedral ceilings require significantly more space (usually fewer than 1,000 trees/acre).

Spring planting is ideal, but trees can be planted in autumn. Availability and labor are usually the determining factors – spring is when seedlings are available. “With normal spring rains, spring planting is probably the way to go,” Cregg said. “Root growth is driven by temperature, so once soil temperatures are below 40º, there’s very little new root growth.” Trees planted in autumn will put on some root growth, which can aid in establishment, but fall-planted trees in heavier soils may heave and disrupt roots.

Vegetation management, or weed control, is a key factor in producing healthy trees. Fields should be clean with little weed competition. Weeds cause several issues: they take resources such as water and sunlight and provide habitat for rodents. Weeds growing into trees’ lower limbs reduce tree quality and lead to needle shed.

Options for vegetation management include mowing with some vegetation remaining down the middle of rows. This is especially useful for preventing erosion. Mowers should be shielded to reduce the risk of lower limbs getting caught in blades. Cover crops such as clover can also help with vegetation management and can provide nitrogen. Most growers use a combination of pre-emergent products to inhibit seed germination and post-emergent products to treat growing weeds.

Nutrition management for Christmas trees should be based on soil tests. Macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are critical, as are micronutrients such as manganese and iron. “Both manganese and iron are related to pH,” said Cregg. “If the pH is much above 6.0 to 6.5, you’ll see off-color trees.”

Potential Christmas tree pests include insects, diseases and mammals. State Extension Christmas tree programs can provide specifics on nutrition and pest management for various growing areas.

Management throughout the season includes pruning or shearing, and some species require extra hand labor to manage leader growth. “The best time for shearing depends on what you’re growing,” said Cregg. “The most critical are pines. We shear pines when they’re actively growing, when new growth is coming out and is still somewhat succulent but just about done. When new needles are about half the length of last year’s needles, that’s the time to shear pines.”

Shearing specifics for spruces and firs are different. “In theory, spruces and firs can be sheared any time they aren’t actively growing,” said Cregg. “Most growers shear spruces and firs once they’ve stopped growing for the summer.” Shearing time is a debatable topic and growers usually develop their own best practices depending on species and labor availability.

Harvest and post-harvest care can influence how well a tree withstands the environment in a consumer’s home. U-cut customers do the harvesting and will have a fresh tree, but the grower must provide customers with safe and easy harvest methods as well as safe access to fields and assistance. Most growers offer extra services including stump trimming, baling or wrapping and drilling a hole at the bottom of the cut for a tree stand.

The most important aspect of post-harvest is keeping trees as fresh as possible for as long as possible. It’s essential to keep them cool and shaded. Many growers keep displayed trees in water to maintain freshness or protect trees in a shed or with shade cloth.

Growing Christmas trees can be a profitable prospect, either by itself or as an added enterprise, if growers carefully consider all aspects of the growing cycle from site selection to harvest.

by Sally Colby