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Great Gardening: WNY Christmas trees are affordable

A national news show carried yet another story about Christmas tree prices rising sharply. That is not the case in Western New York (and certainly many other regions). But the widespread story is out, declaring that drought in many regions and wild fires in others have killed so many trees that there may even be a shortfall. Hearing all this, a family might give up its traditional drive to a local nursery or cut-your-own tree farm. Don’t!

Real Christmas trees are alive, well and affordable in New York State.

According to Ken Brown, conifer expert and grower – a regional icon in gardening education – there is not a Christmas tree problem this year. Agriculture in general did suffer from extended drought in 2016, depending on the crop, location, soil type and the ability to provide water. Christmas trees, however, take roughly 10 years to grow 6 feet or so, typically on farms without supplemental irrigation. Established trees have good enough root systems to tolerate dry spells. “Some growers lost a lot of newly planted trees – but established trees should be fine,” Brown said. He hasn’t observed any jump in prices either.

Ann Zywiczynski runs Country Pine Farm in Holland with her husband and sons. She agreed that the recent drought had no impact on the established trees. “Our prices are the same,” she said. I also asked her if she thought the extended fall weather helped or killed the mood for a tree farm adventure – do people prefer to shop for Christmas trees during a pretty snowfall? “It can go either way. We were packed last week,” she said.

Country Pine Farm is a former dairy farm, offering trees to WNY families for 20 years. Like many other cut-your-own farms, this one has helpers to transport your chosen tree, a “bundler” station, wreaths and a gift shop. (See for a listing of tree farms, services and directions.)

Tree business not easy

This relatively good news – that Western New York trees are available and prices haven’t soared – does not mean that growers have had an easy job. Agriculture always has challenges, starting with weather. Growers like Steve Lockwood (Lockwood’s Greenhouses, Hamburg) continually re-plant seedlings in their fields after they harvest grown trees. They are always planning ahead 10 or 12 years.

“This year the dry conditions did cause a big loss: About 75 percent of the new seedlings and many of the second-year trees died. The trees we’ve been harvesting for this Christmas are fine,” he said. “As for those seedlings we planted for the future: We will just re-plant.”

[Where to go to cut down your own Christmas tree]

Brown and Lockwood both mentioned the effect of diseases that can damage a crop or cause growers to change or vary the species they plant. Douglas fir has been a top seller, grown extensively in the Northeast U.S. and the Pacific Northwest, but growers are seeing outbreaks of Swiss needlecast and Rhabdocline needlecast disease. Those diseases cause premature needle loss, so that trees have thin foliage and may not be salable as Christmas trees. (Don’t hesitate to buy a Douglas fir – if it looks good in the nursery it will be fine for the holiday.) If a homeowner identifies the problem in the landscape, fungicides are available to treat it. But for a grower, spraying acres of trees is usually too expensive or just too much work. They’ll plant something else.

Chris Zeisz, CNLP, Russell’s Tree and Shrub Farm, told me that if we see some tree prices rising, it is probably trees from other parts of the country. Russell’s farm grows a large percentage of their Christmas trees. But WNY growers can’t always supply the volume of the particular trees the customers want – Fraser fir for example, the most popular tree in America. Fraser (note correct spelling) firs are fragrant and beautiful, ship well, and retain their needles.

Many of our tree farms and suppliers grow lots of Frasers but have to buy some from North Carolina or other southern states. For a period of time, Zeisz pointed out, prices were up so growers planted massive numbers of those trees in North Carolina. With a glut of trees, prices dipped, so growers planted fewer. The trees have begun to cost a bit more. It’s supply and demand at work.

In the future, new phenomena will favor some trees and damage others. A Phytophtera root rot disease could damage a particular fir, or climate-induced changes – excessive heat or cold or flooding – could lead to some crop failure. Smart growers diversify. Deer are a common problem, sometimes requiring expensive fencing. Tree farming, like all farming, requires lots of planning and many risks. It’s never easy.

The tree you choose

Wherever you buy a fresh tree you will see many kinds of trees including some unfamiliar ones. Fraser fir is No. 1, and firs in general dominate the market. Douglas firs remain popular – soft and pretty. The concolor fir is loved for its blue-toned, rubbery, twisty needles that smell like tangerines if you crush them. Many nurseries and farms have Noble Firs, Grand Firs, and some Nordmann firs. Some year soon you will be finding Turkish firs for sale, as growers are finding them to be disease-resistant and beautiful even if they grow slowly. Several firs have firm enough branches to hold up heavy ornaments, but the best tree for that purpose is still the spruce tree.

Did you notice I have not yet used the word “pine?” From the ’40s to at least the ’60s, many Christmas trees were Scots pines, and many people still call all conifers, including spruces and firs, “pine trees.” Most Christmas trees are firs, spruces, and a few are pines – not the same thing.
When you buy your holiday tree, ask the sellers for a fresh cut to the butt, or make the cut at home – the vascular system may have sealed. Then immediately put the trunk into fresh water, and refill the tree holder regularly. Enjoy the tree, knowing you made an environmentally honorable choice and supported local agriculture.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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