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Need a REAL Christmas tree? You're in luck

The next two weekends are good times to buy a cut Christmas tree, preferably fresh from local farms. The Western New York Christmas Tree Farmers Association lists 17 member growers in Erie County and seven in Niagara County and surely there are others who aren’t yet members. You might consider hurrying out to a farm this year a little sooner than in the past. While a snowfall adds some romance and makes tree shopping picturesque, it’s always smart to beat the heavy weather.

And there is that story about availability…

A tree shortage here?

“Not a problem,” said Ken Brown. “Local trees are in good supply.” Brown should know. He planted his first 1,500 trees in 1983, and is still making wreaths and selling trees at his Field of Dreams Farm. Brown was also a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent, WBEN radio garden show host, and Buffalo News writer for decades – so he’s kept up on the Christmas tree industry.

The national news hasn’t been good however. Simply put, there will be a shortage of fresh trees in some places because many growers planted fewer trees or gave up their businesses during the recession about 10 years ago. Most Christmas trees take seven to 10 years to grow, with annual pruning and other maintenance or protection requirements. So not enough were planted and cared for. Meanwhile, fires in the West and droughts in the South – places like Oregon and the Carolinas – damaged or killed many of the crops that were nearly ready for harvest.

The local situation is more encouraging. Brown said one reason is the nature of the Western New York economy.

“We just tend to hold steady here,” he said.

As with housing values, we rarely have the economic volatility – as many highs and lows – as other parts of the country. It’s also likely that tree growers here, like other farmers, are a flexible and responsive lot, always trying to anticipate weather and market fluctuations. That’s not easy when the tree sale is eight years out from the decision about what to plant.

It’s also smart and the right thing to do to shop early and buy local. That’s the message from Jerry Saab, president of the WNYCTFA.

Saab agrees that the local supply is healthy, but retailers can still sell out of your favorite tree. Some area growers and garden centers supplement their homegrown supply with precut trees from other states. Steve Lockwood of Lockwood’s Greenhouses did not have trouble getting some cut trees from the South. They buy some to complement their own crop because some popular trees just don’t grow well in Western New York soil and the deer decimate them. The Lockwoods don’t anticipate a gap, but everyone says it’s still smart to find your favorite tree early.

Try a different spruce or fir

I asked Saab and Brown both about great trees that are entering the market. They each named one spruce tree first: the Meyer Spruce – “a fantastic tree” – according to both. It has all the advantages of a blue (Colorado Blue Spruce). For growers it’s more disease resistant and deer don’t like it. For buyers, even if you don’t find it this year it will be a favorite in the future.

Another less known spruce gets rave reviews, called the Black Hills Spruce (Picea glauca variety densata) It’s actually a white spruce but the densata tells you it’s bushier and more compact. Tree farmer Herman Donaldson – an icon of the industry, now retired – told Saab: “Sell one to somebody and they’ll come back for it ever after.”

That’s a good recommendation.

The most popular Christmas tree is still the Fraser fir, and firs in general have risen to top billing. Frasers aren’t easy to grow in Western New York for several reasons, including deer damage and diseases that thrive especially when springs are wet. If not enough Frasers come into WNY from elsewhere, try a different fir instead.

Other lovely firs to try:

• Concolor firs are often bluish and smell like tangerines if you bruise the needles. One will be my daughter’s first Christmas tree because she remembers the fragrance from childhood.

• Grand firs are named grand for a reason, growing to 300 feet in the Pacific Northwest. They are great Christmas trees. Saab said many of his regulars count on this species and are extremely disappointed when they’re sold out.

• Canaan firs are related to the classic old-fashioned balsam, but they are less prone to late frost damage, tolerate wetter feet and have fewer insect challenges.

• Turkish and Nordmann firs are similar to each other, with excellent needle retention.

Real or not?

I won’t name names, but I actually know some people that put up artificial Christmas trees. Imagine.

Synthetic trees come from China mostly, are made from petroleum products, gather dust and molds in attics and basements, and go to a landfill in an average of eight years or less.

Fresh cut trees grow in eco-friendly tree farms, mostly family businesses, keep farmland in production (as opposed to development), provide jobs, give you and your kids an old-fashioned country experience, and can be returned to nature.

For the allergy-prone, some trees (Turkish or Nordmann) are fragrance-free. You can shake and wash the Christmas tree on the driveway. And the artificial one is very dusty anyway. If you’re worried about insects (based on a recent news claim that living Christmas trees are loaded with them) just hose it down and don’t think about it. Nothing on the Christmas tree bites.

Tree growers, nurseries and local garden centers are seasonal businesses with weather challenges and a living commodity to provide – enough reason to buy from them if we want them to survive. Box or chain stores have their place for some kinds of shopping, but I advocate buying food and plant products from local growers, including your real Christmas tree.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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