Pining for the perfect tree?
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the onset of the winter holidays means that tree farms are starting to see the kind of crowds that Santa and shopping malls also command at this time of year.
The classic evergreen staple has been a part of yuletide décor in numerous cultures for centuries, though the advent of the country’s first Christmas tree farm—located right in Mercer County in Hamilton Township when William V. McGalliard sold the first of his Norway spruces more than 100 years ago—made finding the perfect tree a much simpler task.
While the iconic conifers are traditionally shaped like what New Jersey Christmas Tree Growers’ Association executive secretary Donna Cole calls “an upside ice cream cone,” there are an array of options that even veteran tree-hunters might not know about.
Cole has been growing Christmas trees in New Jersey for roughly 30 years. Located in Hunterdon County, Cole’s Country Tree Farm has 40 acres of land to allow its proprietor plenty of space to be among the trees she loves.
“You’ve got spruces and firs and pines, and they differ in their needles,” Cole says, adding that there are some “exotic, off-the-wall varieties,” too.
Something like a white pine has long needles that give the tree a graceful elegance while the fetching Colorado blue spruce needs to be trimmed while wearing gloves, as its sharp, firm needles are so biting that deer won’t even venture a nibble. No stranger to taking on “the tree that was maybe bit by a tractor” as the centerpiece of her own holiday decorating, Cole says that she can always find a way to “make it beautiful.”
Of course, many of the traditional Christmas trees boast a natural beauty, whether it’s the aforementioned spruce of a blue hue or the soft, subtly colored white pine. Cole says that it’s up to buyers to determine what species of tree best suits their holiday traditions and decorative vision.
“If you have a lot of heavy ornaments, I’d say a nice-shaped fir would be best—whether it’s a Douglas or a Norway or Concolor Fir,” Cole says.
She also points out that height is an important factor, with scenes from holiday comedies underscoring the importance of remembering to consider how big your desired topper is when buying a tree. Most growers won’t allow their trees to reach the 12- and 14-foot heights that those with high ceilings often request, staying within the standard ranging between six and seven feet tall.
The public’s taste for tree variants does change over time. Cole said that 25 years ago, the dense, teardrop-shaped Scotch pine was the most in-demand species, though it’s not always suited to all of the growing locales New Jersey farmers have to choose from.
“They can get a little straggly,” she says, explaining that even the difference between the soil, drainage and overall conditions at her comparatively high-elevation farm and a tree farm in flatter, sandier South Jersey can be considerable.
The trend is “all about the firs” these days.
“They grow nicely here,” Cole says. “Most people prefer them because they have good needle retention.”
Needle retention is a key element in making sure a cut tree maintains its desired shape once it’s home for the holidays—as well as determining its freshness once you’ve decided what tree will watch over the presents on Christmas morning.
Cole heartily advocates getting a fresh-cut tree for maximum longevity and to ensure that it will be as picture-perfect throughout the holidays as it will in those first photographs capturing its freshly trimmed splendor.
“It’s much better to go to a local tree farm and either cut it yourself or have it cut for you there,” she says.
If you do opt for this route, it is imperative to get your new tree into water as quickly as possible. If it’s not going into your home immediately, Cole suggests storing the tree in your garage or against a well-sheltered side of the house—and always in a pail of water to keep it hydrated, as a tree that’s been sufficiently watered is both healthier and much more resistant to flame.
If your tree has been pre-cut and stored for a few months, it’s recommended to give it a good shake to get rid of any loose needles. Cole also says that some farms do sell trees that have been cut more recently; in this instance, she suggests having the farm saw about half an inch from the bottom so that the tree will be able to “drink” from its stand.
No matter how you acquire your tree, Cole says it’s imperative to get it into water as quickly as possible. The sap inside the tree, much like the blood coursing through a human body, will begin to coagulate once the tree has been severed from its roots. Making a new cut in the bottom of the trunk will prevent the dried sap that accumulated at the base from blocking the tree’s intake of water.
Fortunately for those in want of a green thumb, there’s no secret elixir needed to keep your tree healthy: Just make sure that it’s getting plenty of fresh water.
“I usually give mine a gallon of clean water every day or every other day—you just have to see what it needs,” Cole says. “Make sure you have a stand that holds enough water, and keep checking on it.”
For those who wish to spend a little more than the average $40 or $50 on a tree, there is also the option of getting a potted tree, or what Cole says growers refer to as B&B—ball and burlap.
As they are intended to be replanted as a long-term property feature, they require a little more care in being both cultivated and stored before purchase, and are often only found at large wholesalers and bigger farms. But Cole says that they are popular among those who dread the image of discarded trees lining the streets in the early weeks of January.
“People do like to use them in their landscaping and say, ‘Oh, that was our Christmas tree a few years ago,’” she said.
As it takes about six or seven years to have grown an ideal Christmas tree, the farms that raise them are constantly handling a range of growing cycles at any given time. It is that rotation of renewal that Cole credits as being part of why real trees are a more environmentally friendly option than their artificial kin.
“You may have an artificial tree for 20 years, but you’ll get tired of it eventually and it will wind up in a landfill forever because you can’t recycle it,” Cole said.
“They actually used Christmas trees to build a barrier after the hurricane,” she says. “We were all told that if we had any spare trees that there was a place near the shore that was collecting them to make barriers.”
That “we” refers to other local Christmas tree farmers. Befitting a coterie that thrives on the unique warmth of the holiday season, Cole says that theirs is a tight-knit network of peers who see themselves cooperating for the good of their work rather than in competition because of it.
The organization has three major meetings a year—a day-long one in the summer and winter, plus the two-hour “twilight” meeting in June—where diagnoses are made, best practices are shared and agricultural experts from throughout the region provide reports and updates about an array of relevant topics.
And it is their dedication to providing the community that Cole says makes a fresh tree the best one for the holidays—from the experience of selecting a Christmas tree with your family to personalizing it with decorations to the unmistakably festive smell of fresh pine.
“I just can’t highly and thoroughly recommend freshly cut trees enough,” Cole said.
Area Christmas tree farms and sellers
Barclay’s Tree Farm, 35 Orchardside Dr., Cranbury. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tree types: Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Canaan Fir. Phone: (609) 799-1855. barclaystreefarm.com
Bountiful Gardens, 1536 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing. Hours: Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tree types: An assortment of cut trees from New Jersey farms. (609) 583-5167. bountifulgardensnj.com
McLaughlin Tree Farm, 1312 Old York Rd., Robbinsville. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday). Types of trees: Douglas Fir, Serbian Spruce, Canaan Fir, White Spruce, Concolor Fir, Scotch Pine, Norway Spruce, White Pine, Colorado Blue Spruce, Southwestern White Pine. Phone: 609-259-8122. intrees.net
Pleasant Valley Christmas Tree Farm, 47 Pleasant Valley Rd., Titusville. Hours: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (weekends only). Tree types: Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce, Douglas Fir, Concolor Fir, Fraser Fir, Scotch Pine. Phone: (917)301-8557.
Simonson Farms, 118 Dey Rd., Cranbury. Call for hours. Tree types: Fraser Fir, Canaan Fir, Concolor Fir, Douglas Fir, Norway Spruce, Blue Spruce, White Pine. Phone: (609) 799-0140. simonsonfarms.com