We thought we’d take some time to describe to you what a year is like for us as Christmas tree farmers. There is a lot of work that goes into what we offer to our customers, and for those who are interested here is a brief accounting of the work we do to provide you with a Christmas tree each year. We hope you enjoy learning about it because we enjoy doing it.
January to March
Being in Canada, our year begins with winter, which means cold weather and a frozen ground. Nothing grows at this time of year, so we can’t do anything related to growing trees. The trees are left alone and unfortunately, some will die. Why do some trees die? If there is a particularly harsh winter, trees can get what is called Winter Burn. Essentially, the wind and cold ‘burn’ the trees and they turn red and die. Also, sometimes animals, like deer, will eat parts of the trees if they cannot find adequate food elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is nothing that a farmer can do to prevent this. The good news though is that most trees live.
During these winter months we cut firewood. To light all of the campfires that are needed during the Christmas season, we need 90 cord, or about 30 cages of wood. So, when the weather is at least -5 degrees or warmer, we cut and load wood. The wood then has the rest of the year to dry out and be ready for burning in December.
We also use these months to evaluate how the recently finished season went and make plans for the next one. This is the time of year we take what our customers are telling us and look for ways to improve the business.
April and May
With the thawing of the ground comes one of our busiest times of the year. By mid to lateApril, we begin planting. At Sloan’s Village we do not grow trees from seedlings, so we order our trees from other growers in Ontario and Quebec. The trees that come to us are about 3-4 years old already, but are usually no taller than 1-1.5 feet. We order the trees and begin planting whenever they are delivered.
We mark the empty field with lines; the rows are 4 feet apart and the trees are staggered in the rows to create a diamond pattern that allows the maximum trees per acre and yet provide the necessary space required per tree.
Once the fields have been marked, we can plant. To plant, we use a tractor and a planting machine. The machine digs a small trench in the field as the tractor pulls it forward. The person sitting on the planter drops trees in the trench as it goes forward.
Walking behind the planter are trampers; these are people who tramp the dirt down around the tree, so that it is securely in the ground and cannot be easily blown over. The trampers also straighten the trees to ensure that they grow straight up and down. In the past, we planted trees by hand, with some people digging the holes while others put the tree in the ground. It was a lot of hard work. Machine planting is much easier and better for the staff.
Depending on the number of trees to be planted each year, this task can take between 1 to 3 weeks, with the workday being 9-11 hours each day. Rain or shine, Monday to Saturday we plant until all of the trees are in the ground.
By midMay planting is completed and the work becomes less intense and more diversified. First, we begin to spray for weeds and if necessary for pests, such as aphids. This is the first of three times throughout the year that weeds are sprayed and we do it with either a machine or on foot. The method depends on the size of the trees that are being sprayed.
Second, we begin maintenance of the property. Everything has started to grow again, so we begin to mow the laneways and the parking lot – a task that has to be done continually throughout the spring, summer and early fall.
Third, we complete our first round of fertilizing. As with spraying, there are different methods of doing this depending on the size of the tree. For the smaller trees we use a machine. For the larger trees, we fertilize by hand (we put the fertilizer in newspaper delivery bags and spread it using plastic milk jugs). The fertilizer is specially ordered to meet the needs of the different soil types on our property. We do soil tests to find out which nutrients are required.
June to August
For these three summer months, we are busy with a few different tasks, namely trimming, spraying and basel pruning.
Trimming begins when the trees have finished growing, usually midJune. We start with White pine and White spruce because they finish growing before the other species do. Then we trim the Norway spruce, Douglas fir, Balsam fir, Concolor fir and finally Fraser fir.
We use machetes to trim trees that are 4 feet and larger and we use shears for anything 2 to 3 feet. Fraser firs are done differently from all of the rest because of the way they grow. Instead of using shears or machetes, we simply use hand snips. Frasers do not require much trimming and this allows us to get a very beautiful, natural look.
Trimming trees helps us shape the tree to give it a clearly defined conical shape. By trimming the leader (the part you hang your star or angel on), we control how tall a tree will grow from one year to the next. This helps to ensure a nice full tree. A tree will generally grow one foot each year.
As a side note, not all tree farmers trim or grow their trees in the same way. So, what you learn from us is not necessarily what you would learn from another tree farmer.
Basel Pruning is creating a visible stump at the base of a tree by using hand snips, and cutting off about 8 inches of branches from the ground up. This is not essential to the growth of a tree, but it helps tremendously when you are trying to cut down a tree. If a tree is baseled too early it can harm or even kill a tree. If too much is taken off, it can kill a tree. So, we have to be careful when we do this job. We do this to trees three years after we plant them.
Cleaning empty fields is done throughout the year so that they can be planned in the future. This can be done from spring to fall. After a field has had trees in it, it takes many hours to prepare it for use again. First, we clearcut the remaining mature trees that are not sellable. Then, using a machine called a rooter we drag up the stumps and roots left in the field. Then, we walk over the field and throw it all onto a trailer. Once the field has been gone over, we repeat the process again and again until the field is finally clean. We usually have to walk over a field at least 8 times before it is clean enough to plant new trees in.
We do not have every field in use all of the time. We leave certain fields fallow, so that the soil can have a rest and grubs and wireworms can be eliminated. This is an old practice taught in the scriptures that we are bringing back to our operation.
This is the last month that we do work related to growing trees. We use this month to complete any unfinished basel pruning and do the last of the mowing, spraying and fertilizing.
All of this work is often dependent on the weather of course. If there is rain, we cannot spray weeds. If there is no rain for long periods of time we cannot fertilize. Often, it is best to fertilize just before it rains so we watch and wait for that opportunity. To reduce moisture loss in droughts we cultivate the trees. This creates a barrier of loose soil that soil moisture cannot escape through. Irrigation is difficult and expensive so in extreme drought we pray for rain.
Throughout the summer months we have to deal with a number of pests as well, such as bees, mosquitoes, large spiders and ticks. We occasionally come across snakes, but they are not a threat to us.
Uncomfortable weather conditions in the summer months are also a challenge for the crew; we work in the rain and the heat (until the temperature reaches the low 30s). In the tree patch, working in temperatures over 30 degrees puts us in risk of sunstroke. We cannot work in thunderstorms for safety reasons.
October to November
With the coming of fall, we stop being farmers and become businesspeople. We turn our attentions to the fast approaching Christmas season. Equipment is checked and serviced; some is put away for the winter. We advertise and prepare for school tours, which usually start in the Autumn. We start to clean the village and set it up for customers to use.
November to December
These are the months that we open our ‘doors’ to you, the public. For about six weeks we seek to provide you with an enjoyable family experience. When it’s over and Christmas comes, we rest…until the year begins all over again and we repeat the same process as before.