Your Special Tree
When I was a boy, come Thanksgiving, we observed a tradition that’s decidedly different today. Dad would mix some two-cycle gas, sharpen and oil the saw chain, and we’d scour woodlands and pasture edges looking for a red cedar.
“One without holes,” Mom always said.
Access to woodlands today is not as common as it once was, but the quest to find a tree is alive and well thanks to Christmas tree farms. I visited two Christmas tree farms and got a good look at the work behind what for many is that special tree.
Up near Chapin, South Carolina, Mary, Gina, and Charli Wessinger operate Bear Creek Christmas Tree Farm on land that’s been in their family since the late 1700s. They’ll tell you that before Christmas music plays and hot chocolate steams, a ton of work gets trees ready for the season.
“We don’t have a Thanksgiving,” the Wessingers told me, almost in unison.
“Each year we plant about 300 trees,” said Charli. “About a hundred die. Deer take them out.” Tree farmers face the three Ds—drought, disease, and deer. Blight and insects present challenges too. And there’s pruning, cutting grass, managing fire ants, and other tasks, among them, fertilizing trees. “It’s a five-to-seven year process from the time we plant the tree and all it takes to make it look like a Christmas tree to the time it’s cut,” said Gina.
Over in Edgefield County, changing farming practices led Charlie Mills to found Clarks Hill Tree Farm as a family owned and operated business in 1983. The land has been in Charlie’s family since the 1900s.
“My dad grew row crops here,” said Charlie. “When I left home, he lost his labor so he put everything in pastures and cows. When he retired, the land was sitting vacant, so that’s when I planted Christmas trees.”
You’ll find Virginia pines, Leyland cypress, Murray cypress, Carolina sapphire, Clemson greenspire, red cedar, and blue ice. Charlie said they still have some white pine.
Clarks Hill Tree Farm sold its first tree in 1988. Charlie oversees a full-time, year-round enterprise. “We put in 40 hours a week year-round.” He and his family plant 2,000 trees a year.
It takes about five to six years to grow a tree to market stage. “Here, it takes about seven years. The deer set me back two years in my rotation,” said Charlie. “Chewing on trees is bad enough, but the little bucks rub their antlers on young trees, tearing them up.”
Charlie he told me his title is Janitor, Wreath Maker, Whatever. He wears many hats, but that’s what it takes to grow and manage what will become Christmas memories for many.
Before I left, I took a moment to stand on a hill overlooking the rows of beautiful trees. I imagined lights on them glowing and blinking and gifts waiting for sleepy-eyed kids. Many of those trees, I knew, would travel to new, albeit, temporary homes. And that made me think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Birnam Wood, Clarks Hill Tree Farm’s forest will relocate as people find their special tree and take it home.
Before I go, I need to get something off my back. I know a good many of you will get a box down from the attic, put up a fake tree, and spray artificial scent over it. And when the fake tree fails, off to the landfill it goes whereas a natural tree returns to the earth from which it came.
Fake trees? Artificial fragrance? Have we fallen that far? Get a real tree. And thank Christmas tree farmers for all their hard work. One more thing, keep your real tree watered.
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