Read this before you buy your next Live Christmas Trees this holiday season. I visited a multi-generational 60+ year old Christmas Tree farm to find out everything there is to know about these trees. Learn which trees to buy, how to care for them, and what makes Christmas tree farms so sustainable.
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While we deal with the effects of climate change, such as frequent fires and drought conditions, learning to care for our land and live sustainably has become more important than ever. I started this article with a question as to how sustainable live Christmas trees really were. Am I contributing to climate change more by buying either a live or fake tree? Are all trees grown equally?
The short answer, is yes, buy your next Christmas tree from a tree farm. Read on to learn why and how to select the best tree for you.
I reached out to some local farms and found myself at the Hyder family’s Indian Rock Tree Farm on a cool Saturday morning, camera in hand, questions ready, and an open mind. At the end of my tour, while mentally comparing the farm to prior holiday experiences at places like Home Depot, Costco, and other farms, I knew I had struck gold.
This was THE standard for Christmas Tree farms. The care for the planet, sustainable practices, and year round tree care put the quality of Christmas trees far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.
Christmas tree farms are multifunctional, as they preserve the natural space and beauty, can be grown where other crops usually can’t, help with erosion, and often provide a refuge for birds and other small animals. Except for those farmers who douse their trees with excessive pesticides, a real tree is always going to be the best option for the celebrating the holidays.
A Tour of Indian Rock Tree Farm
The Hyder family has always cared for their Christmas tree farm and surrounding land as their extended home. The 60-year-old multigenerational farm located in Camino, CA has been transformed into an extension of home, and is truly a model for sustainable and responsible land stewardship. Exploring the farm in person proved to be an exciting adventure, as I learned about their sustainable Christmas tree operations and explored this hidden oasis in Apple Hill.
Many Northern California residents are familiar with the infamous Apple Hill located near Placerville, a menagerie of local apple farms dotted throughout the hills. It was difficult not to immediately stop at one of the farms to snag a few (dozen) hot apple doughnuts. I remained strong, and drove on along the maze of small winding roads, under golden oaks and past towering cedars.
From the entrance, Indian Rock Tree Farm looks like any other mountainous Christmas tree farm. A small patch of trees, from Douglas Firs to Spruce, line the front lot. It’s only upon crossing the short wooden bridge, over a picturesque creek full of fat trout and cascading falls, that you realize you have entered a truly special place.
A Meticulous Forester and His Tree Farm
From the time he acquired the land in the 1960’s, Larry Hyder had cared for his Christmas tree plantation with as much diligence and savvy as the Native Americans who once occupied the land. The farm is named after real grinding stone artifacts that local Native American tribes used to grind food, such as acorns that fell from the oak trees. The park-like cleanliness of Indian Rock can be attributed to Hyder’s forest management know how, lovingly passed on to his wife Geri, and daughters Sam and Karen.
“I always told people he was John Wayne on steroids,” said Sam Rumbaugh, one of Hyder’s two daughters who helps run the farm with her mother and sister. She stressed the important impact her father had on the land and surrounding community.
In addition to being a father, forester and surveyor, Hyder also found the time to educate other Christmas tree farm owners and foresters about how to care for their land. Living in the mountains, Hyder taught his family how to make their land fire safe. They keep the 33 acre land clear of underbrush and make sure to limb up large trees. Growing trees and leaving the land better than he found it was a passion for him, said Sam. Even into his final years, Hyder could be found running a chainsaw or walking the farm to make sure everything was up to his high standards.
Now, his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren carry on his legacy of sustainability and caring for the land while providing Christmas trees to people from all over Northern California. Christmas trees are grown on around 15 acres of the property, conserving natural space and making the best of land that likely couldn’t have supported many other crops.
The Sustainability of Live Christmas Trees
It seems the public still has many misunderstandings about the sustainability and eco-friendliness of Christmas tree farms.
Fake trees may be convenient and clean, but they are definitively bad for the environment. Artificial trees are made of non-renewable and non-biodegradable materials such as metals and plastics. Although they are bought with the intention of years of reuse, the average family only uses their fake tree for six to nine years before sending it to the landfill, where it will likely remain for centuries. Most are manufactured in Chinese factories and imported to the U.S., and some may even contain toxins like lead.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, purchasing a real tree from a farm is actually the more sustainable option. Because most Christmas trees are grown on a farm, they are a renewable resource. Christmas tree farms occupy around 350,000 acres in the U.S., preserving green spaces, stabilizing the soil, protecting water supplies and providing refuge for wildlife throughout the year. There are, however, further levels of sustainable growing practices even among Christmas tree farmers.
The thing that makes Indian Rock truly unique among Christmas tree farms is the way in which they grow the majority of their trees. Instead of planting a new tree each time one is cut down, they utilize the tree’s natural survival mechanisms to re-grow trees from old stumps. This method of re-growing trees is called “stump cultivation.”
Many tree farms you can visit will let visitors cut on their own. While a fun family activity, cuts are often made too close to the ground, effectively killing the stump and stopping future Christmas trees from growing.
Instead of allowing people to cut a tree from the very base, Indian Rock hires “cutters” who will saw the tree slightly higher, leaving about two whirls of branches on the leftover stump. By leaving enough foliage, the cutters ensure that the stump and root system have enough resources to be able to sprout new branches naturally.
“People in the city often don’t know that you can re-grow a tree,” said Sam.
After cutting a tree, they seal the trunk to prevent insects from invading and disease from spreading. “All of these branches will turn up, and then we decide which one will make the best tree.” Once they can see an ideal branch has sprouted up, they will prune it until it takes on the quintessential Christmas tree cone shape.
While walking the property, Sam pointed out a few massive tree stumps that have been used to grow Christmas trees at Indian Rock for over 40 years. Sam wishes other Christmas tree farms would recognize this amazing ability and begin growing trees this way. Not only does it save the time of re-planting, but it saves resources that are used to grow saplings in nurseries. The small number of trees that they do receive from nurseries, they try to source locally so the trees are acclimated to the Northern California climate.
I walked to the very top of a tall hill on the property lined with rows upon rows of Christmas trees. Along the way, I saw a variety of different trees, including the common Douglas fir, Silvertips, Nordman firs, Spruce and Cedars, among others.
Types of Christmas Trees
If you’re an avid researcher and always trying to determine the best of something like me, this quick roundup will help you figure out what the best live Christmas tree for your style is.
With so many options of types of live Christmas trees to choose from, I asked Sam for what differentiated the trees beyond visual appeal.
- Incense Cedar – Lacy, scale-like leaves, medium growth rate, good for stringing lights or a few light ornaments. If you’re interested in the most sustainable option, I was told these grow like weeds all over the farm.
- Silvertip Fir – Also known as red fir, this tree is slow growing, long-lasting after being cut, and can support lots of ornaments.
- Nordman Fir – Needles are dark green above and silver-blue underneath, needles do not drop readily when the tree dries out.
- Douglas Fir – Most common Christmas tree, medium growth rate, doesn’t last long after cut because of its thin needles. This is what you’ll most often find at large retail stores.
- White Fir – Soft, flattened, pale blue-green needles.
- Spruce – Sharply pointed needles, good for hanging ornaments, unique looking.
Fun fact: None of the cedar trees grown on the Indian Rock farm are planted. They all grow naturally on the land and are cultivated and pruned to look like Christmas trees. Sam says this year she is opting for a cedar Christmas tree for herself because of their lacy scale-like leaves.
I was huffing and puffing by the time I made it to the top of the hill, but the view of the farm below and forest landscape beyond was well worth the trek. On the way down, I saw a sign that said “Chips Please.” This is not a sign for potato chip donations, Sam assured me.
These signs are to let loggers know that Indian Rock will take any extra wood chips that they produce from clearing downed trees. Because there is no irrigation system of any kind to water trees at the farm, the family spreads wood chips over the soil to lock in the moisture. Covering the ground with wood chips has been critical in helping the trees survive throughout the scorching California summers. Sam is hoping that the cold weather sets in soon. When the trees are exposed to freezing temperatures, they tend to last longer after they are cut.
Choosing a Christmas tree off of this land has become a smart and sustainable tradition for many families during the holidays. Sadly, this time of year often results in an abundance of waste. Buying a real Christmas tree is actually a way to preserve natural space, mitigate the production of fake trees, and help farms like Indian Rock preserve their land.
Indian Rock officially opens on Saturday, November 21st. It’s a beautiful place to spend time socially distancing in nature, so stop by and spend some time outdoors choosing your perfect tree!
How Long Does a Live Christmas Tree Last?
I asked Sam how early Christmas trees can be cut down for the holidays. It turns out there are a certain number of “cold hours” needed to set the needles to ensure they don’t drop when you get your tree home. The sooner the nights get colder, the sooner trees can be cut. Generally, Thanksgiving week is a good rule of thumb for the earliest time to get your tree and have them last through the holidays.
Some other factors come into play to increase your tree’s longevity. Each species requires roughly one gallon of water per day, with some needing even more than that. Depending on the humidity and temperature of your home, some Christmas trees can last as long as March, although most will die off rapidly near the middle to end of January.
The warmer your home’s temperature, the shorter your tree’s lifespan. You will also want to avoid placing your tree near the fireplace for this same reason. I personally keep my tree in the cold corner.
How to Care for a Live Christmas Tree?
To care for your Christmas tree and keep it fresh, the first thing you want to do upon bringing it up is to cut off the bottom before filling the Christmas tree stand with water. A fresh cut will help keep the tree fresh and able to suck up water to maintain healthy needles.
Assuming you bought your tree near the beginning of December, you may want to take a pocket knife or the like and cut some new shallow notches at the bottom of the tree closer to Christmas to renew its ability to drink water.
Make sure to provide your tree fresh water daily. If you want to go above and beyond, do what I do and compliment how pretty your tree is. Maybe not in front of others.
Regarding the use of those packets you’ve seen for sale at all the Christmas tree farms? I asked about their usage and was told that the owner personally doesn’t use them but has had multiple customers come in over the years and swear by their usage. So, while they won’t hurt, they will probably help if you think you’re the kind of person who might forget to water your tree as often as it needs.
Where to Buy a Live Christmas Tree?
You should absolutely try and support a local Christmas tree farm near you if possible. While Indian Rock is the exception to the norm, many farms are operating as side businesses, making use of extra land which might not otherwise provide natural resources and habitats. If there isn’t a local small farm near you, it is totally fine to purchase your tree from a large retailer – it will have been sustainably sourced and a new tree will in fact grow where this one was cut down.
How Much are Live Christmas Trees?
Prices are determined by both the type of tree and the height. Availability may also be a third factor in the price. Some example pricing from the big box home improvement store down the street:
5 foot douglas fir: $75
6 foot noble fir: $100
7 foot noble fir: $130
Expect to pay a little more than this when buying from your local small farm.
Do Live Christmas Trees Have Bugs?
In discussing organic practices at Indian Rock, I learned that they do in fact use pesticides to keep bugs away, albeit as little as possible. The biggest threat are beetles, which can decimate an entire farm. A more common threat which is generally spot treated are aphids. Usually black or dark brown, these bugs will hide in the trunks and blend in.
Other possible bugs you may bring into your home include spiders, praying mantises, moths, weevil, webworm ticks, and mites. I asked Sam how they dealt with bugs and staying organic. She gave a small sigh and said her dad would use a can of raid to kill off any pesky bugs, and it was the quickest easiest method if you don’t want to bring random bugs into your home.
One bug you’ll almost never find in a Christmas tree is a bed bug – which is a huge relief to know, as this would be the one type of bug you don’t want to bring home.
The good news is these bugs are only interested in your Christmas tree and not your home. They will mostly die out on their own pretty quickly in the new environment.
What is the Best Live Christmas Tree Stand?
The best Christmas tree stand is the one that can hold at least a gallon of water. This is the type of stand Indian Rock was selling:
Another great stand with a water indicator:
- Simply pump the foot pedal Set up your Christmas tree in less than a minute! No assembly required, no screws to tighten!
- 20" (52cm) diameter extra-large tree stand, base weight 18 lbs. (8kg).
- Secures any tree up to 12 feet tall and trunks with 7 inches in diameter.
Other Christmas tree accessories to consider are collars.
Live Potted Christmas Trees
Another sustainable option to cutting down a tree is to buy a potted Christmas tree. The tree will live much much longer and can even be planted in your yard. These can be great options if you are interested in a much smaller Christmas tree but still want all the benefits of a real tree, such as the smell. You do want to be more careful about watering these types of Christmas trees, and keep them outside as much as possible. Their tolerance to the indoors is less than their cutdown counterparts.
Am I Allergic to Christmas Trees?
A small subset of people may find themselves feeling allergic to a freshly cut, live Christmas tree. Unfortunately, this is a real thing. Different varieties of mold grow on the needles, branches, and trunks of these live trees which quickly proliferate in the warmer temperatures inside, setting off different symptoms.
It is very rare for these same trees to release molds while still outdoors at the end of November and in December, which is why you might not experience symptoms while strolling around a Christmas tree farm.
If you suddenly suffer from coughing, sneezing, runny noses, itchy eyes, or headaches, you might just be better off with a fake Christmas tree. Don’t feel guilty about the sustainability – there are other ways for you to be sustainable!
Donate or Recycle Your Christmas Tree
According to the National Christmas Tree Association (yes, this is a real organization and no, it’s not run by Santa Claus), around 25-30 million real Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year. Although they are biodegradable, why waste such precious green material in a landfill when you can use it to create something new?
Recycling your tree means contributing less waste to your local landfill and instead, allows you to put that material to good use. Discover the many ways in which you can recycle and reuse your Christmas tree this year.
Read the full accompanying article on Christmas Tree Recycling.
Last update on 2020-12-04 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API