Earlier this week, I spent my afternoons and evenings helping shear Christmas trees on our family farm. Shearing a tree is a very interesting task that combines science, knowledge of the trees and art. It is both mental and physical, right-brain and left-brain.
Starting after their second year of growth, the trees are trimmed every year until they are sold. We have around 12,000 trees and we shear them all by hand with a serrated knife and a set of hand pruners, though there are all kinds of gadgets you can get for the task.
My dad does the bulk of the shearing, but I have been helping more in recent years and am slowly learning the complexities of this most important part of Christmas tree production.
Here is a quick lesson in the basics of shearing pines. The terminal leader (the branch that serves as the point at the top of the tree) sets the stage for a straight and attractive tree. This is where shearing starts. The young leader needs guidance and care. If the leader gets too tall, there will be gaps between the whorls of branches around the tree as it grows. On small pines, you need to cut the leader at about 12-inches tall (if it has grown more than that) to avoid an excessive vertical gap the next year. You also need trim back any lateral branches that may be trying to compete with the leader for the top spot.
For a nice Christmas tree, you need one strong central terminal leader. Multiple leaders create significant problems, as do lateral branches from the side trying to gain the central position. If the leader grows too strong in a year (more than a foot) it needs to be reigned in a bit. If the leader is weak, you need to also weaken the surrounding lateral branches by trimming them back and removing the buds to avoid an unseemly takeover.
Of course, there are endless different situations that require customized treatment for each tree. And, different species of tree need to be trimmed differently. For example, trimming the ends of the branches along the sides of the trees creates the ideal taper for the conical Christmas tree. It also sets where the next set of branches will emerge the following year. Because of this, trimming the sides of young trees makes them fuller, something that is very desirable for young white pines, but not so great for Scotch pines. And, shearing fir trees is quite different as well because they grow differently than pines.
When shearing a tree you are trouble shooting on the fly and taking proactive measures to prevent future problems. You are thinking about what that tree needs today and in five years. And, while out in the field on a pleasant summer evening, I can’t help but get a bit philosophical about the task at hand and feeling that there is a lot about life one can learn from shearing a Christmas tree.