The year my family started planting Christmas trees was 1983 — 32 years ago. Back then, my father was my age now and I was the age of our son who is five.
The family tradition continued this year, albeit a bit later than normal.
We typically plant trees as soon as things dry out in very early April, but this year the rains kept coming and the fields were slow to dry. The bare root tree seedlings have a limited life in the shipping boxes. We try to get the trees planted within a couple days of their arrival and this year the trees sat in the boxes for more than two weeks as the rains never offered a chance to get in the fields. We finally got the first round of trees planted on April 16.
In 1983, we planted the Christmas tree seedlings with flat dibble bars that are used to make a triangular hole in the ground to insert the seedling and then close the hole up. We evolved from that method to the use of a six-inch auger, which is much better for the survival rate of the trees but a huge effort in terms of time and labor. One person drills the holes in the field every six feet in a row and 3 to 4 people follow, planting the trees on hands and knees. Muscles you never knew you had start hurting after planting a couple thousand trees that way.
We still use the auger planting method when we replace dead trees in existing blocks and for spot planting trees. But when possible, we now use a riding tree planter for planting big open blocks. Because we were planting this year’s trees in new, open ground, we were able to use the tractor pulled planter. It holds two riders that drop the trees in a slot in the ground that is closed with angled tires — sort of like a rolling dibble bar. This dramatically speeds up the process and reduces the labor requirements compared to planting the trees by hand with the auger.
Before we can plant this way, the field has to be leveled with some light tillage and dry enough to avoid excessive clumping of mud in the slot. Finally, the conditions were dry enough for this on some of the highest and best-drained ground on the farm. We planted 1,500 Canaan fir tree seedlings on April 16.
Planting trees on the riding planter is vastly more pleasant than by hand, but it can be more challenging to keep rows straight. So, after we plant a couple of rows we need to walk back and move the trees that did not quite fall into line and stomp around all of the seedlings to fully close in the slot left by the planter. We do all of the replanting with the auger method.
We are awaiting another mix of pine and spruce trees to plant in the wetter areas in the field. Those
trees are coming from nurseries in Pennsylvania where the cold, wet weather has prevented the spring digging of seedlings thus far.
We are also experimenting with seeding Dutch white clover in the fields as a cover crop around the trees to suppress weeds and fix nitrogen for the trees. The hope is that the low growing clover will not compete as much with the trees and choke out most of the weeds in the field to reduce mowing, which is a constant source of labor in the summer months. Without mowing, weeds will wipe out most of the tree crop, but the mowing takes a huge amount of time and fuel (and results in the occasional mowed off tree). We are hoping the use of the clover will reduce the need for mowing.
The block of trees we planted this spring will be ready to harvest in eight years or so when our children will be old enough to start doing the cutting. After a couple of harvest seasons, the block will be cleared and the process repeated.
We were glad and proud to continue this three-decade tree planting tradition with some help from the weather and a new generation of Reeses to carry on the work on the farm, where we hope both the trees we planted (and the young people who helped) will have many wonderful growing seasons ahead.