Shearing Christmas Trees – Lesson 1

A lot of people ask me “How do you get your trees to look so bushy and beautiful?”  Well it really isn’t rocket science, although there is some science and art that go into the process of growing good Christmas trees.  Of course the word “good” is a relative term as different people want very different characteristics in their tree.   However, there are some qualities that most people prefer.  These basic prefered qualities include: more density than a wild grown tree; good (deeper) color and lush, fresh needles.  With these few appearance qualities in mind we must also consider that some people want trees that are wide and others want them as narrow as they can get them.  Some want them tall and some want them short.   At Watts Tree Farm we do our best to have a variety for our customers to choose from.

Young Balsam fir tree ready for its first shearing.

When most people are heading to the beach on a hot summer day, Christmas tree growers are in their Christmas tree lot shearing trees.   That beautiful dense foliage tree does not happen by accident.  Mid summer to early fall is the prime shearing time.  I won’t go into the reasons for this but lets just say it is part of the science that goes into the development of the tree.

The first step is to remove the lower branches using good qualiy hand pruning shears.

I was considering writing a blog to try to explain the whole process of shearing but I think it will be a bit too much so this blog will be about the beginning.  The first shearing on  a new tree will typically take place when the tree is between 2-3 feet tall (60 -100cm).  Once the decision is made to shear a tree for the first time I recommend removing the bottom branches from the ground up to at least 8 inches (20 cm).  This will create the “handle” that the customer will want to put in a stand.   This is not absolutely necessary but it gives the tree a much better appearance and with Christmas trees appearance is everything!   When you have “choose and cut” selling, as we do, this “basal pruning” as it is called, gives the customer the best look at exactly what the tree will look like in their home.  Having additional and unnecessary branches at the bottom simply makes it more difficult to know how the tree will look until they are removed.  A good pair of hand pruners are used to complete this step.  If you are thinking of doing this, I suggest buying the best hand pruners that you can and not the cheapest.

The leader will be cut just above the good bud I am pointing to.

The next step is to shear the out side tips off the tree and this includes the top.  Lets focus on the top first.  A fir tree will produce a central bud and a whorl of buds around it.  the central bud will normally become the new leader next growing season while the whorl of buds would be next years new branches.  When the tip is sheared this natural whorl is removed.  The cut should be made just a little above a strong (large) side bud.  This side bud, which was meant to be a branch next year will now become a new top on the tree in the next growing season.  You will have to deal with the new top next year and every year after that until the tree is harvested.  Multiple tops are very common on sheared trees.  In the years that follow you will have to understand the science and practice the art of shearing in order to get the desired shape and density.

This is what you can expect to see the year after the first shearing. Note how the side buds from last year are now trying to become new tops.

The side tips will also have to be removed.  In a way, what is taking place is, you are slowing down the outward growth of the tree and allowing the inside branches to catch up.  This is essentially what will create the density of the tree.  This side shearing is also what will affect the width of the tree.  Take off only a tiny bit and over time the tree will most likely be as wide as it is tall.  Shear off more of the tips and you can create a narrower tree to fit into a smaller room.  The photographs show you some of this process.  In some future blog I would like to look at trees as they grow to show how more cultural practices will help to grow the best possible tree.

This is the young tree after its first shearing and ready for next years growth.

Each year Watts Tree Farm enters two Christmas trees in the PEI Provincial Exhibition – Christmas Tree Contest.  This year I am very pleased to say that we can boast a little as we won first place in both categories!  I wish I had photos of the trees to show you but unfortunately I do not.  I will try to make a point of taking photos next year and show you the results and hopefully we will be able to repeat this good fortune again next year.  I am always open to your questions and/or comments.  You can leave a comment or ask a question in the block at the bottom of the page.

You can see a larger image of any photo by clicking on it.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

11 thoughts on “Shearing Christmas Trees – Lesson 1

  1. I looked at your steps to trim a tree and found that it. Was very helpful. Thanks for the great information.

    • Thanks for the comment John. It’s always nice to get feedback. If you have any questions you can write directly to “ . I simply try to share some of my experiences.

  2. I bought a pre-cut tree and got it home only to realize the circumference takes up half of my living room. Can I trim the branches or will the tree turn brown? If I can, how do I cut it?

    • Hello,
      Thank you for your question. It is a difficult one to try to answer here in a short email. I don’t know the type of tree or just how much you need to remove. If it is a fir tree then I think you can shear it back a little but the results may not be the best. I don’t think the tree will turn brown as a result of some fresh shearing. This is a difficult task if you are not use to doing any think like this. From the sounds of your message, I’m guessing that you purchased a bailed tree and could not see the size or shape of it until you got it home and standing. One thing you may be able to do to save some space is cut some of the branches on the back side (the side that is in the corner) and then slide the tree closer to the wall. You wont see much of the lower branches on this side anyway and this might gain you some room in the room with the tree. Aside from these things I don’t think there is much else I can suggest. I do hope it works out well for you.
      Kind regards,

  3. Hello and good morning. I have been searching all my.books and the www for a direct answer to this question. Your site has been most helpful so far. I live in Ohio and have just started with christmas trees. I have canaan firs at different stages. 3 yrs and under. Most are 2ft+ when I prune them, do I cut the lateral top branches if they are too long. Or wait until they are older? And what about really long terminal leader? Excessively long? Do I cut it also. Ive seen alot of shearing the older trees but not these young ones. Also there are small shoots that grow straight up, do I take them off as well? They look like they will compete with the leader eventually. Thank you so much for your input. I greatly appreciate any help I can get. Sincerely, Ally

    • Hello Ally,
      I don’t know about your species of fir but my guess is that thy will react somewhat the same as my balsam fir. I start my shearing at about 2-3 feet in height. In general I think the answer to your questions are all “yes”. When you shearvthe top leader you are going to shear the sides of the tree (laterals) as well. I start my fir shearing shortly after the elongation period ends and continue shearing into the Fall.
      There must be a forestry extension office somewhere near you where you can get a bit of information. Start slowly and watch how your trees respond next year. Before you know it, you’ll be the expert helping others! Feel free to contact me anytime via email at :
      Good luck with the shearing.

      • Thank you for your quick response. Really appreciate the help. We do have an extension office. Maybe they have a booklet on it.

  4. For firs and spruces, if you shear the whorl from a leader or branch tip, will whorl buds regrow at the end of the shear the following spring?

    • Hi Mike,
      The short answer is “not likely”. Since the top was removed the tree must now attempt to grow a new leader from a side bud. Its not likely that it will set a new complete whorl in the first year. Some species or even some trees may be able to to this but I believe most will have an incomplete whorl of perhaps three lateral buds instead of the normal five.

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