Our Family Christmas

Christmas time is a special time of the year for many people.  At Watts Tree Farm it takes on a whole new meaning.  Since we are Christmas tree growers we think about the Christmas season more than most people.  It is a real privilege to grow trees for the many families who come to us each year in search of a tree.  Each year on Christmas Day, I stop for a few moments to think about the happiness that is taking place, in many homes, around one of our trees.

Pets are as welcomed as people for the annual hunt for the perfect tree.   There's lots of room and no one seems to mind.

Pets are as welcomed as people for the annual hunt for the perfect tree. There’s lots of room and no one seems to mind.

A lot of thought and care goes into the growing of Christmas trees.  Since it takes, on average, about ten years to grow a tree from seedling to a salable tree, I get to spend a long time with my trees.  It so hard to imagine that from the day I plant a little seeding that a decade will pass before It will become the centerpiece of someones Christmas.  But, time does pass and I am happy that we started on this journey over three decades ago.  It’s a small operation for us and I like to refer to it as a “Hobby Business”  It’s sort of a hobby but it is also sort of a business as well.   Sometime it feels like more than a hobby when I am trying to get everything done through the summer months.  Yes Summer!  Most of the work takes place in the summer.  That’s when the time-consuming job of shearing takes place.  Shearing is one of the main tasks in creating the shape and density that most people are looking for.

Kyle and Wendy (Daughter) carrying a freshly cut customer's tree.

Kyle and Wendy (Daughter) carrying a freshly cut customer’s tree.

Enough about the work of preparing the trees and on to the time of year when all of our family comes together to make magical things happen.  I do most of the above mentioned labor work by myself. But, when it comes to harvest time, it would be impossible for me to go it alone.  The whole family pitches in at this time of the year.  We have a choose and cut tree lot so when harvest time rolls around it takes many hands.  Even for a small operation like ours it takes a lot of help.   The trees are all per-graded and tagged with a colored ribbon that denotes the price.   The grading is based on my personal grading system and I very comfortable with it.  Prices are based on the quality of the tree and not on its size, although larger trees will tend to get a bit of a price upgrade, due to their extra work both in growing and handling. At Watts Tree Farm we do not turn people loose with saws in hand.  In fact we do our best to keep close control over the sawing of trees.   We do have some customers who come out early, in November, and per-tag a tree, which they expect will be there when they arrive back in December.   Turing people loose with saws in hand is just asking for trouble.

Wendy baling a tree as a customer waits.  Most people are very happy to receive this service.  Becky (Daughter-in-law is dressed in a Santa suit and is keeping tabs on everyone who is coming and going.  She is directing us to the direction families went so that we can go help them.

Wendy baling a tree as a customer waits. Most people are very happy to receive this service. Becky (Daughter-in-law) is dressed in a Santa suit and is keeping tabs on everyone who is coming and going. She is directing us to the direction families went so that we can go help them.

Most of our sales take place on weekends in December.  Families arrive and quickly scatter through the two hectare (5 acre) lot in search of the perfect “treasure” that will be the center of the Christmas season for them.   We constantly cycle through the lot offering to help, in any way we can, as they look for a perfect, or near perfect, tree.  Once they settle on one, then one of our staff (that’s all family here!) cuts the tree and helps to carry it to roadside.  It takes a lot of family time to get through these days.  It’s always a guess as to which days are going to be the busiest and how many family members will we be needed on any given day.  Usually we guess pretty well but not always!

Cutting the tree is only part of the journey and only part of the experience of getting a tree at out tree lot.   We do our best to make it an enjoyable experience, from the time folks arrive, until the moment they leave.  We pick up most trees in a small trailer that is towed behind our All Terrain Vehicle (ATV).  I insist on the trees being carried and not dragged, whenever possible.  After all, people spent a lot of time finding this beautiful tree and I want to see it arrive safely at their home in the same condition they saw them in the tree lot.  The trailer gets used to carry more than trees some days. Many of the children want to have a ride in  back with their tree, as it gets transported from the tree lot to the hub of our activity, “the little green building.”  There is almost always enough space at the front of the trailer to do this.  More than once, I’ve arrived back at the building with a crew of children singing out “Jingle Bells” to the delight of everyone.   Many parents have heard me say over the years ” The Children have almost as much fun as I do!”

The little buiilding in the Christmas tree lot is the "Hub of activity.  It's where people arriving get some directions and where the all trannsactions take place as the customers are ready to leave.  It's also the most important spot for children to get a little treat and even a little treat for the dog visitors.

The little building in the Christmas tree lot is the “Hub of activity.”  It’s where people arriving get some directions and where the all transactions take place as the customers are ready to leave. It’s also the most important spot for children to get a little treat and even a treat for the dog visitors.

We offer to bale the trees, except the largest ones which our baler can not handle,  and most people accept this added service.  Having the trees baled in netting makes the handing process so much easier for the families.   Easier to transport, take into the house and even set up before removing the netting.  And far less chance of the tree getting damaged on the trip home.

This is Ashlyn, my grand daughter.  Could she be the beginning of the next generatio of Christmas tree growers?  Time will tell.

This is Ashlyn, my grand-daughter. Could she be the beginning of the next generation of Christmas tree growers? Time will tell.

I have the most amazing family and extended family who pitch in each year.  Some are in the above photos and a few others are more camera shy or not around on the days when I was taking photos.  I couldn’t do this without them!

I have been thinking about getting out of this “hobby” as I am not getting any younger and the work is pretty hard, especially at harvest time.  I was thinking that my children, now adults with families of their own, would have better things to do with their weekends in December.  However, they seem to actually enjoy coming out on those weekends.  I pay them a fair rate, not a lot but a fair rate, for their work and I suppose like all of us a little extra money at this time of year can come in handy.  However, I know they would do it for nothing, just to help out. They convinced me to keep planting and just see how things go.  There is a next generation coming along now and maybe, just maybe, they will be able to take over much of this enjoyable work in the future.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

*** Click on any photograph to get a larger image.***

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Extra Income from Bundles of Brush

At Watts Tree Farm we are constantly looking for ways to generate income from the woodlot. Most people think that timber is the only thing to come from a woodlot to generate income. However, this would be a misconception. There are many other potential sources of income from a small woodlot.  We call these additional products Non Timber Forest Products or NTFP’s as they are commonly referred to. I will write about NTFP’s in a broader context in a future blog.  It is a fascinating subject that presents so many potential opportunities for small woodlots to generate income. For this blog I will talk about one Non Timber Forest Products that we produce and it is quite simply “brush”.

home made stand for making bundled brush.  Note the two strings that are laid across the stand before brush is put on.

home made stand for making bundled brush. Note the two strings that are laid across the stand before brush is put on.

November and December is the time of year when people are busily decorating their homes for the Christmas season. Not everyone has access to brush that is commonly used for decorating. Brush is nothing more than branches from softwood trees. It can be pine, spruce, fir, cedar or any other species that is available in your region. In our woodlot we have access to four species; balsam fir, Korean fir, white pine and red pine. We could add white spruce to this list but it is not as desirable to handle so we do not bother using it. Customers much prefer the softness of fir and pine.

Branches are placed across the strings with the tips outward.   The brush is placed loosely at this point.

Branches are placed across the strings with the tips outward. The brush is placed loosely at this point.

We have been growing Christmas trees for many years. In our choose and cut lot we noticed that people would ask us for some of the branches from the bottoms of the trees that we were harvesting. At first we simply gave it away but we realized that there is demand for brush, as a seasonal product.  The question was “How do we package it to make it convenient for customers to handle?”  The answer was to put it in tied up bundles.  We devised a simple but small stand to hold the brush while we tied it into compact bundles that can be easily handled. This began to generate a small bit of income from what was previously a waste product. As more and more people became aware that they could conveniently buy bundled brush our sales continued to grow. It is not a large part of our income for the woodlot but it is a little extra that goes hand-in-hand with our Christmas tree sales. I think it could be much large if we promoted it more but there is a limit to the time available to make up these bundles and we are already busy with the Christmas trees. There is even potential to wholesale this product but again it is the time constraint for us. However, for readers of this blog it might just be the ideal product for you, depending on where you are and your personal interests.

Look closely at the yellow rope in the center of the stand.  It is used to pull the brush down tightly while the two strings are brought up over the top of the brush and tied tightly.

Look closely at the yellow rope in the center of the stand. It is used to pull the brush down tightly while the two strings are brought up over the top of the brush and tied tightly.

Putting the brush into relatively consistent bundles is a necessity to bringing a product like this to market. This is where the brush stand comes into play. I am happy to show just how we do it as it is a pretty simple device. I am sure there are people out there who could improve on this and make it even easier to create compact bundles. But for the small amount that we do this works just fine. I hope the photographs show the process clearly.

As our sales grow we need to think about where we will get the brush on a sustainable basis to supply customers each year. One of our prime sources are low-grade or “cull” Christmas trees. These are trees that simply will never make a good Christmas tree and are taking up space in our Christmas tree lot. There is always a percentage of trees that, for one reason or another, have poor shape or are damaged and must be cut out of the lot. These “cull” trees have become our primary source of fir brush. For pine we either go to our pine plantations and cut lower branches or remove trees as part of our thinning process. We have planted quite a few white pine in the woodlot so there will always be a source of pine branches for brush. These lower branches need to be removed anyway, so by waiting until late fall we have a source of pine branches for the brush bundles. We can earn a little extra income simply by timing our pruning to the time of year when we need the brush.

A finished bundle of fir brush ready for sale.

A finished bundle of fir brush ready for sale.

Income from the woodlot is important to us at Watts Tree Farm but so are many other aspects of the woodlot. Balancing the need for income with maintaining and improving wildlife habitat, while enjoying the recreation aspects of the woodlot are all a function of good planning. Perhaps over the winter months I can tackle the topic of forest management. Creating a management plan will force you, as a woodlot owner, to look at the things that are most important to you. As always, I enjoy writing these blogs and hope that readers find them to be interesting, entertaining and useful. I encourage readers to follow my blog by pressing the follow button on the side of the page. You will also see a link there to our Christmas Tree lot website.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photograph to get a larger image***

Shearing Pine Christmas Trees

Last August (2012) I wrote about the first steps in shearing Balsam fir Christmas trees. In this blog I will talk about shearing pine trees for Christmas trees. Shearing pine trees is very different from shearing fir trees. Shearing Christmas trees is part science (biology) and part art. Understanding how a tree grows, is the science and shaping a tree to end up with the most beautiful tree a customer could ever find, is the art. Of course Mother Nature is going to play a role and sometimes can upset the best intentions of the science and the art.  Insects, disease or weather can damage a tree at any time in its cycle of becoming a full grown Christmas tree.  Fixing small problems that often occur in trees is best achieved through a knowledgeable mixing of the art and the science.

The two most common tools for working on pine Christmas trees.  A shearing knife and hand pruners.

The two most common tools for working on pine Christmas trees. A shearing knife and hand pruners.

There are a couple of basic words I should explain before we go any further. As Christmas tree growers, we tend to throw words around that relate to Christmas tree growing and expect every one to understand what we are talking about. Shearing and pruning are two often used words that mean two very different things. Shearing refers to the shaping of the foliage of the tree to create a pleasing shape and greater density.  Shearing pine trees is usually done with a long shearing knife, made specifically for this purpose.  Pruning refers to the removal of the lowest branches on the tree to create a branch free “handle”.  The handle is the base of the tree that a happy customer will use to put their tree into a stand.  Pruning is typically done using a pair of hand pruners.

Tip of a branch showing the developing new buds for next year's growth.  Most pine only have buds at the tip of the branch.

Tip of a branch showing the developing new buds for next year’s growth. Most pine only have buds at the tip of the branch.

Shearing of pine trees usually begins when the trees are quite small.  Pine trees, especially the white pine trees we grow, tend to have vigorous growth and put out a long main leader.  If left un-sheared the tree will produce open gaps that are almost impossible to fill in later.  Most species of pine only produce buds at the tips of the branches.  There are no side buds as there are in fir trees.  This is one of the main reasons why pine and fir are so different in their shearing.   Pine trees MUST be sheared during their active growing season.  This means that there is a very short time each year for the most effective shearing.  In Prince Edward Island, Canada this time will range from about late June to mid July.  If the shearing is not done during this time the results will be disappointing.   Because shearing removes almost all of the tips of the new shoots the tree needs time to set new buds at the point where the tips were cut.  If it is done too late in the season the tree will not have time to set new buds for next years growth.

Small White Pine Christmas tree with excessively long leader.   The leader should never be allowed to more than 30 cm (12 in.).

Small White Pine Christmas tree with excessively long leader. The leader should never be allowed to grow more than 30 cm (12 in.).

This is the same small tree after shearing.  Note the leader is 30 cm (12 in.) or shorter.

This is the same small tree after shearing. Note the leader is 30 cm (12 in.) or shorter. New buds will develop at the cut tips.

Different species of pine were tried at Watts Tree Farm. We tried Scots pine and Red pine but with little success. There are many varieties of Scots pine. We had some strains that we liked but the local nurseries could not supply the same strains consistently, so we gave up. Some strains are extremely “prickly” and not user friendly while others have softer needles. Some regions of Canada have large portion of their crop in pine. However, in Prince Edward Island there is only a small percentage of pine Christmas trees as Balsam fir is the dominant species. Most Christmas tree growers do not grow pine as it is such a small portion of their sales.  Years ago I recognized this as a niche in the market that I could use to get more buyers to my lot.  It seems to have worked.  I will get some customers who will travel further to come to our “Choose and Cut”  because they know we have pine trees.

White Pine Christmas trees before this season's shearing.   All of these have been sheared for several years.

White Pine Christmas trees before this season’s shearing. All of these have been sheared for several years.

After this season's shearing.  The taller trees will be ready for market this year.   They will grow out a bit more and lose that "just sheared" look.

After this season’s shearing. The taller trees will be ready for market this year. They will grow out a bit more and lose that “just sheared” look.

White pine can be sheared into very beautiful Christmas trees.  However, the one draw back to them is the fact that they are not only soft in appearance and touch but their branches are too soft and flexible.  I have to warn new buyers that they can be “tricky” to decorate.  They will not handle heavy ornaments the same way a fir tree will.   I have customers who come back the next year and say “Never again.” and others who come specifically for these white pine and have for many years.  I have seen some of the trees decorated by customers and they can be made to look absolutely beautiful.

As always, it is difficult to explain things in great detail I my blog.  However, I hope the photographs help to give a good visual reference to the explain better the work that goes into shearing pine trees.

Until next time, keep safe and well.

***Click on any photo to get a larger image***

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.

Oh Christmas Tree – Choose and Cut at Watts Tree Farm

One happy family out to find the "Perfect" Christmas tree.

At Watts Tree Farm one of our main sources of income, from the woodlot, is Christmas trees. We have only a small lot but managing this takes quite a bit of time. Today I’ll focus on the harvest season of 2011. Our primary interest is with “Choose and Cut” although we do have a few trees that are sold wholesale.

Choose and Cut is quite simply defined as having trees, still on the stump, where customers can walk around to choose the right tree for them and then we will cut it fresh for them to take home. It is this part of the whole Christmas tree growing that I enjoy the most. It is pleasant when the weather is good but can become unpleasant to almost impossible if we get heavy snow. There are so many little things to write about but I’ll only cover a few in this blog and save more for other times of the year.

The shed is the beginning and the end point for everyone coming out to look for their Christmas tree.

When visitors arrive at the Christmas tree lot they are greeted at our shed. As our trees are all “graded” and priced guests need a little instruction before heading off to wander through the 2.5 ha of Christmas trees. Although our guests can wander and enjoy the great outdoors we like to keep the cutting in the hands of our staff. Since we have many trees that are preselected, usually in November, it keeps mistakes and accidents from happening if our guests are not carrying saws.

Rows of trees graded and ready to chosen as the "Centerpeice" for someone's Christmas

The weather in our 2011 season was especially good for Choose and Cut, with only a little snow on some weekends. Our Christmas tree business is very small and we are only able to be open on the weekends. That is because I and all of my help work full time so we have to squeeze all of our sales into a couple of busy weekends. When the weather is good it can be a lot of fun for everyone. But in those years when the snow comes early and is deep or heavy and wet the fun can disappear and it becomes a difficult task.

Arriving back with the prize tree and a happy family.

Our Christmas tree lot has a well laid out series of trails. The entire lot is divided into small blocks of about 0.2 ha each. This layout is so helpful in so many ways. Trails go around or through every block and it makes picking up trees much easier. We use an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) and a trailer to haul most of the trees back to the shed where the final transaction takes place before the family leaves. The children especially enjoy the ride back, either in the trailer or for a few, up front with me. We also carry a few additional items for sale such as wreaths and bundles of brush and occasionally other decorating material. Having these extra items helps to add to our income. It also adds to making the experience of visiting Watts Tree Farm more enjoyable and fulfilling.

There is a lot more to show about growing Christmas trees. I am happy that I will have this blog to present even more to you in the future. I hope you will continue to follow along.

Until next time, keep safe and well.