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Volume 15, Issue 30 ~ July 26 - August 1, 2007

Christmas in July

The sweaty history of Christmas trees and Christmas carols

by Susie Borchardt

Feverishly hot summer days are not the time to contemplate Christmas trees and carols. Yet this sweaty season finds Christmas tree farmer Frank Gouin and choir director J. Ernest Green hard at work perfecting those distant holiday traditions.

“People don’t realize this process takes all year,” says Gouin, whose 11-acre Christmas tree farm showcases five holiday species: white pine, Douglas fir, Canaan fir, Colorado blue spruce and his most recent discovery, Nordman fir. Each species has its special holiday appeal, from the long flexible, blue-green-needled white pine to the stiff, dark blue-green, dense-needled Colorado spruce.

Every month of the year, Gouin shears, feeds, waters, weeds or sprays the trees to get them ready for Christmas. That’s five to 11 years of work, depending on the species.

“If you don’t shear them in July or spray them as soon as they appear infected with bagworms or spider mites, you risk losing your crop. I lose at least eight to 10 percent each year,” says Gouin, who’s a professional.

Unlike many Christmas tree farmers, Gouin only sprays pesticide when bugs threaten, thus reducing the amount of toxic runoff that feeds into the Bay.

Living on nutrient-sensitive Chesapeake Bay requires a lot of monitoring for a farmer who wants to be part of the solution to Bay pollution. Gouin avoids fertilizer because it causes the trees to grow too quickly and spread out. Trees that grow that way are not healthy or attractive, definitely not Christmas material. His policy is good for the Bay as well as for his trees.

Christmas trees came with Gouin’s Upakrik Farm in Deale; over 16 years he transformed it from overgrown to showcase. The retired University of Maryland horticulture professor and Bay Weekly’s Bay Gardener is a consultant on Christmas farming in Maryland. On an especially sweltering July day, 72 members of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association contemplated Gouin’s experimental research on growing the best trees.

Gouin is one of 86 Christmas tree farmers in Maryland, and one of about 10 in Southern Anne Arundel County. Choose-and-cut farms cluster the roads there, while wholesale growers are located in Western Anne Arundel.

Christmas tree farms speed up the normal forest cycle of growth and death. Approximately 368,000 trees are harvested each year in Maryland. This amount is always replenished, so Christmas tree farmers supply the holiday spirit and keep their business going while also keeping soil in place and slowing down global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide. Seedlings, which Gouin gets primarily from Oregon and Pennsylvania, are planted in the summertime and monitored year round until they are strong enough to be relocated in the fields.

July’s job is shearing, or trimming, each tree into Christmas-tree shape.

While Gouin toils in July’s fields to bring you a green Christmas, J. Ernest Green sweats in the concert hall to bring you a musical feast.

The 250-member Annapolis Chorale began rehearsing for its 34th season on July 18, with a handful of guests singing Christmas along with the 130 Chorale singers.

Rehearsals continue every Monday readying for fall concerts and their two sell-out Christmas concerts, A Celebration of Christmas and Handel’s Messiah.

After a two-month hiatus, vocal chords need stretching. Practices start early to prepare singers for the busy schedule to come, as well as to introduce the repertoire to new Chorale members.

Chorale director Green — known for his ability to conduct a chorus and orchestra simultaneously — started the sing-along with such modern Christmas jingles as “Deck the Halls” and such traditional carols as “Silent Night,” plus their signature piece, “Sing We Now of Christmas.” Green waited until the visitors had left to introduce new material for this year’s holiday season; just what is a closely guarded secret.

The Chorale — which includes the full chorus, chamber chorus, the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and the Annapolis Youth Chorus — puts their all into what they do. They take an evening out of each week to practice. They’re volunteers who love the Chorale and push themselves to memorize tricky songs. They also juggle back-to-back practices and performances come winter.

“These people are here because they want to be here,” says Katherine Hilton, director of marketing and development and eight-year member of the Chorale. “The members have a passion for music. It feeds their soul and is a joyous experience.”

Christmas is far away and only one day, but hard work and planning mean that behind the scenes, it’s Christmas in July.

Susie Borchardt of Olney, a rising sophomore at Greensboro College in Greensboro, North Carolina, is a Bay Weekly summer intern who’ll join the editorial staff of The Collegian.

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