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Volume 15, Issue 48 ~ November 29 - December 5, 2007

The Christmas Tree Beat

Here’s my first honest story on the trees of December

“Burton, you’ve got the Christmas tree beat. Start with 500 words Friday, 250 words every Monday and a 500-word wrap-up on X-mas Eve. Come up with new twists. Hatch.”

–Burton’s assignment sheet, Nov. 30, 1952

It was one of the greatest assignments I got, 55 years ago, as a reporter for the Springfield (Mass.) Union; no action, no research, no headlines, just imagination. I was the envy of the city room, though I wasn’t chosen because of my writing but because I was a newcomer on the staff. City editor Bill Hatch, then in his 80s, had started off as a reporter and knew the ropes.

Presumably he hoped I, at 25, didn’t. If so, he was wrong. The previous year I had the same assignment at the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal, and an old timer there gave me a head’s up. “Make it up,” he said, “No one will ever know. The story never changes, and there’s no way to check it. Most tree sellers don’t have permanent addresses.”

I was aghast, but after a few legitimate efforts to get a story on the Christmas tree trade, I caught on quickly. Fearing the tax man, or for other reasons, no one wanted to be quoted, to give his name or say what he had sold.

The savvy reporter would take a short ride, then write his story, one interview at the most, spending the hour or two figured for interviews in a saloon enjoying holiday cheer. It was a newsroom joke back in the 1950s.

It wasn’t a joke the other day when the editor of this sheet assigned me to write on Christmas trees to balance my friend the Bay Gardener’s column this week about growing ’em, which he does. I was to write about buying and selling them. Though my editor probably wasn’t making assignments 55 years ago, I dare not try the old gimmick on her, so following is the first and only legitimate holiday tree report from my notebook: The names and info are authentic.

Fresh and Fresher

When you see a Fresh sign at a Christmas tree stand, how fresh do you figure it really is?

Dr. Gouin tells me if it’s from Canada or Maine, it was probably cut in late September or early October; farther south it’s a bit later. Trees, by the way, shouldn’t be cut before the first frost; the chill helps preserve their needles.

A seller might claim shipments of fresh trees come in periodically, but truth is most retailers make one big order. Furthermore, if more shipments arrive, they’re probably trees cut at the same time as the first lot. You gain nothing in the long run.

Chuck McCrobie of Little Sandy’s restaurant at Deep Creek Lake gets his trees from nearby West Virginia and orders them the first of November. He says if his operation is running low, he can usually get fresh supplies. Chuck also handles living trees, the only ones you can absolutely trust to be fresh, unless personally cut — or cut by Dr. Gouin and sold by the Boy Scouts at their lot on Rt. 258 in Deale down the road from his Upakrik Farm.

Roots and All

Living trees, McCrobie says, are coming on strong and now represent 20 percent of his market that goes far beyond Deep Creek Lake.

It matters not when living trees were harvested; their roots are wrapped, kept alive by watering.

Before you buy a growing Christmas tree, Dr. Gouin advises considering three factors: weight, water and time indoors.

First, buy a tree small enough to transport. Depending on the size of the tree and the root ball, a living Christmas tree can weigh from 40 to 100 pounds.

Second, you’ll need to keep the root ball moist but never flooded.

Third, plan to keep your living Christmas tree indoors for no more than five or six days. These are cold-climate trees, he cautions, and they need both winter and summer to thrive.

Balled trees retail for about one-third more per foot than those cut, but the buyer need not feel the needles.

Smart Shopping

Feeling the needles is one way to get an idea of freshness, according to Dr. Gouin. It’s not an encouraging sign if needles and branches snap off. Also, the stronger the smell of Christmas trees, the more recently they’ve been cut.

Both Dr. Gouin and McCrobie recommend shopping for a tree in daylight, not under a couple 40-watt bulbs. Under bad lighting, it’s more difficult to catch any flaws.

Also, they say choose carefully in daylight when at a cut-your-own tree farm. It’s tempting to cut one too tall. A tree in the wide-open spaces with no ceiling appears smaller than it will when it’s in your living room. Choose the perfect tree the first time rather than leaving it behind for another you like better — and leaving the farmer holding a cut tree.

To keep your tree fresh, don’t waste your aspirin; save them for the headache that comes when the needles stack up as high as the gifts. Instead, plunge your cut tree’s trunk in hot water as soon as you bring it home.

Once the holiday passes, the earlier a tree is taken down the safer it is; each day it becomes drier. Also after the big day, many people give up watering.

The Third Life of Trees

What happens after the trees are discarded? If you live in an area with collection available, trees are often shredded into mulch. In Garrett County, for years a local BASS chapter collected them to put on the ice — and when it melted, presented it to the fish for bottom habitat. Now a dog club picks up the trees and stacks them to give rabbits a place to escape predators.

My cut trees go in the backyard on their stands, weighted down with rocks to keep them upright and close to feeding stations to give sanctuary to birds when a hawk or fox suddenly appears. My discarded tree probably saves as many winter birds as it had gifts under it on Christmas morning.

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