Shearing Christmas Trees

Shearing Christmas trees is probably the single most important process that affects tree quality. Correct shearing, with effective weed control, adequate fertility, and control of damaging insect and/or disease problems are all necessary to cultivate a high quality tree.

Shearing is done to regulate and direct the growth of individual trees. The objectives are to develop a symmetrical shape, which is characteristic of quality trees, and to increase foliage density, which will result in a fuller tree with uniform foliage. Though variation in the shape of trees is permitted both by USDA grading standards and by consumer preferences, the ideal tree has a “two-thirds taper”; that is, the base of the tree is two-thirds as wide as the height. For a tree 6 feet tall, the width of the base would not exceed 4 feet. Market demand for both narrow and wide trees is lower. Acceptable tapers will vary to some degree by species; wider tapers are more acceptable for pines than for true firs, spruces and Douglas fir.  Shearing usually starts a few years after planting or as soon as growth of the terminal leader exceeds 10-12”. Shearing occurs during the active growing season. Shearing at other times will result in branch dieback and misshapen trees.

There are generally 2 style of trees cultivated by growers today, “layered”, and “full”.

Layered tree
Layered Christmas tree

Layered trees branches have distinct tiers and a more visible trunk. There will be visible foliage throughout the branches. The evenly-spaced branches offers more room to hang large ornaments. Growing a layered tree generally requires more handwork. Producing a nice layered tree requires a skilled eye to know which branches need to be cut to open up the tree properly. Sometimes branches are wired up and bent in order to fill in a hole in the tree. Layered trees generally command a higher price than the full tree.

Full trees are denser and have a higher branch count. Most of the foliage will be on the outer portions of the branches. The ends of the trees are sheared back yearly with a knife, which causes multiple new branchlets to grow out and fill in the tree.

Full Christmas tree
Full Christmas tree

Christmas Tree Stump Culture

In earlier days, grower’s sometimes used a growing method known as “stump culture”. Stump culture is mainly used in natural regeneration stands. At harvest, the tree is cut so that the bottom whorls remain.   Eventually the dominant branch will be chosen to become the next tree, the rest being removed.  At this point all of the energy and nutrients of the tree can go in to this new branch, effectively transforming it in to the next tree, without having to grow a new trunk and root system as well, thereby decreasing the amount of time otherwise needed to produce a harvest able tree. Some consumers like the stump culture concept, since the tree is not killed, but renewed.

Here are pictures showing stump culture of a wild Silver tip at the old Ken-Del Ranch in Tennant, Ca.

Christmas Tree Plantations

The majority of Christmas trees are grown on plantations today. Plantations allow for the production of high quality trees in a controlled environment, and is much more efficient. The choice of tree species and varieties to grow vary according to growing zones, market demand, soil and drainage conditions. Most tree varieties are ready to harvest at the most popular height of 5 to 7 feet in around eight years. Allowing for loading areas and access roads every 12-15 rows, a farmer can plant about 1,500 trees per acre, using the standard 5′ x 5′ spacing. Most growers plant or re-plant one-eighth of their acreage every year, which is about 200 trees per acre.

Growers normally purchase their trees as seedlings or transplants ( a seedling that has been transplanted to a new growing bed to encourage root growth) The cost of seedlings or transplants is low when you consider that the mature trees can be harvested two years sooner than trees grown from seed. Trees that will be harvested at a height of 5-7 feet, which is 90% of the Christmas tree market, are planted on a 5′ x 5′ grid to allow plenty of room for sunlight to reach the young trees so growth will be even and not lopsided.

Christmas Tree Harvesting

Harvesting Christmas trees involves several steps. Many plantations use helicopters to bring the trees to the loading area.

The helicopters lift bundles of cut trees from staging points in the middle of the heavily forested farms to trucks waiting on nearby roads. This process allows trees to stay in the ground longer, decreases wear and tear on trees due to handling, and speeds up the harvesting process. Helicopters require certain weather conditions to be able to fly and harvest.

The harvesting process involves several steps, including grading, cutting, hauling, shaking, and baling.  It is only natural for all evergreen trees to lose needles off the inner branches in the fall of the year. Christmas trees are no different.  This shaking deposits any natural needle loss and shakes out any unwanted pests, dusts and molds that can create allergens, onto our fields and not on a customer’s living room carpet. Sometimes the shaking is done at the retail location as well.

Baling serves primarily to keep the tree fresh, makes them easier to handle, and prevents damage to the branches.