The Journey of Christmas Trees

The journey of christmas trees.

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

It’s that time of year again when families venture to the magnificent forest of hundreds of Christmas trees found at their favorite Green Thumb Nursery. Have you ever stopped to think about how these trees get here and what it takes to produce these beautiful masterpieces? I want to bring you along the journey that these Nobel, Nordmann, and Douglas Firs go though. (Please note some, processes may vary from one operation to another.)

The place is Oregon or Washington near the Cascade and Coast Ranges of the Pacific Northwest. This ideal climate is comprised of long, dry, and mild summers, with temperatures on average of 70 degrees f. The winters are cold and moist. The average rain fall is about 40 inches with 6 ‘’ of snow. Seeds are usually collected in autumn in high elevations of the Cascade Mountains. These cones are cleaned to get out the seeds and are ready to plant the following spring. Inside a growing house where the environment is maintained for perfect cultivating conditions, these harvested seeds are planted in small cell pots then filled with soil. Sand grit is spread by hand to cover each seed . The growing cycle begins in 3 weeks. When the seed germinates, each one is carefully inspected for proper seed development. They are watered by overhead misters several times each day so they do not dry out. After a certain amount of time, the seedlings are then transferred outside and planted in the ground or they may be shipped to an offsite production field where the seedlings can be grown in the ground for another 3 years. Each tree is either planted by hand or by specialized tree planting machinery. Crew members follow behind the machine as it digs trenches, workers place trees in the ground, then someone follows up to check to make sure everything is running smoothly, and then finally they cover the planting trenches with soil by hand. When they are developed and strong enough, the young trees are carefully lifted with specialized machinery, bagged, and brought to a growing grounds for more growing. Here at this place, special meticulous care is provided. Fertilizer is either applied by hand or by aircraft.

When the trees are old enough, they are trimmed and trained so they achieve the classic Christmas tree look. Each tree is trimmed by hand in the summer. Douglas Firs are trimmed with a shearing knife for a smooth sided look. The workers swings the shear in downward stokes as they travel around each individual tree shearing them to precision. Douglas Firs are known as plantation trees, they are normally sheared once per year and will typically produce a marketable crop within 6 to over 8 years. Noble and Nordmann Firs are not sheared, instead they are individually pruned. The Firs are pruned multiple times as the trees grow.

When the trees are mature enough they are harvested. On average, Douglas Firs are 7-8 years old and Nobel Firs are 9 years old for a 6 foot tree before they are harvested. Harvesting is a 24/7 job that lasts 6 grueling weeks (starting in November) from the time it begins, to the time it gets to market. First a grader is sent out to tag the individual trees as to their height, fullness, color and uniformity. Usually a colored tag indicates the grade. The best trees are selected long before harvest. When harvesting, a crew of workers systematically cuts specific trees using chainsaws leaving a handle (usually 5-9‘’ long) for the consumer to put in their water stand. Trees are normally cut within a few days of shipping. Another crew gathers the fallen trees and puts them into piles. The piles are secured together with ropes to be picked up by incoming helicopters. The talented helicopter operators transport the pile of trees dangling from the aircraft. They bring the trees to a processing yard where they are shaken, bailed then loaded onto delivery trucks. Sometimes the helicopter operator drops the trees into a waiting large truck that brings the trees to the processing yard. Once the truck arrives at the processing yard it dumps the load of trees, creating a large mountain of evergreens. The truck then returns to the previous destination and waits for another helicopter load of trees repeating the same process.

At the processing yard, a crew carries each individual tree to a tree shaker machine to shake out all the dead needles for approximately 30 to 40 seconds. After the shaking is complete, the trees are then carried to the bailing machine. The tree then slides along the conveyor belt where a machine wraps a nylon string around the tree. When the tree is done being bailed, another crew then carries the trees one by one to a waiting delivery truck conveyor belt. The tree travels along the conveyor belt where other crew members are stacking the trees in the delivery truck. The loaders on the truck pack the trees in the truck tightly. All the while someone is counting each individual tree as it is being loaded. Once the delivery truck is full to capacity, it is on the road to its destination. While on the road the trees maybe kept cool either via refrigeration or ice so the trees do not dry out. These processes repeat over and over again until the end of the season.

Our growers are committed to producing the very best quality trees that you come to enjoy year after year you can see at your favorite Green Thumb Nursery. The types of cut Christmas trees you will find at Green Thumb are Noble fir (also known as Red Fir or White Fir.) These nobles are impressive and is truly one of the most popular because of its clean, layered look, and the ideal tree to hang heavier ornaments on. Nobel Firs are known for its “keepability” because they hold up well and do not drop a whole lot of needles when the tree dries out. The Nordmann Fir is my personal favorite because of its attractive foliage, with needles that are not sharp and do not drop readily when the tree dries out. The leaf of the Nordmann has flattened needles, which are shiny and very dark green above and silvery blue below, a true one of a kind. The Nordmann Fir is gaining popularity in the United States because they hold up very well.  The ever popular Douglas Fir is more dense than their counterpart firs. Their needles are dark green or blue green, soft to the touch and radiate out in all directions from the branch. The needles have a sweet fragrance when crushed.

Once the delivery truck arrives to a selected Green Thumb Nursery, it may have traveled about 1000 miles or more. A Green Thumb crew is waiting to unload each tree one by one. Some crew members are inside the trailer dragging them to the front of the rig then truing them around with the bottom (handle) of the tree facing outwards. Before they reach the very back of the trailer they need to separate and careful dislodge the stacked trees as not to break them. The trailer is hot inside and the crew is sweating, dirty, and tired. Other Green Thumb Crew members are outside the truck sliding and slinging the heavy trees over their shoulders. They carry them to the drilling machine that someone is operating. The tree needs to be positioned vertical on the machine.

Each tree is drilled in the center of the bottom (handle of the tree). After the tree is drilled, the tree handler then needs to position it back onto his or her shoulder. Then continuing to lug the trees to deposit them into designated piles, separated by tree size and type. A designated person or person(s) is directing where to deposit each tree. Unloading tree trucks occur multiple times in a 2-3 week span with up to 12 crew members assisting. It takes up 2 hours to unload each truck. With each truck being approximately 500 to over 1000 Douglas, Nobel, and Nordmann Firs. The work is hard, dirty, and exhausting. The trees sometimes come in wet and they are heavy. Some trees require two or more people to move. Extremely large trees require a forklift. Your clothing gets badly soiled and fir needles stick to your sweaty body. You smell like Christmas trees for weeks afterwards. The tree truck could at times have trees stacked up 13-14 feet high in a 53 foot semi trailer. After the truck is unloaded the driver heads back up north and begins the process all over again.

Once the trees are finished being unloaded, the work begins in the Green Thumb Christmas tree compound. The sound of sledge hammers rings in the Christmas season as rebar stands are pounded into the already drilled holes of the trees, they are stood and priced accordingly. The trees are then moved to a staging area in the tree compound or to the sales area outside the tree compound. Trees are constantly being replenished on the sales floor. As the stock gets low, more trees in the compound are being stood, processed, and priced then dragged out to the sales floor. The tree compound area is off limits to customers due to safety concerns.

In the tree compound, piles of trees are housed under shade cloth to help protect them from drying out and getting sunburn. The piles of trees are sometimes as much as 8 foot high and 8 to 9 foot long. The crew in the compound are constantly working, standing trees, hammering rebar stands, cutting off the nylon bailing, sweeping, pricing, sorting, and organizing. On a typical day, almost 1/2 a dumpster of tree debris (nylon twine, fir needles and branches) are collected from the trees. Some trees need wooden stands built for them because they are too big for the rebar stands. Other trees are selected and sorted for pre flocking purposes. These trees are brought to the flocking area where our flocking crew does their magic of flocking Christmas trees. Flocking is done inside a plastic facility and it is sprayed on. Once flocking is complete the trees need to be moved outside to dry in the sun. Once the pre flocked trees are dried they are brought up to the sales area. Some trees need to be drilled by hand. It is dirty, hard, and almost thankless job, but luckily it only lasts for about three weeks but it seems like eternity, it is fun and worth it to provide these beautiful trees for the holiday.

The sales area for the cut trees is under a shade cloth and the trees are displayed as to type and size of the tree. The sales area is where the general public may select which tree they want. Once the customer selects the particular tree they want, sales staff helps the customers with the tree. The sales staff tears off the perforated portion of the tree tag, hands it to the customer and they pay for the tree. The sales staff then brings the tree or trees to our loading area where the loaders collect your receipt, get your tree  which is identified by number. They remove the rebar stands by pounding them off with a hammer. These rebar stands are used over and over. Once enough rebar stands are collected by the loaders and the tree compound workers need more, they are then carted to the compound so they can be used again on other trees and so the process repeats again. By request the loaders will net the tree. We always tie it securely to your vehicle for you to drive home safely with it. Customers are not allowed in the loading area because of safety concerns.

If a customer decides to have the tree to be custom flocked or flame proofed they will then communicate with the sales staff and they will write up your order. The member of the sales staff will then bring the tree to a designated area for it to receive the special treatment. Usually the next day (weather permitting) depending on availability the tree should be available to be picked up or if you elected it to be delivered to your house, we can do that too. Flock, flameproofing, and delivery services do incur additional charges. We do supply custom pre flocked trees for sale that are carefully selected as to form, size, and shape. Wooden stands are put on most flocked trees. All flocked trees are put inside a large plastic bag to protect the tree before loading on your vehicle.

Meanwhile, back at the tree farm in the Pacific Northwest after the harvest is completed, heavy duty stump grinders grind up stems, branches, and tills them into the soil. Before planting for next season, lime is applied to the soil with heavy machinery to improve soil conditions. Then the process of planting is started all over again.

I hope you find this interesting and brings you a whole knew way of looking at the journey these incredible Christmas trees go through before you actually buy them and get it to your house. I encourage you to come to your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and check out the beautiful Nobel, Nordmann, and Douglas Firs with your family. We will be glad to help you. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

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