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Georgia Christmas Tree Assoc.

Georgia Christmas Tree Assoc. logo

By Coy Dillahunty

This article is being offered as information to new growers based on my personal experiences growing Christmas trees for over 25 years.
One of the first steps after you decide you want to grow Christmas trees is to develop a plan for your business. Do you want to run a choose and cut farm where you sell your trees from the farm with the customer cutting the tree or sell to lot operators. First get information from as many sources as possible.The Georgia Christmas Tree Association is one source and where this paper will likely be found. I keep looking for good information to add to the web site and all information on the site should help, even looking at the farm link to see more about what others are doing. Persons finding this in some location other than the web site may want to check the Association web site, www.gacta.com for other information. If you don't find an answer to your question there, email the Association by clicking the contact association block on the home page of their web site. (This address changes at times and is kept up to date on web site.) There will be contact phone numbers for the Association on the web site.

WHAT VARIETY OF TREE DO YOU WANT TO GROW: The variety of tree you plant depends on several factors. Where your land is located, type of soil, and what you consider the best tree for your market. Georgia has two main types of soil, Clay, and Sandy loam. Clay north of Macon, Sandy loam south of Macon. Either will grow Christmas Trees. Some soil is in low areas and if water stands more than a couple of hours after a heavy rain, it is likely not suitable for most of the trees used as Christmas trees. I will list several varieties of trees and offer advantages and disadvantages with each.The varieties listed below may not be a complete list but offers some information about the most popular trees at this time with experienced growers.

MURRAY CYPRESS: This tree is a strain of the popular Leyland Cypress and has been selected as an improved version. Big advantages over Leyland is stronger limbs, more tolerant to wet and dry conditions, and more disease resistant. The tree along with Leyland cypress is the best trees for retaining needles. They just don't shed needles if kept in water. All advantages of Leyland also apply to this tree. New variety and may cost more at nursery, and is harder to find plants. This is changing as nurseries get more cuttings available and root more plants

LEYLAND CYPRESS: Great needle retention. Easy to grow and shape. Requires less work that pines or Arizona cypress varieties. Few insect pests bother this tree. (Bag worms sometimes.) Problems with a leaf fungus requires some effort but is normally easily controlled. Some customers complain about weak limbs not supporting ornaments. Others complain of allergies or no Christmas odor. Growers usually sell over 90% of trees planted. Several strains of this tree are found, Leighton green, the most common, and Naylor Blue, which is a beautiful bluish green tree that is a bit slower to grow are two that come to mind now.

VIRGINIA PINE, SAND PINE: Two varieties of pine that work well as Christmas trees. Sand pine in south Georgia, Virginia pine either North or South parts of state. There are other varieties of pine used but not usually found. Trees require more work, spraying for insects, needle fungus, and much more shaping that Cypress varieties. Its hard to grow a straight tree. Most growers will get about 60% quality trees from a planting. Popular with public. They like the smell. Needle retention will depend on weather but normally acceptable. Lack of frost before sale may reduce needle retention. To sell you will need a shaker to remove loose needles. Insects are a problem, Tip moth deform tree, sawflies strip needles and sometimes kill tree, and aphids cover the tree at sale time and customers think they are spiders.

WHITE PINE; This is a North Georgia tree for most. Few grown south of Gainesville, Rome line. Beautiful tree, with good needle retention. Sometimes considered a slow growing tree. Where the tree accepts conditions of climate and soil it is not slow growing. Not affected by as many insects as Virginia and Sand pine. Irrigation will help to move growing area south. Recommend that you experiment with small number in your location to see if it works. One grower as far south as Tarrytown is growing this tree.

ARIZONA CYPRESS STRAINS: Blue ice, Carolina Sapphire, Clemson greenspire and some others. These trees range from green to blue and silver color. Shape well and support ornaments well. Needle retention not as good as Leyland strains but acceptable. Usually a bit slower growing than Leylands. Leaf fungus does get on these also. Suggest planting a few Blue Ice or Carolina Sapphire. Greenspire has strong odor. Most don't want it.

RED CEDAR: This is the old fashioned Christmas tree that some still want and some will not accept anything else. Most growers find a market for 10 to 20 of these per year. The needle retention is BAD. The tree is a mess to handle, sticky sap, sticky needles and color may change from green to purple at selling time, depending on the tree. Experiment on your own. Source, fence row collection in January when you can select color. I do't recommend buying seedlings.

GREEN GIANT: This is a common name for Thuji Green Giant strain of arborvitae. Grows fast, seem to be close to Leyland in a lot of features. I have no reports on needle retention. Tree does turn to a purple with brown tint after cold weather starts. Some like this. A few growers have sold these the last two years. I have no reports on success. Popular landscape tree.

CRYPTOMERIA: This is a variety of redwood from Japan. Slow to grow, hard to start. Don't bother planting liners in field if you don't have irrigation. Large gallon size will plant in field and do well. Needs better soil than pine and cypress. I have no reports on needle retention or problems. I have a few that I planted in field as liners, and some planted as gallons. About 60% of liners died. Some gallons have died. Three year old trees and largest are 4 foot. Not good soil and I have not fertilized or watered as much as needed

OTHER VARIETIES: Firs, Scotch pine, Spruce etc. Not likely to be successful except Spruce and fir in extreme north Georgia. I understand that Canaan Fir has done well in Rabun county in northeast Georgia. One grower in Blairsville area has had success with spruce. Scotch pine that have been tried in north Georgia were not successful

SOURCE OF TREES AND SIZE TO PLANT: Note, Pine varieties above are normally grown from seed and referred to as seedlings. Other varieties are grown from rooted cuttings and are called Liners. Liners are usually grown in a 2 to 3 inch pot. Recommended size for pines are seedlings. Source is Georgia Forestry. Contact your local county Forestry office. Recommended size for other varieties is 1 gallon size plants. Some growers are now using 3 gallon plants for faster time to market especially on farms with limited land space. Liners are not popular for several reasons. More labor. More labor. Cost difference for gallons at nursery is not as much as it will cost you to grow the plant in the field to the size of a gallon plant. Liners will require more pruning, take at least one more year in field than one gallon size. Two years longer than 3 gallon size. More in the pruning section. One thing most starting out don't think about is the fact that trees will have to be ordered early. If you want to plant in November to February, You need to place an order with the nursery of your choice before August 1st. Most growers order next years plants when they pick up the plants for this year. Most nurseries will have some extra plants and the ones you get if you order late may not be as good quality as plants ordered early. Nurseries tend to cover orders with their best plants and then sell what is left over to the late customer.

PLANNING AND PLANTING: Land requirements: You will need space for the trees and remember to not cover all your land the first year. You must plan for at least 5 parcels to have trees each year. This can be reduced to 4 if you use 3 gallon plants. Some growers interplant but this can only be done if you leave space for the other 4 trees when you plant the first tree. It is much easier to plant a field, let the field lay out of production one year after that field is harvested and replant. I like to plow the field during this layout year, and prepare the land for a new crop. This means getting stumps out of the way. Plow deep to loosen the soil, especially if you have clay soil. Soil will be compacted during the 4-6 years the trees are growing and harvested and it needs to be loosened and sub soiled to allow air and water to penetrate the soil. If you are planting a new field in an open area that has been in other crops, meadow or pasture, the breaking of the soil may not be necessary. I will recommend that you sub soil a row and plow or harrow a strip for the tree row with grass left in middles to prevent washing.

Now the BIG question. How close do you make the rows and how close do you plant the trees in the row. I have my recommendations. Measure the overall width of your tractor rear wheels then add 3 to 4 foot to that measurement. This looks like a waste of space but when the tree is 8 foot tall it will likely be 5 foot wide at the base. Tractor wheels will break limbs, damage the tree and cause compaction of soil close to tree if you plant too close. You will have to get tractor through the field when trees are grown and you don't want to damage the tree at this stage. Now I will tell you what some others will say. Six (6) foot spacing each way. (Trees will almost touch. You have to walk between to trim and mow.) Seven (7) foot spacing, one foot better than 6 foot spacing. Eight (8) foot spacing works with a tractor that is up to 5 foot wide. Most growers use 7 or 8 foot spacing both ways. Some use shorter space in row than between rows. I have used spacing from 7 to 10 foot and find 10 easier to work but takes much more land. Eight foot spacing gets about 625 trees per acre. Seven foot spacing gets about 850 trees per acre. Nine foot spacing gets about 500 trees per acre.

Planting procedures will vary by your preparation and your land conditions. My recommendations are to always sub-soil a row. When digging a stump after trees have been harvested I find that the roots will be much larger along the subsoil row than in other directions. This is especially true in clay soil. My experience with Virginia pine years ago indicated that sub- soiling would cut one year off growth time of plant. Allows water to penetrate and as a side effect, makes planting easier. Planting pine seedlings, a dibble or planting bar is fine. Just remember to protect the roots from wind, use mud or most now use one of the water jells to protect the roots. If you have sub soiled the dibble will be easier to use. Planting potted trees, the plants will be either liners in 2 inch pots, plants in gallon or three gallon pots. If you have sub-soiled a bulb planter is great for liners. A post hole digger fits a gallon plant. If you have sub-soiled and prepared the row, a manual digger is easy. Some use gas powered augers. Watch the augers as they will seal side walls in clay soil and cause tree to grow like it was in a clay pot. This means it gets about 3 foot tall and dies. Three gallon plants are larger and you are on your own for a tool to use. I have planted a few and used a backhoe to make the hole. Not great. A 12 inch auger on the post hole digger might work. One thing that we find works better is to knock potting soil off roots of potted plants instead of planting with soil ball still on roots. Let the roots get into the soil they will grow in, they will tend to stay in soft spot of potting soil and this soil will not support tree as well as the natural soil in the field. When the plant gets about 3 toot high tree will blow over and you will have to use shovel to replace dirt in hole at base of tree to make it stand up. (More work)

PUBLICATIONS & OTHER INFORMATION: Growing Christmas Trees is a subject that is not covered well in University of Georgia Extension Service publications. Most of the material they have is dated because of type trees normally planted now, or just age of material. I do recommend that you use the material as published in their Pest Management handbook. The web site for this at time this was written is http://www.ent.uga.edu/pmh/. This book is kept up to date and the information is the best and latest available. Check under trees, Christmas trees. to find information you need. This is the first and best source for material on diseases, weed control and use of chemicals in the Christmas tree field. There are new papers being published all the time. One area to watch is the University of Georgia Bugwood site. http://www.bugwood.org/ Some of the new articles in this area are excellent. Others a bit dated. All will add to your knowledge base

CARE OF TREES AFTER PLANTING: WEED CONTROL: All will understand that weed control is important and will take about as much time and energy as anything. Most growers use chemical control in rows and leave a strip of grass in middle to prevent erosion. The chemical of choice is usually Roundup. There are many generic versions of this chemical and I use the trade name because most will recognize the chemical. The first comment is usually, won,t it kill the tree. Not if you don't get to much on it. You will need to use a shielded spray or hand spray to prevent excessive contact with the tree. Chemical on bark of tree does not bother the tree, only chemical on green leaf or needle will injure the tree. The pest management handbook mentioned above offers other chemicals and instructions that you may be interested in using. Two chemical that were recommended for weed control I have had bad experience with in years past. I will not recommend Surflan or Princip because they tend to damage trees by causing new growth to be twisted and not good for Christmas trees.The middle of the row is easily maintained by mowing 3 or 4 times a year. Weeds or grass under the tree are competing for nutrients and will slow growth. Some plants such as fescue seem to give off a chemical to prevent adjoining plants from growing. Test by one of the experiment stations years ago suggest that over 18 inches from the tree will likely not bother. Naturally it bothers more at small first year seedling or liner stage. Using gallon size plants will help with this problem

SHAPING OR SHEARING: Many people are greatly surprised to learn that the tree don't grow in a Christmas tree shape naturally. Few do without some help. The first shaping trim is to bottom prune and establish a handle on bottom to fit into a stand. (Then the Choose and Cut customer will saw the tree down leaving the handle you worked so hard to give them in the field and complain because the tree will not go into the stand.) Here is the BIG reason to use 1 gallon size or larger plants if growing other than pine. That gallon pot plant is large enough to trim and leave the 10 to 12 inch handle on bottom of the tree while in the pot. It is MUCH easier on a bench than in the field bending over to trim the tree base. One thing that I advise is to do the bottom pruning at least 3 days before you plant the tree. Allow the cut to heal. This prevents one of the soil fungus spores from getting into the tree. This fungus is in all soil and will kill tree if it infects the tree. It only enters through a place where bark is damaged. I have found it is worth the wait. I get much better plant survival by waiting.

The Pines will need to be sheared the second year after planting from seedling. They will need two shearing each year, May and Late August. It is always best to clip double stems from all trees, Pine or other varieties. Cypress will not need shearing other than clipping double stems for two years after planting liners. If planting gallons or three gallons, look for the 4 foot high stage and start shearing. One shearing each year usually in May except the year tree is to be sold, shear twice. May and September are good times. Not critical and the fall shearing should be light. Experiments have shown that Cypress that are sheared to a tight form are more likely to get needle fungus than trees that are more open. The secret of how to shear is easy. Cut off anything you don't want left on the tree. You select the shape and keep the tree in that shape as it grows larger. Some suggestion to think about. Keep shape in a triangle without the bulge caused by cutting top to short trying to maintain height of tree. Learn to swing your trimmer in straight line. Remember that the diameter of the tree base will get to be more than the height if you don't watch out.

Tools to trim with is fairly limited. The machine that has been seen on TV that is mounted on a skid loader with a set of blades forming the tree shape are no longer made and the reason was poor quality of tree and excessive cost. Most growers now use either of 4 machines. First is Knives. This is usually 18 inch blade with a 10 inch handle and walking around the tree swinging knife from top to bottom in a straight line stroke. Not difficult after practice. Do wear leg guards. Cost about $35 per knife. Nest is the rotary trimmer. A weed eater with a special shaft and head that uses a special guard and blade. Comes in two sizes, 5 foot shaft and 7 foot shaft. 5 foot shaft good up to 9 foot tree, 7 foot shaft up to 11 foot tree. Most don't like long shaft. I prefer it. Try for yourself. After experience you can trim 500 or more trees per day with knifes or this trimmer. Both require shoulder movement. Cost of rotary trimmer is about $400.00. Next is the SAJE trimmer which is a 8 or 10 foot hedge trimmer bar carried on a backpack arrangement. Works good except you will need one of the above to finish top of most trees. Weighs about 42 pounds and is tiresome to carry in field. The cost is now over $2500 00 for this one. Biggest compliant is broken blades usually caused by flexing of blade while engine is running. New blade is about $300. The last is a machine called a Yule Trimmer. This is a rotating blade arrangement, belt driven from small gas engine at base, mounted on one bicycle wheel and balanced to give angle to tree. Works great if ground is smooth. Cost about $4500.00 and may be out of production now. Will need to finish top of tree also.

SELLING AND OTHER INFORMATION: Of the 85 growers in Georgia that are members of the Association all sell Choose and Cut and only 4 or 5 advertise as selling any wholesale. When I started in the business I sold some wholesale as I had more trees than the retail market would support. As soon as I could get the numbers down, I stopped selling wholesale. There is one other market for unsold trees now. The landscape market is fairly strong. I have sold surplus trees in this market. Biggest problem, they wreck a field and leave large holes for you to fill. They always dig when field is wet and pack ground to concrete like hardness with equipment.

Selling Choose and Cut you will need some way to transport trees from field to checkout area. Don't expect customer to carry or drag tree very far. I have used a golf cart and a small tractor to haul trees. Both work fine. Golf cart is cheaper to operate, I prefer gasoline. Electric is to heavy in bad weather and gets stuck in mud. Lift kit is helpful on golf cart. Some of the new utility vehicles are likely better and about as cheap as a golf cart. Do some planning when you start to plant trees and leave roadways through field.

Baling or netting is another thing that Choose and Cut operators will need to offer. This machine is a large funnel that tree is passed through to put tube net over tree. Balers come in size form 10 to 26 inch. I find a 18 or 20 inch size is usually a good all purpose. Balers cost in the $200 to $250 range. Net is sold in 520 and 700 foot spools. Five spool minimum purchase. Cost about $25 per spool depending on size and length. Plastic or fiberglass balers are better than metal. Surprise, easier to pull tree through. Also cheaper to buy. I discourage net on trees less than 7 foot as it cost me about 35 cents per tree to net and it may fall off the small tree.

Shaking a tree to remove loose needles is necessary with pine. Cypress don't usually have enough trash in tree to require shaking but many customers think it gets bugs out. Shakers cost form $800 to $2000, depending on kind you buy. I have no recommendations on this one. I used one of the higher priced and was pleased with it on pine but had some reservations on cypress. Cypress trunks are usually more than 6 inches in diameter on a 10 foot tree and shaker needs to be able to accept the larger diameter trunk.

Selling tree stands is a sideline that can be profitable if you don't have trouble with county wanting to change a farm into a business for higher tax purposes. They get into zoning and all kinds of issues over this and it all depends on the county you are in. I did buy business license but had no other problems with county tax department. Others have had battles. If you have problems with county property tax on equipment, ask them to call Atlanta and see who is right. Equipment used on a Christmas tree farm is exempt from taxes just like on a soybean farm. This was changed since 2000. Christmas trees are a crop, not a business when it comes to tax on equipment. If you sell stands, make sure you offer a quality stand that will support your larger trees and I find it better to consider at least a 10 foot tree as a minimum size for stand sales. The customer will always buy cheapest and then complain because it won't hold up the tree. Georgia grown trees are normally heavier than trees shipped in to Georgia. This means they need a good stand to support them. Many growers are selling the pin stands that require a drilled tree trunk. Great deal except for the drill machine. Expensive and easy to break drill bits. This is one job that is not to be done by the customer or your smaller helpers. Machines run from $500 to $900 and bits are about $35 each. Since I mentioned tax items in this paragraph will give you the other bad news. You must collect sales tax on the trees you sell. You do not have to get a retail tax number but will have to pay sales tax at the rate for your county. Many growers price trees at even dollar or even five dollar prices to save problems making change in field. Then pay the tax based on calculation of tree price with tax taken out. Example, $30 received for a tree with 7% sales tax figures 30 divided by 1.07 =28.04 which is what you sold the tree for. The state gets the 1.96 as sales tax. You just collected it for them. If you sell stands you still do not have to have a sales tax number, but will have to pay sales tax when you buy the stand. Keep this tax amount and deduct from sales tax you collect and pay when stand is sold based on your sale price.

OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER: DEER love to rub trees when they get about 5 foot. tall. Most of the time they will ruin the tree and it is not going to sell. You may want to leave it in field for a while thinking the deer may rub it instead of a good one. Deer love to nip top of bamboo stakes that you may use to keep trees straight. I had problems of deer pulling up stake with tree tied to it when I was planting Virginia pines. I quit staking and started planting rye grass in the rows in fall before planting trees. Rye grass will die in summer leaving a straight tree. The tree wants light and the only light is up because rye is shading tree. I have not used it with cypress and still do very little staking. I find that by careful planting and knocking potting soil off roots my Leylands will usually be acceptable.
Leylands tend to blow around in wind causing a hole around the base of the tree. If you knock potting soil off it will help prevent this. When the trees blow over after a rain, Stakes are not needed, stand the tree up straight, pack dirt around the base and it will likely be as good as ever. I take a shovel and place dirt in hole, pack with foot. One field I had all trees were laid over by the remains of a hurricane and were set back up. Next winter another storm laid them over the other way. I still sold all the trees and didn't use but 5 or 6 stakes where the soil would not hold up tree. If you get needle fungus in your field, don't rush to cut the tree. Remove dead needles and limbs, tree will likely completely fill the area within one growing season. (You will have to spray for fungus to keep it out but the cost of the spraying will be paid for with one or two trees sold.) Spray using information found in pesticide handbook. I had one field that was damaged bad by fungus. Using above procedure, I only trashed about 10 trees out of 600 in the field.

If you need additional information contact the Georgia Christmas Tree Association. At the present time I will likely be the one that answers the phone or email. I don't know of a grower in the Association that will not try to be helpful to new growers. We all received a lot of help when we started out and most from observing what others were doing at Association meetings. There are always other growers at meetings, they all think their method is best and will tell you how they do it. Go to the meetings, talk, listen, and then decide how you want to grow trees. Your ideas may be better than any you hear but when a problem comes up you will have an idea of what others have done to correct the problem.

Revision date : 7/23/06

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