Growing ‘O Tannenbaum’
It’s that time of year again, when Canadians across the country get ready to carry out a very old and rather odd tradition when you really think about it: putting up a Christmas tree. Although millions of cultivated Christmas trees are sold across North America every year, many people don’t realize
the amount of care and attention each tree needs to reach Yuletide perfection, so green and full that hanging Christmas ornaments on them can be challenging.
A good source of information when it comes to growing beautiful Christmas trees proved to be Christian Vanasse, of Way’s Mills, who grew up in the Christmas tree growing business and now sells about 20,000 trees a year through his family company, Vanasse Farm Products.
“It takes about fourteen years to grow a Christmas tree,” explained Mr. Vanasse at his Way’s Mills farm where thousands of wrapped Christmas trees, each one graded for size, quality and type, stood huddled in groupings while half a dozen men, including two of Christian’s sons, busily loaded them onto a flatbed trailer. Most of his trees head down to customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Long Island, New York.
First, seeds are collected from the mature trees in the Vanasse orchard and planted. Those that grow into seedlings are transplanted the following year into the ‘garden’. The trees are usually ready to be moved to their final location in the field two years later.
“In the spring, we have to start checking the trees for five different kinds of bugs that can attack them. If we find some, we have to spray the trees to kill them,” said Mr. Vanasse who has three hundred acres of trees on his own farm, and more on the land of his three sisters. Some types of bugs will cause the new growth on the tree to curl up and wither.
“Another big worry in the spring is the frost on the new growth. If the new growth freezes, you have to wait two years before the tree regains that growth and, by then, sometimes the tree is too big. I’ve ridden around the farm misting the trees all night to try and prevent frost damage, but now I know where all the cold spots are on the property,” explained the grower of Balsam and Fraser fir trees. “The buds of the Fraser fir come out two weeks early, so you have to watch them for frost, but they also come out too early for the bugs. But they don’t smell as much as the Balsams.”
The action on the tree farm continues in June with fertilizing, mowing and spraying herbicides to keep the growth down at the bottom of the trees for good air circulation. “When the trees are four feet high, we remove the bottom branches. This trimming is very important. Then we start pruning the trees in July, for about two and a half months; we have to trim every tree and the best way is with a machete,” said Mr. Vanasse.
“And I start contacting our customers in July,” added Patricia Vanasse, Christian’s sister who handles much of the customer service, sales, bookkeeping and overall trouble-shooting. “It’s surprising, but a lot of people think the trees just grow on their own,” she added.
Next, the trees are clipped at the top, to make a nice ‘crown’, and the tree-tagging begins. “We go through every row and tag the trees that are ready for cutting. Each tag shows the tree’s quality and what kind it is,” said Mr. Vanasse. “That way people know which trees are ready to cut and they don’t have to worry about grading them too,” added Logan Vanasse, one of Christian’s sons who helps out on the farm along with his brothers Gabriel, Joshua and their mom, Penny Desaindes. The ribbon tags are also numbered so Christian knows if he has to try and sell more trees or if he’ll need to order a few to complete his orders.
The cutting of the trees begins at the end of October and it’s fast and furious. The trees are cut and baled on a Howey baler, a machine that shakes the trees first to remove old needles, and counted again. The ‘butts’ of the trees are painted with different colours, according to height, and then they are loaded on trailers to be brought to the main shipping area. “It’s important that the trees don’t lie on the ground, especially when you’re shipping them to the States or to Europe.”
“The first two weeks is usually fun, and it went smooth this year for a while. Then I fell off the truck, from about ten feet up,” admitted Christian. “He does something like that every year,” added his sister.
“I also go out on the road in November and December to visit all my customers, see if they are happy with their orders. My father Real, who started the business in 1952, came with me recently and he met the grandson of a guy who used to buy tees from him; we have three generations of buying and selling trees with customers in the States,” said Mr. Vanasse, with pride. Real Vanasse began harvesting wild Christmas trees on the Way’s Mills property in the 1950’s. “My father used to send wild trees to Venezuela and once we filled a 747, in Miami, with Christmas trees to send there.” Another time, they shipped the trees in container vans only the vans couldn’t deliver their loads once they arrived: the Montreal-made vans were too high to fit under the bridges and overpasses on the Venezuelan highways! “Back in those days, my father and my brothers together were shipping about 50,000 trees a year.”
Christmas tree season can be a stressful time for those in the business, and Christian’s recent sleepless nights are proof of that. “I have to remind myself at the beginning of the season to ‘leave everything’ at the office. I’m dealing with people just once or twice a year, customers who want a perfect product even though it grows in nature. And our customers are really stressed at this time of the year, too,” explained Patricia.
She continued: “Once all the trees are shipped, then it’s a shock for all of us. During our peak season, none of us even knows what day it is; we only know the dates. Then, in one day, we’re walking around not knowing what to do with ourselves.”
One thing Christian looks forward to, after the rush, is watching the families come to his farm to cut their own trees for Christmas. “Families come here year after year,” he said. He’s also looking forward to harvesting his own hybrid trees in two years, which he began working on about ten years ago with his father. “It should grow faster, keep its needles longer, and be easier to trim. Every breeder is trying to grow the perfect tree – it gives us something to think about in January and February.”
When asked about the Vanasse family’s own Christmas tree tradition, Christian replied: “All five of us go out to pick the tree.” “There can be disagreements sometimes, and so it might be a problem, this year, because one of my brothers won’t be here, to break a tie vote,” said Logan, who had come into the office with Joshua to warm up. But one thing is certain: the tree will be a beauty, close to perfection and fifteen feet tall!
“What was really nice was when we were cutting Christmas trees, last year, and the boys realized that they were cutting trees that they had planted,” commented Christian.
Teddy bear by Anne Bruce Falconer.
Seen here at the Vanasse Christmas tree farm in Way’s Mills are (l. to r.) Real Vanasse, who founded the business in 1952, Christian Vanasse, Logan Vanasse and Patricia Vanasse.