Christmas Tree Production
Table of Contents
Christmas trees are one of several markets for field-grown conifers. Christmas tree growers may also supply other markets with transplanted conifers for use as landscape trees, in shelterbelts, for visual barriers and forest cover. Evergreen branch clippings are harvested in large quantities each year during late fall to make value-added decorations, such as wreaths and garland.
Christmas trees can be grown on marginal or less fertile land that is not suited to the production of other agricultural crops. However, Christmas trees that grow on deep, fertile loam or sandy soil, having adequate soil water drainage, are generally healthier and achieve superior quality.
Where tree quality is optimized, markets for Ontario grown Christmas trees remains very good. Export markets include the US, Mexico and a smaller percentage to the Caribbean, as long as strict Federal pest control and inspection guidelines are met. Nova Scotia, Quebec and New Brunswick produce most of Canada's exported Christmas trees, while British Columbia and Ontario have been steadily increasing production and export of high quality trees.
Current markets are highly competitive among producers and demand the best quality trees. Quality trees can be produced by following good production practices.
Figure 1. A new Christmas tree field just planted. Weed control is important during the first few years of growth.
Some important factors to consider when choosing a site and layout for a field planting:
Figure 2. A Christmas tree field planting after five growing seasons. Herbicides are applied to the tree rows. Mowing or tillage maintains ground cover or controls weeds between the tree rows.
Choosing the right Christmas tree species must be carefully considered prior to planting. The species must suit the site with respect to soil depth, drainage, fertility and texture. Investigate the potential market for each species that will suitably grow on the site and make decisions accordingly. Growing more than one species will permit some diversity and flexibility at market time. The first tree sales will be eight to ten years in the future and predictions of species preferences by consumers, e.g. Fraser fir versus Scots pine, will be important for marketing.
In Ontario, both domestic and export markets are dominated by Fraser fir and balsam fir, followed in popularity by white and Colorado blue spruce. Markets for fir trees will likely continue to increase as consumers discover the unique beauty, soft foliage and improved needle retention of the fir Christmas trees.
There are advantages to planting several different species. These include:
Figure 3. Mature Christmas trees. Eight to ten years of close attention to irrigation, nutrition, pruning and control of insect pests and disease can yield profitable returns.
Pesticides, including insecticides, fungicides, fumigants and herbicides that are used in Ontario for Christmas tree production must be registered for use by the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency. Growers must be certified through the Grower Pesticide Safety Course in order to buy and use Class 2 and 3 pesticides on their farms. They do not require this certification to use Class 4, 5, 6 or 7 pesticides. For information about certification for growers and training for assistants to growers, visit the Ontario Pesticide Education Program website at www.opep.ca or call 1-800-652-8573. Note that a number of pest control products that are used in the United States for Christmas tree production may not be registered for use in Ontario.
For a listing of registered insecticides and fungicides, see OMAFRA Publication 383, Nursery & Landscape Plant Production and IPM.
For a listing of registered herbicides, see OMAFRA Publication 75, Guide to Weed Control.
Pruning refers to the selective removal of whole branches and twigs. Shearing is a form of pruning which controls tree shape by trimming the tips of the branches.
Commercial Christmas trees must be pruned and sheared annually from the first growing year through to harvest. This is done to increase foliage density and improve shape. Pruning and shearing are demanding since they must be done by hand within a certain time frame to ensure maximum bud production. Large operations may require large numbers of workers to complete the job within the optimum shearing period. Labour expenses must be minimized, while optimizing the quality of the work.
Christmas tree crops may be marketed in a number of ways and the sales method will be determined by volume of production and location of the farm in relation to urban centres. Many Christmas tree growers also sell their trees as landscape transplants. Large Christmas tree producers generally establish wholesale market outlets or buyers. Producers located close to large urban developments may find it profitable to retail the trees direct to the customer or use a cut-your-own (choose-and-cut) system. Sales plans should be established before planting or at least, established before the first harvest. Unsold (uncut) trees can be carried over to the next season. Except in a cut-your-own system, spruce and fir are cut from mid-November into December if snow conditions permit access into the field planting. Early frosts tend to yellow the foliage of Scotch pine, therefore, they are cut, processed and stored in early November to preserve the blue-green colour.
Regulations for Christmas tree grades were established since 1965 under the Farm Products Grades and Sales Act for the province of Ontario. Regulated grading is no longer applied, since commercial growers recognize the necessity of proper grading and do this themselves. Grading is based on several things including branch spacing and quality, foliage colour and density, tree shape, stem straightness, mechanical damage, presence of lichens or other foreign material and any other defects. As tree grade improves, tree value increases. While grading trees is not mandatory, if a grower expects to produce valuable trees, a working knowledge of the grading standards is essential.
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