BY LYN DESMARAIS
BRANDON — In the days after Thanksgiving, thoughts turn toward Christmas: lights, candles, stars, Christmas trees, wreaths, kissing balls, mistletoe, perhaps even ‘boughs of holly.’ There are decorations in every town park, on the streetlights and up and down our streets. The center of Brandon emits a cheery welcoming glow as one drives into town.
I’ve always wanted to know more about Christmas trees, so I asked a few experts for their advice: Randy Wilcox, who has been growing Christmas trees for 40 years, Amanda Werner of Werner Tree Farm in Middlebury, and Andrea Winslow of Winslow Tree Farm in Pittsford.
Q: What should people look for in a tree?
A: We always tell people this is a personal choice. They should look for a tree that appeals to them. It’s helpful to know how tall your ceilings are before you go tree shopping, then subtract a few inches for your tree stand. Trees always look smaller outside than they do inside. Some people like to measure width as well. When we were teenagers my sister and I used to always choose a tree that was 6″-9″ too tall for our parents’ ceiling, and we really should have known better. Amanda Werner
Q: How can you tell if a tree is healthy?
A: Most tree farmers will check their trees and try to remove any unhealthy trees before the season starts. You should be able to gently bend branches without them snapping (although stiff-branched trees like blue spruce won’t bend). Some orange needles near the trunk are okay and normal, but if the tree has a lot of orange needles extending out on the branches it isn’t very healthy and won’t look good. If large sections of needles are missing from the ends of branches that’s a bad sign, and I wouldn’t choose that tree. Amanda Werner
Q: How much can you expect to pay for a good tree?
A: Anywhere from $5 for a permit to cut a tree from the national forest to hundreds of dollars for a premium 15′ tree. We’re selling 6′-8′ trees for $60 each this year. Amanda Werner
Q: Is it better to buy a pre-cut tree or to cut one yourself?
A: Once again, this is personal preference. For some people, it’s hard to beat the experience of cutting your own tree. Others prefer the convenience of choosing a pre-cut tree. 90% of the pre-cut trees we sell are premium trees, which guarantees a great selection of beautiful trees. Out in the choose-and-cut field, you’ll find trees with more individuality and quirks mixed in with premium trees. A pre-cut tree is more accessible for people who can’t or don’t want to cut their own. Amanda Werner
Q: How do you care for a tree?
A: The two most important things are to make sure your tree has a fresh cut on the trunk and to never let your tree run out of water. Don’t put your tree near a heat source or in direct sunlight. Modern LED string lights are great for trees because they don’t generate heat. Amanda Werner
Q: How do you dispose of your tree after Xmas?
A: The Boy Scouts in the Pittsford/Rutland area have a program where they will pick up your tree, chip it, and compost it. It’s a great program. Randy Wilcox
Luckily, a lot of towns have mulching programs where you can put your tree out on the curb and volunteers pick it up, chip it, and turn your tree into mulch. You can also bring your tree to any clean wood disposal site in the state. Goat farms often take trees as food for their goats. If you have enough land, you can let your tree compost in your backyard. A lot of people enjoy an annual Christmas tree bonfire as well. You could also consider repurposing your tree into craft projects- balsam pillows, or tree trunk slice ornaments. Amanda Werner
Q: Which varieties of Christmas trees grow best in Vermont?
A: Balsam Fir and Fraser Fir. Douglas Fir and some exotics are also grown here. I prefer firs because of their nice scent and that they hold their needles well. Randy Wilcox
Q: Which varieties do you grow?
A: We probably have 15-20 acres planted in trees, and somewhere around 20,000 trees. We grow the following: Balsam, Balsam/Frasier fir crosses, Balsam/Korean fir crosses, Canaan fir, Concolor fir (white fir), Veitch silver fir, White Spruce, Blue Spruce, White Pine, and Scotch Pine. My dad, David, is very interested in ‘exotic conifers,’ which is an industry term for non-standard species, like a Veitch fir. We grow a wide range of trees because they respond differently to different stressors. Diversity helps with disease and pest problems as well. Amanda Werner
A: We have 17 acres planted in Christmas trees. At any given time we have 16,000 to 17,000 growing trees. All of our trees are of the Balsam variety, mostly Canaan fir, some Frazer fir, and blue Balsam. We chose the Balsam varieties because they suit our growing conditions and provide a fragrant tree that holds its needles well. Andrea Winslow
Q: What drew you to this business in the first place?
A: I have a forestry background and had some knowledge of basic botany and tree biology. My wife and I moved here in 1981 and there was some open land, so we planted 500 Scotch Pines in 1982. I think the first one of those trees was cut in 1987. Randy Wilcox
Q: Do you have any advice for people wanting to grow Christmas trees?
A: As everything is on the Internet today a lot of information is just a few ‘clicks’ away. Your location to some extent will determine your options. Talk to other growers and work into it gradually over a few years. Randy Wilcox
Q: What are your main concerns growing Xmas trees?
A: Any crop will attract pests (bugs, diseases, thieves) and I’ve had to deal with all of it at various times, so you have to keep an eye on things. Randy Wilcox
Q: Do you have a favorite story or anecdote you’d like to share?
A: Lots of memories, but no ‘favorite’ story. It’s always a treat to see families come with babies and return yearly, seeing those kids grow, and in some cases now bringing their own children to get a tree. The local kindergarten class has been coming to get a tree for the school for over 30 years and that is always a fun time. Sometimes there are tears too when a family has lost a loved one, who isn’t there anymore to get a tree. Randy Wilcox
Q: Do your wreaths have a theme? Is there a combination that works better than others?
A: I’ve been learning how to do it for over 25 years now. My mom, Cheryl, cousin Heather, and I make most of the wreaths. After you’ve made your first 1,000, it’s a lot easier to make a beautiful wreath without thinking.
When designing a wreath, I think about balance, scale of decorations versus scale of the wreath, and color harmony. For themes, red will always be classic. I read industry reports, watch patterns and colors in fashion and home design, and look at what other wreath makers are doing. If I see a beautiful design on Pinterest, I’ll reinterpret it with decorations we have on hand.
In the 1990s, I remember mom making these gorgeous Victorian inspired wreaths with faux sugared fruit on them. Now red berries and animals are very popular. Sometimes I guess wrong—I told mom this wasn’t going to be a burgundy year, because I haven’t seen much of that color. And we’ve already sold more burgundy bows this year than we did during all of last year! Amanda Werner
Q: What other products do you sell at Christmas?
A: We make maple syrup, keep bees, and raise sheep on our farm so we have maple syrup, honey, lamb meat, and yarn available. Heather makes beautiful, small, felted gnomes that are very popular. We try to have an interesting variety of vintage, handmade, or sometimes just pretty, decorative items on hand. We have a few books by local authors. If something is interesting and Christmas-y, we try to make room for it. Amanda Werner
Q: Do you sell any other products at Christmas?
A: This year we are making handmade balsam wreaths. We also added local maple syrup. Andrea Winslow
Q: Do you have a favorite Christmas tree story?
A: We have great neighbors who watch the farm and care about our trees. When my siblings and I were teenagers, we decided to cut a tree in the middle of the night and sneak it home. We wanted to set it up at night and surprise our parents in the morning. One of our neighbors saw a group of people carrying a tree out of the field in the middle of the night and called our parents to let them know someone was stealing a tree. So, our surprise was ruined, but everyone had a good laugh over it. Amanda Werner
Q: What do you enjoy most about Christmas tree farming?
A: I really love doing design work on wreaths. It’s a great artistic outlet for me and I enjoy working with someone to find out what they want and then bringing that to life. I have customers who have ordered from me for over a decade, and it’s really fun seeing how their wreaths have changed over the years. But above all else, I’m grateful to have a fulfilling job that combines my love of the outdoors with quality time with family. It isn’t always fun when the weather isn’t good or we’re trying to meet a deadline. But it gives us a shared passion and purpose that all of us can work toward together. One of the great things about farming is it takes a lot of different skills. This means everyone in the family can find a way to use their strengths to improve the farm. Amanda Werner
Q: What do you enjoy the very most about Christmas tree farming?
A: Over the past 31 years here what we have enjoyed most is the generations within families that are now coming to our farm. Whether it is for pumpkins or trees, we love to have families come here that came as kids with their families. Andrea Winslow
The Winslow farm is located on 161 Channing Lane, Pittsford, just off route 7, outside of Rutland Town. It is currently open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but check before you go.
The Werner farm is located at 429 Painter Road, Middlebury. It is open Tuesday to Friday noon to 5 p.m. and weekends 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.