Grosman’s Tannenbaum Farm: Trials, Tribulations and Successes During the First Year
Arborjet’s Technology Advancement Manager, Don Grosman, gave us an inside look at the first year of his Christmas Tree Farm.
“I’ve wanted to start a tree farm since the mid 1980’s when I was finishing up my degree in Forest Biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. It was about that time when my parents started a Christmas tree farm on their newly purchased farm in ‘upstate’ New York. They had a small two acre plot behind the house where they grew balsam fir and blue spruce. They planted about 200 trees per year and sold them as a ‘cut your own’ service. I thought it was pretty cool.
I finally had the opportunity to start a tree farm in 2013 when I joined Arborjet and moved to New Hampshire with my wife and 3 boys. We settled on a 40 year-old log home on nearly 10 acres in the rather quiet community of Pelham. Most of the property was covered in overmature white pine in an overstocked stand that was in decline. One option might have been to thin the stand, but because the area was rather small, trying to find a crew willing and able to do the job was nearly impossible. We ended up contacting New England Forestry Consultants and they suggested a full harvest and starting over with quality seedlings. After many delays, about 6 acres of the stand was harvested in October of 2015. But now I had a 6 acre field of stumps. Given the cost of stump removal ($3,000/acre), we elected to start off by clearing only 2 acres near the house; the remaining 4 acres would be cleared in the future. I collected soil samples from around the cleared area and found the soil to be extremely sandy and rather nutrient poor. To try to improve soil conditions a water retention, I started by spreading lime (the poor man’s fertilizer) at 0.5 tons per acre. Later, I added compost to amend the soil at each planting site.
I contacted my county Extension agent (John Nute) for advice on establishing a Christmas tree farm. He suggested an 11 year rotation; plant trees each year; grow each block for 6 years or until marketable; open the block to customers in year 7 through 10; cut and remove any remaining trees and leave fallow in year 11. Replant the following year. Tree spacing is obviously important; not too close to reduce completion for nutrients and sunlight, but not too far apart so you maximize land utilization. I decided on a 7’ X 7’ spacing, in part for the reasons indicated, but also I realized I would need to irrigate, and drip irrigation tubing emitters have 7’ spacing. My wife, Rachael, thinks that spacing is too close. She might be right, but I’m hoping it’s one of the few times she’s wrong.
In the late fall of 2015, I measured off a 154’ X 147’ (= 23 rows with 22 trees per row) area near the house. I used pin flags to mark the planting sites and the proceeded to amend the soil with compost at each point. Unfortunately, because of rocks, roots and other debris I often had to shift the planting spot. This proved problematic later when I installed the irrigation system.
Selection of the tree species is obviously based on the farmer’s preference. My preference was to start off with 50% Fraser fir (the so called ‘Cadillac of Christmas trees’), 35% Concolor fir (a soft white fir), and 15% Leyland cypress. Leyland cypress as a Christmas tree? Well, yeah. When we lived in Texas a few years back, we discovered that several Christmas tree growers used Leylands. With the right amount of trimming, they made for a full tree and it doesn’t lose its foliage as it dries out. As for growing Leyland cypress in NH, supposedly southern NH is the northern extreme of its cold hardiness. I’ll need to be careful about frost damage, but they’re a faster growing tree and I they’ll grow into a saleable tree in 4-5 years.
I ordered from Fraser and Leyland transplants (3-4 year old trees) and concolor seedlings (1-2 year old) from nurseryman.com in January and received them in May 2016. Due other obligations with Arborjet, I wasn’t able to plant the trees immediately, so I needed to keep the roots moist as much as possible. I tried to prevent desiccation by covering the roots with compost and watering every other day. For the most part I was successful with the Frasers and Concolors, but some of the Leyland weren’t covered all the way – roots dried out and ultimately they didn’t survive. Note to self: make sure the roots are covered properly.
Obviously, every farmer hopes for rain in the spring and I was counting on it to keep the trees going until I could get the well and irrigation system installed. Unfortunately, 2016 had one of the worst droughts in almost a century in southern NH. Fortunately, I was able to run a hose out from the house to all 507 transplants/seedlings. Given that it was spring in NH, I thought that I would only need to water once a week. Wrong! The trees were starting to wilt half way through the week. Using a moisture meter, I discovered that the sandy soil was drying out way too quickly. I applied some NutriRoot™ monthly in June, July and August to help retain moisture around the roots and hopefully improve seedling survival. I also started watering every 3 days. Nope, still not quite enough. I switch to watering by hand every other day. That got old pretty quick. Fortunately by July, I had the well and irrigation system mostly installed. Hurrah!! Not so fast. Because of the tree spacing issues, tree placement didn’t always align with the emitters, so I had to remove or add sections of tubing. These proved to be weak points in the system, so every time I turned on the well, one or more of the connections would pop. Eventually, with lots of twist ties and duct tape, I was able to water as needed without incident. Note to self: align emitters with tree planting spots before you plant the trees.
All seemed fine into August, until I noticed a few things: 1) the foliage on some of the Frasers appeared dull; a closer look revealed a conifer mite infestation. 2) Some of the buds on the Concolors were being mined and hollow; although I didn’t see the culprit, I suspect that the damage was due to adult white pine weevil feeding. 3) A number of Frasers and Concolor were failing even though the soil was moist; it was later determined that I had planted these seedlings too deep. For the mite issue, I applied Eco-Mite Plus® twice at a 7 day interval. Problem solved. For the weevil problem, I sprayed permethrin twice at a 14 day interval. Problem solved. As for the planting depth issue – Note to Self: plant seedling at the correct level.
By the end of November, when frost events became more regular, I took a final tally on tree survive for the first growing season. The result was 98% survival for Fraser fir, 90% for Concolor fir, and 45% for the Leyland cypress. Pretty good for the firs, but I definitely need to improve on the cypress. I’m quite confident that the NutriRoot applications helped improve seedling survival. In December, I mulched all the seedlings, put the irrigation system to bed, and started digging holes and amending the soil for the next ½ acre to be planted in the spring. Hopefully I learned a few things and the weather will be more cooperative.”