CO-Horts Blog

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

O’ Christmas Tree, O’ Christmas Tree…How are you grown?

Posted by: Alison O’Connor, Larimer County Extension
Photo credit: Bert Cregg, Associate Professor, Dept of Horticulture, Michigan State University

Ahhhh…the holiday season. There’s nothing quite like it. Crazed shoppers, long lines to mail packages, cookies and eggnog, family and friends, and the pillar of many homes—the Christmas tree in the living room.

If you’re a diehard fan of the fresh-cut Christmas tree, have you ever really thought about how it’s grown? What it takes to go from seed to tree to living room? There’s a lot to the process, which may surprise you. As much time and effort goes into producing your Christmas tree (which you keep for about a month) as the linden you planted in your front yard.
Christmas trees growing for a future holiday season
(Photo by Bert Cregg)
In the United States, most Christmas trees are produced in Oregon and 92% of the trees grown in the state are exported. Other top producing states are North Carolina and Michigan. In 2013, Oregon harvested 6.4 million trees growing on 63,000 acres of land. The predominate species grown in the Pacific Northwest are Douglas-fir and Nobel fir, with their gorgeous, soft, green foliage and perfect pyramidal shape (after some pruning, of course). Sadly, our state tree, the Colorado spruce, while beautiful, is not a great Christmas tree specimen, since its sharp, stabby needles make decorating painful. (Trust me on this. I once made a wreath from spruce branches. The wreath looked fabulous, but bleeding during the holidays is not fun.)
A field of Douglas-fir (Photo by Bert Cregg)
Here’s the thing…to produce a 6’ tree it can take as long as 12 years (concolor fir) or as short as 7 years (Douglas-fir). So that means trees planted this summer will not be ready for harvest, at the earliest, until 2020. That’s a long time for something that you can purchase pretty inexpensively and only keep for a month.
Balsam fir trees (photo by Bert Cregg)
It also means that for the 7-12 years your tree is in the nursery, it’s being pruned, fertilized, sprayed, watered and weeded—all of which takes labor. Christmas trees are like any other agriculture crop and are fairly high maintenance. And growers carefully plan their harvests and planting cycles to ensure they have trees to sell each year. Sadly, one grower in Washington may have lost up to 20% of their annual income due to a workers’ strike at the Port of Tacoma. Two thousand Christmas trees, bound for Hong Kong, were stuck in a shipping container at the port to make the 23 day journey across the ocean. And the Tillmans, who grew the trees, know a thing or two about it, especially since their farm provided the tree to the White House in 2004.
Young seedlings, 3-4 years old (photo by Bert Cregg)
The best seedlings are selected to grow the nicest trees. A lot of research has gone into seedling selection and development—not only for the overall look and shape of the tree, but also for resistance to insects, disease and pathogens. The most labor intensive part of growing Christmas trees is shaping and shearing. Shaping helps create a straight central leader (important so your angel or star isn't crooked!), symmetrical form, dense foliage and proper taper. There are USDA standards for Christmas tree shape and size. Shaping generally begins in the tree’s second or third growing season. Some growers start earlier as they feel it leads to less work in the future. Shearing is so important, that if a grower misses a cycle, it may lead to culling the entire crop.
Using mechanical means to shear the trees
(Photo by Bert Cregg)
And then the day comes to harvest the Christmas tree and make it the centerpiece of your holiday season. Harvesting any crop is often hectic, but for growers in the Pacific Northwest, rainy weather can often impact harvest time….plus, think of equipment driving on water-logged soils. Compaction! Growers in Washington have actually enlisted the help of helicopters to pull trees from the ground to reduce traffic on saturated soils. Trees are harvested, sorted and baled…and then shipped to a store near you. Generally the first trees arrive before Thanksgiving.
"Sling loading" Christmas trees near Olympia, WA
(Photo by Bert Cregg)

So as you sniff the fresh evergreen aroma of your Tannenbaum, take a moment to thank the hard-working grower who made sure your tree was the most perfect one in the lot. I’m reminded of the movie “A Christmas Story” and Ralphie’s dad searching for the best one…and the salesman repeating several times, “This here is a TREE!” Happy Holidays!
Replanting a seedling next to a harvested tree
(Photo by Bert Cregg)


  1. Wow! I never knew! Kind of like not thinking about where your milk comes from - and how much work it takes someone to get it to you? Wonderful blog.

  2. Seems kind of nutty we can't grow our own Christmas trees. Trees in Oregon grow fast, so lots of pruning/shearing is required to change their shape and make them bushy. Why not grow in a tougher place like CO where they would have a better overall shape to begin with. This might require less labor?, much less would be easier to ship, and be more sustainable. I remember this was why Christmas trees used to be grown on infertile glacial outwash soils around Puget Sound, for example.

  3. Hi Paul,
    While it's a possibility, we are limited in Colorado with the irrigation needed to grow some nursery crops. We also have a much colder climate than the Pacific Northwest, which limits the species that can be grown. That said, there are many people who get a permit to harvest a tree from Colorado's forests. A lot comes down to consumer demand and preference.