What makes a great Christmas tree? (and how can I grow one?)

WSU Extension agent Jim Freed working with Christmas tree grower on management of noble fir. Photo: WSU Extension.

What makes a great Christmas tree? (and how can I grow one?)

That is a question that many people who have forestland ask me. The answer is simple: The tree that meets your family’s needs is the perfect tree. Those needs are not the same for all people. That is why we use so many different kinds of trees.

Many cultures have celebrated the shortest day of the year by bringing inside evergreen branches or trees. Some cultures put tree branches in water to make them produce leaves and flowers to celebrate the return of longer days. In this country, Christmas or solstice trees are typically evergreen in nature, but the species vary depending on where we live. For example

  • In the Northeast: balsam fir, white pine and red pine
  • In the Southeast: Virginia pine, Frasier fir and white pine
  • In the Midwest: white pine, Scotch pine and blue spruce 
  • In the Pacific Northwest: grand fir, Douglas fir, noble fir, and white pine are the trees of choice
  • In other communities: redwood, juniper, cedar, lodgepole pine, jack pine, white spruce and black spruce

All these trees have something in common. They smell great, hold their needles a long time after cutting and have strong limbs to hold decorations. But the most important visual feature for a Christmas tree is to have a good top. It can have holes spaced around it or even have a flat side, but it is the top 18 inches that sells the tree.

Most Washington forestland owners have opportunities to grow their own Christmas trees for family use or to give as presents, or even sell a few to the local communities. There are great spots to grow a few Christmas tree on every farm such as that old road right-of-way that will not be used for 20-plus years until the next harvest, the utility right-of-way where short trees will not interfere with power lines, or view corridors where low-growing trees are acceptable. Root rot pockets can even be a good place to grow a few trees for the kids and grandkids.

Speaking of grandkids, growing their own Christmas tree is a great first project to start their involvement in the management of the family forest. Within just five years after planting, they can harvest their first tree. I work with families where a couple of acres have been set aside for the kids to grow trees and sell them to create some funds for buying Christmas gifts, or even support school costs.

A quick way to get a Christmas trees is from the tops of trees that need to be thinned. This kind of harvest is the way that the first Christmas tree farms were started in Washington State. What you need to do is look for a tree that has at least three good whorls and a nice top. The space between each whorl should not be more than 12 inches and the width of the bottom branches should be around 75 percent of the tree’s height.  That form gives the tree the perfect Christmas tree shape.  If the tree has too much space between the whorls you can remove all but the top three whorls. This will slow down the growth so that with three more whorls over the next three years you will have a great natural tree.

When you harvest a tree, you can create the beginnings of the next Christmas tree by simply leaving one whorl of live limbs on the stump. This works especially well with true firs and Douglas firs.  This process shortens the time for the next tree because you have well-established roots and you do not need to prepare a new planting site. I have seen stumps on very harsh grounds that have produced a new tree every four to five years for the last 40 years.

So consider turning sites where you choose to not grow trees for timber or that will not support timber into a little Christmas tree grove for your family and friends. You can create some great organic, natural, sustainable, locally grown, fresh trees that can be harvested in a U-cut fashion.

If you have a stand that needs thinning, you can invite friends, family and neighbors over to harvest their own tree. You just mark the trees you want to not be cut. You can even permit digging if that fits your goals. These dug trees can be replanted, if cared for correctly.

You will be amazed at what they think is a beautiful tree. Sometimes, people will take two trees so they can put them together to make one good tree. The best part is that you will benefit from having your forest thinned without paying someone to do it. This activity meets the classic definition of the perfect transaction—one where both sides think they got the better of the other person.

Have a great holiday season!

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forest Products Specialist