A Christmas Tree Grows In Harford

COMMENT

December 12, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Quick, where is the heart of Maryland's Christmas tree industry?

If you guessed somewhere near Oakland or Cumberland out in the mountains of Western Maryland, you're wrong. It's actually in Abingdon. Yes, Abingdon, the suburban development hothouse of Harford County.

That's the address of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, the state association of tree growers which publishes the annual guide to "choose and cut" tree farms where you can select a live Yuletide Tannenbaum, saw it yourself and drag it home in the family buggy.

That's becoming a more popular option for lots of people, as small farms selling Christmas trees sprout up all over the map, especially around the Baltimore area.

The idea of getting a freshly cut tree whose needle-life is not in question, of tramping through these mini-forests of pine and fir and spruce to find the family's holiday centerpiece, of feeling and smelling the fresh resin as the trunk is severed from its roots -- these are the rewards of the cut-it-yourself tree farm.

Prices may be lower than buying a comparable cut tree from an urban lot or other retailer, but the lot may offer more bargains on smaller trees and certainly when it's trying to unload perishable stock before it is too late. Tree farms can always hold over their unsold evergreen merchandise for another year.

However, it's not the prospect of price savings that brings most of the Christmas crowds to the tree farms. It's the fun, the total atmosphere of a wintertime outing to select the family tree.

Even though the "farm" may be little more than a few acres of nothing but crimped conifers, and the pathways along the windrows rutted and muddy from foot traffic, it offers the evocation of the outdoors harvest.

You don't always have to do a lot of hard work at these farms, either. Many will cut it for you, haul it to the car, wrap it up and mount it in the trunk or on top. More of them are offering trees "pre-cut" daily on the premises so you don't even have to wander the fields to choose.

A number of farms are selling a selection of "B&B" live trees for replanting in your yard after the tinsel and bulbs have been removed. The "balled and burlapped" varieties require special care (no more than 5 days inside, for example) and are more expensive, but promise a growing reminder of that year's celebration.

For the more physically inclined, a few farms may provide "DYO" trees. That means "dig your own," a label not to be taken lightly.

There's a distinction between nurseries that sell live trees year-round and those farms that sell trees only for cutting at Christmas time. To sell live trees, the establishment must be licensed and its stock is state inspected for insects and plant disease; most of these tree farms operate year-round.

The distinction, in fact, is sometimes blurred, with nurseries operating their own tree farms and tree farms selling to landscapers. And there are a few farms that sell only to retailers, including nurseries or the holiday-season-only Christmas tree lots.

Which bring us back to the 1993 "cut your own" directory published by the growers association. It lists 61 farms in the state with hours, directions and planted stock. More than a third are in Harford and Baltimore counties, another third in Frederick and Carroll counties.

The association notes that the directory is not a complete listing, for which growers pay a fee. Some 200 Maryland growers are members of MCTA, and at least 100 other growers are not. "I'm always finding new tree farms that I didn't even know existed," adds Karen Meyer, director of the trade group.

All told, Marylanders will probably buy more than 1 million trees this time of year. Some of them will come from as far away as the West Coast. North Carolina is becoming a major supplier of cut trees, and neighboring Pennsylvania is also a major source of this state's December evergreen extravaganza.

Starting up a Christmas tree farm is an appealing idea for many people, which accounts for the cycles of expansion and failure in the industry.

Nostalgia is often credited with luring landowners into planting the Christmas crop. Tax breaks for farming open land offer another incentive for Christmas silviculture. And with small farms becoming less efficient in traditional agriculture, specialty crops such as these are a way to make money from an otherwise unproductive property.

But it takes year-round work, a minimum of six years of fertilizing and pruning and hoping, before a pine tree is ready for the Yule market; a spruce can take twice as long to reach full maturity. So tree farming is no carefree, casual hobby, as any number of overwhelmed newcomers have found out.

This year's supply of Maryland trees is a bountiful one, meaning lots of variety and selection for buyers, Ms. Meyer said.

Popular types include the White, Scotch and Austrian pines, the Douglas and Fraser firs, and the Norway, White and Colorado Blue spruces.

To saw or not to saw, that is the question. It's one we can happily answer either way and still enjoy the special fragrance and beauty of Christmas trees from a real home-grown industry.

For a directory of tree farms, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to MCTA, Box 1232, Abingdon, MD 21009.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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