Tree shopping on day after holiday makes for green Friday

For some, the holiday season starts with a visit to a tree farm while the turkey is still warm

  • The annual Kennedy Krieger Institute Festival of Trees comes to the Timonium fairgrounds this weekend.
The annual Kennedy Krieger Institute Festival of Trees comes… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
November 27, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The door to the black pickup opened, a 5-year-old girl leaped out, and for the Prestons — a White Marsh family whose cheeks were already rosy with the morning chill — the Christmas season was officially under way.

"I hope there's a billion times two thousand [trees] here," Mackenzi Preston cried as she charged into the frame garage that forms the headquarters of the Mount Carmel Tree Farm in Parkton.

On a day when thousands rise before dawn to play their part in the post- Thanksgiving frenzy known as Black Friday, many Marylanders mark the start of a new holiday season with a more pastoral tradition: traveling to a tree farm, taking up a saw and cutting down the Douglas fir, Scotch pine or blue spruce that will serve as centerpiece for their Christmas decor and celebration.

"Yes! Yes! I can't wait till I can smell it in the house!" Mackenzi said, her cry the perfect reflection of the mood among young and old alike on the first day of the holiday season at the 26-year-old Mount Carmel farm.

The Prestons — "Mac," along with sister Brandi, 15, and their parents, Sherri and Wayne — had never had a "real" tree as a family because of Sherri's allergies. They decided to give it a try, though, since Brandi's getting older and hasn't experienced "the whole thing — choosing the tree, cutting it down, hauling it home and setting it up," Sherri said.

They were the first in line Friday when Mount Carmel — one of at least 30 Baltimore-area farms where you can cut your own tree — opened at 9 a.m.

Karin and Gary Elser of Baldwin never had such a problem. They've spent the day after Thanksgiving cutting down a tree every year since they were married 45 years ago.

Sure, it's early in the season, they say, but why wait a day longer than they must to get their favorite holiday going? And you can be sure a fresh-cut tree will keep past New Year's, Gary says.

They even learned a life lesson that first year. They chose a tree so big that they couldn't fit it into their little apartment, no matter how they carved it up. They had to throw it out and return for a more modest model.

"Our eyes were bigger than our apartment," said Gary, 70, whose eyes were plenty big Friday, as he paid the $45 for the 7-foot pine he and Karin chose together. (He usually cuts it down himself, but because of a bum knee, marked it for a Mount Carmel assistant to hew.)

Their criteria? "The tree has to be taller than me, and a little wider," said Gary, who stands 6 foot 9 and looks slender at 210 pounds. Their grown children, they said, have followed the day-after-Thanksgiving ritual for years.

In some ways, this season is a departure at Mount Carmel, an operation started in 1984 by restaurateur and entrepreneur Bob Curreri. He died last December after a long illness, leaving his son and daughter-in-law, Bob and Phyllis Curreri, to run a deceptively complex business in the midst of an economic downturn that has slowed sales.

The 66-acre spread has about 20,000 trees in various stages of growth — because Christmas trees typically grow in six- to 12-year cycles, only a small percentage are available for purchase in any given season — and boasts hundreds of holly trees, making it one of the few farms in the area that features the berry-studded foliage. Valley View Farms and Watson's Nursery, both on York Road, get their seasonal holly branches and wreaths from Mount Carmel.

Running a tree farm is a year-round proposition. Groundskeeper Ruby Gover, a six-year employee, keeps the property perpetually mowed, maintaining the space between rows with annual doses of weed killer. Every June or July, she trims that year's trees into the conical shape that buyers demand (the time lag allows sharp edges to disappear).

Come Thanksgiving, she's using a special workbench in the shop to fashion as many as 15 wreaths a day, drawing her materials from greens from the farm — holly, spruce, Fraser fir.

In a good year, the farm has sold as many as 250 trees a day, according to Nick Zito, a longtime seasonal hand. This year, the Curreris are hoping to move 500 trees for the 28-day season, which would probably mean just enough revenue to pay Gover for the year.

"The recession," explained Zito with a shrug, leaving to bale a 9-foot, precut Scotch pine.

More than 25 customers bought trees in the first two hours, most following the suggested protocol: Borrow a bow saw, walk or drive the several hundred yards to a grown-tree hillside, choose the right one, saw it down and bring it back. (The farm also has 150 precut trees for sale.) A tree cut at the beginning of the season will stay fresher and keep its needles longer than a store-bought tree, which might have been cut down (and started drying out) days or weeks earlier.

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