Monday, November 30, 2009

Tagging a Christmas tree for cutting is a wholesome tradition
11/19/2009 11:01 AM EST
By Bryan RourkeJournal Staff Writer

A tree is tagged with a colorful ribbon early in the holiday season.
The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

Don’t just get a Christmas tree. Get an experience.
This is what Eric Watne says. He’s the president of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association and the owner of Clark’s Tree Farm in Tiverton. Every year he has a recurrent conversation with customers.
“How much are your trees?” they say.
“The trees are free,” Watne says. “The memories are $45.”
You’re not just buying a tree, farmers say; you’re having a family outing.
“My farm is like a park with a stream through the middle and a covered bridge,” says Ron Rossi of Rossi Tree Farm in Cranston. “If it’s a nice day, people will walk around for hours. They’ll find their tree in the first 10 minutes and then walk around 18 fields.”
In some places, such as Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, people can have coffee and a meal, and buy baked goods, honey and jam made on the premises.
“Buying a Christmas tree on a farm is a whole experience,” says Jan Eckhart, owner of Sweet Berry Farm. “People won’t get that experience in a parking lot.”
What people may get in a parking lot is often unclear. They may get a tree that could have been cut weeks earlier and shipped from Canada. It won’t last as long in the stand, and it’s not as environmentally friendly.
“It’s one thing if you’re buying roofing materials from Canada that will last 30 years, but a Christmas tree lasts three weeks,” Watne says. “The cost and gas to ship it is wasteful.”
’Tis the time to tag. Pick your preference. From late October to early December, people pay their respects to local tree farms, and pay their local farmers for a tree of their choice, which they’ll mark with a tag.
The idea is simple. Before you need your tree, you take your time selecting it. Ideally, you do this when the weather is nice, and the selection is large.
“Some people don’t want to be the last one going to a clearance sale and picking through all the sweaters that no one else has bought,” Watne says.
Tags placed on trees reserve them for the purchasers to claim at their convenience.
“You do it before the hectic holiday season begins,” Eckhart says. “It’s one more thing they can check off their list.”
But tagging a tree shouldn’t be seen as a task or a chore.
“It becomes a family tradition,” Watne says. “People drag their kids away from the Xbox and they mope around a bit and buy a tree.”
Actually, it’s not that simple — the choosing, not the moping. There are three general species of Christmas trees: spruce, fir and pine. There are dozens of varieties within each. And each tree within each variety of each species will look a little different — in size, shape, color, fullness.
You’ve got to make a choice. And the choice has got to be yours.
“People have different perspectives of what an ideal Christmas tree is,” Eckhart says. “A lot of that is influenced by what they had growing up.”
The “ideal” tree is a function of familiarity and nostalgic longing. A husband and wife who agree on everything may disagree on a tree if he grew up in a spruce household and she grew up in a fir family.
“There is a lot of verbal interchange,” Eckhart says. “You eventually get a summary decision. Or someone makes a major ruling.”
Sometimes customers ask farmers to settle disagreements. And farmers know not to.
“They ask me and I stay out of it,” Rossi says.
Sometimes customers attempt to resolve their indecision by leaving a particular farm and visiting a few others.
“They’ll spend an entire day looking at thousands of trees on four different farms,” Watne says. “I think that’s utterly ridiculous.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find an ugly tree on a Christmas tree farm, Watne says. But last year Watne found one and put it in his house.
“One of my daughters cried,” Watne says. “Maybe I’ll sound like a Scrooge, but why would I stick a tree in my house that I could sell when I could stick a tree in my house that no one would buy?”
Actually people do buy “ugly” trees, which are disguised as wreaths and garlands. But even an ugly tree is salvageable.
“Once you get them decorated, they’re all beautiful,” Watne says.
So pick your preference. Spruces have stronger branches that can hold heavier ornaments, but they also have sharp needles. Firs and pines have weaker branches and soft needles, and a stronger aroma.
But deciding what you want before you get to the farm is a waste of time.
“People will come for one type of tree and leave with another,” Rossi says. “They read articles and see pictures. They think they want a Fraser fir and leave with a white spruce.”
For the record, white spruces are not white.
“They’re green to blue,” Eckhart says. “Why they’re called white, I don’t know. Nothing is simple.”
Well, cutting the tree down is pretty straightforward. All the farms will cut a tree for you, unless you ask to do it yourself.
“It’s usually the men who want to do it,” Eckhart says. “I think the women are smarter. They just want it cut and wrapped. The men want to go into the woods, cut the tree, throw it over their shoulder and drag it back. It’s primordial.”
It’s also not as easy as it looks.
“I’m happy to hand them the saw and let them do it,” Watne says. “You have to lay on the ground. It’s generally a little wet. And some people get halfway through and lose enthusiasm.”
That’s just as well.
“Some cut on an angle,” Rossi says. “So I have to cut it anyway to straighten it out.”
Okay, so let’s say you’ve picked a tree and cut it.
“I’ve been asked how much a tree will grow after it’s been cut and in the stand,” Eckhart says. “They want to know how much bigger it will get by Christmas.”
Remind yourself not to ask a farmer that question. A cut tree doesn’t grow. But it does live, sort of.
Keep plenty of water in the stand, and keep the stand away from a radiator.
“Make a fresh cut of the trunk before putting it in water,” Eckhart says. “Trees should be treated like flowers.”

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