It’s tough but not impossible to grow trees in Oklahoma

December 19, 2013

Oklahoma Christmas tree growers can pick any of the native adapted species of tree to grow and sell but that list is very short.

To combat the fact that the poor choice of the eastern redcedar, which dries out quickly and becomes a fire hazard, is the only Oklahoma native conifer that has seen use as a Christmas tree, Chuck Tauer, retired forestry genetics professor at Oklahoma State University, began looking for an alternative in the early 1980s.

“This thing started for me as a research project. I was interested in (Virginia pine) as a potential for Christmas trees in Oklahoma, because Oklahoma, other than slow growing Scots (Scotch) pine, doesn’t really have much it can grow as a Christmas tree,” Tauer said. “The whole idea was to develop a locally adaptive land Virginia pine for use in Oklahoma.”

Because Virginia pine was being used elsewhere in the south as a Christmas tree, Tauer believed it would be the best fit for Oklahomans.

The first step of this research was to collect Virginia pine seed from across its native range, which consists of much of the eastern part of the United States. In total, seed from 123 trees, representing 38 different natural stands of Virginia pine was collected and grown in an OSU nursery in 1984.

“We knew Virginia pine would work, we just didn’t know where to start,” Tauer said.  “They were doing so-so, but we knew they could do better.”

After the trees were field planted in 1985 and cooperating Christmas tree growers planted some trees, data was taken over the next seven years. The data taken from the field plantings, combined with input from the growers, were used to identify the best individual trees from the best families in the original collection.

In 1990, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Forestry Services Division, began grafting these top-notch trees into a seed orchard to produce seed to grow improved seedlings for sale to Christmas tree growers.

“The market that we cater to in growing our own is the choose-and-cut market,” Tauer said. “You can go to Lowe’s and buy a fir, shipped in from who knows where and cut who knows when, and in who knows what condition. What we have to offer is a fresh cut, locally grown tree.”

Other than being able to simply produce a live Christmas tree in Oklahoma, the Virginia pine has many other advantages.

“Growers only sell a certain percentage of what they grow, as only a certain percentage becomes sellable. We have improved the percentage of sellable trees that you can grow,” said Tauer. “We improved the quality of the tree they sell and the growth rate so that they can sell them a little sooner.”

A Scots (Scotch) pine takes eight to 10 years to produce a sellable tree, while Virginia pine takes four to five. Due to Tauer’s research, Virginia pine is now the most commonly grown Christmas tree in Oklahoma.

Many Oklahomans will visit a “choose-and-cut” tree farm to pick out a Christmas tree.

“Choose-and-cut is a family experience,” said Craig McKinley, retired Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension forestry specialist. “The choose-and-cut operation is selling an experience as much as they are selling a Christmas tree. It’s fun.”

Before heading to the farm, some preparation is needed to pick out the right one. Families should measure the ceiling height where the tree will be displayed.

“Trees seem to grow when they get inside,” McKinley said. “Be aware of where you are going to put it.”

Families should consider the width of the tree, and whether all sides will be displayed. Some trees at the farm may be a little flat or thin on one side, which is OK if that side will be back in the corner of a room once the tree is on display.

Also different species of trees in Oklahoma will allow for different decorations.

“People choose a Christmas tree species depending on tradition and individual taste,” said David Hillock, retired OSU Cooperative Extension consumer horticulture specialist. “Each species has a distinctive appearance and fragrance, and some people prefer a tree densely sheared to a conical shape, while others prefer a loose, more natural form.”

Families don’t need the perfect tree.

“There is no perfect tree. We all have what we like and what we don’t like,” McKinley said. “It all varies by individual. If you like it, it’s perfect.”

Information on Oklahoma Christmas tree growers can be picked up at local OSU Cooperative Extension offices across the state.

While Christmas trees in the living room are no longer growing, they still need just as much water as if they were. Keeping the focal point of Christmas decorations fresh and beautiful is simple, if a few important steps are taken.

“The minute you cut down the tree, it’s not alive anymore,” said Craig McKinley, retired Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension forestry specialist.  “All you’re trying to do is prevent its degradation. You’re not going to improve its quality.”

A fresh Christmas tree can stay healthy for several weeks if given the proper care.

“When you get the tree home, cut about an inch off the butt end to aid in water absorption,” said David Hillock, OSU Cooperative Extension consumer horticulture specialist. “Get the cut end into a container of plain water quickly. There is no need to add aspirin, sugar or flame retardant to the water.”

Not making the initial cut prior to setting up the tree could be detrimental since the biggest key to keeping a Christmas tree looking good is keeping it moist. After squaring off the new base of the tree, immediately put it in the tree stand, which should have a large water reservoir.

McKinley said the water movement through the tree is a physical process, as the tree creates a vacuum that sucks up the water and into the needles. Plenty of water is needed. A freshly cut tree can take in more than a gallon of water per day for the first few days.

It is virtually impossible to give a tree too much water, so just keep the reservoir full. McKinley said it is vital the reservoir not be allowed to go dry because once the “vacuum” is broken, the tree may not be able to create enough pressure for suction to get the water going again.

The placement of a Christmas tree also will affect its lifespan. Hillock suggested avoiding heating vents, because they will dry the tree out more quickly. Anything in the house that could produce any type of heat will increase the evaporation of water in the tree and lead to an early demise.

Also, pruning the tree is not a bad idea. Many people will prune trees to get the shape they are looking for or to create a little more space underneath the tree for gifts.

“Make sure you know where the limb is going before you cut it,” McKinley said. “Some species of tree can have limbs that start at the bottom of the tree and span several feet up.”

With care, a Christmas tree can stay beautiful for more than a month.

Some Oklahoma families try to keep the Christmas spirit going long after the holiday season with ball-and-burlap trees.

Not all tree growers offer the ball-and-burlap method of sales, so check that out before you visit a farm. However, if they do sell this style, the grower should be able to make the right-sized bundle for customers.

“Some people like to leave them outside and just decorate them on their porch (for Christmas),” said Craig McKinley, retired Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension forestry specialist. “Water them and take a little bit more caution because you have a big load of soil there.”

An adequate water supply is vital to keeping a live tree. The ball should be soaked all the way through, without too much runoff. While in the house, the root ball should be wrapped in plastic or placed in a tub or bucket.

“The roots that actually take up most of the moisture are toward the outside of that ball,” said McKinley. “The big roots in the middle are more for stability. Evenly distribute the water around the ball.”

When a tree is being transplanted, there typically will be about a foot of soil in diameter for every inch of diameter for the tree. Ball-and-burlap trees should not be kept in the house for more than 10 days.

When the time comes to plant the tree, there are a few things you should know to increase its chances of survival. First and foremost, keep in mind which species of tree is best suited to survive Oklahoma’s weather.

“Be careful what species you choose, because many species don’t make a nice yard tree,” said McKinley. “It requires way too much care.”

No matter the species selected, there are some guidelines that need to be followed.

“You can plant it immediately after Christmas if you want,” McKinley said. “If you’re going to have a really hard freeze in the next day or two, just delay planting. If it can get in the ground and kind of get acclimated a little bit, (the tree should do well) because it is not actively growing.”

The feeder roots should be buried within the first 6 inches to 8 inches of earth, and the bag should not be removed until the tree is in place. Once the tree is where you want it, cover the area with mulch to prevent the roots from freezing.

“You probably ought to give a tree, even in the driest part of the year, 2 inches of water every two weeks,” McKinley said. “Trees do better if they go through a dry and wet cycle.”

Recently planted trees should not be allowed to dry completely as water is essential for early stability.

While the ball-and-burlap method is a little more work than a choose-and-cut tree, the Christmas memories come back every time you look at the tree, and your property value may increase because of your efforts.

(Sean Hubbard was the major contributor to this report)