First Crop In, Last Crop Out

I think that the most satisfying work we do on the farm is planting of the seedlings in the Christmas tree fields. The weather is crisp, the ground is soft and moist, and there are no ticks or stinging insects to worry about. On top of that, working within the life span of a tree forces you to take a long-range view of your land and your market.

The cycle that begins with the planting will end 8 years from now when the tree is ready for Christmas. The seedling will have to overcome the shock of transplanting and the competition with weeds until it is about 3 years old. It will be sheared and shaped each year in the heat of the summer. And if it survives the many challenges it will face, it will ride home with a happy family to serve as the centerpiece for the Christmas celebration.

We pick up the seedlings, 1000 White Pine and 1000 Norway Spruce, from the Virginia Department of Forestry nursery in Crimora in late February or early March, depending on the weather. If the ground is frozen or snow covered we wait, but if we have had a mild winter, like this year, we can get started in late February. The seedlings are bare rooted–the soil they grew in is washed off at the nursery–and they are packed in plastic sheets and cardboard boxes to prevent the roots from drying out.

Planting bar

Planting is done with a planting bar, a steel shaft attached to a thick, 4 inch spade, tapering to a point. The bar is pushed into the soil, rocked back and forth to open up a nice pocket, and removed. The roots of a seedling are carefully tucked into the hole, and the bar is again plunged into the nearby soil and rocked back, pressing dirt against the roots, sealing them into the pocket. Seedlings are spaced from 4 to 6 feet apart in the rows, depending on the age of the neighboring trees.

Planting bar

We try to get all the trees planted within a week of picking them up, and we keep their roots cool and moist until we take them out to the field. Each year we plant about 300 smaller seedlings in pots, and these are kept over the summer in a shaded area where we can water and weed them as needed. Most of these potted trees will be given to families with a new child, or who have one on the way, so the tree can grow up with them.

Once the seedlings are planted, our focus will shift to the bees, mushrooms and vegetable garden. The tree fields will not be visited again until mid-June when we mow to prepare for shearing. It is then that we will see how successful our planting efforts have been, as the survivors emerge with the clearing of the weeds. In a good year we may have 90% of the seedlings survive, but if we have a drought after planting we could lose up to 90%. Once they make it through the first year in the fields, most trees will survive until harvest, years later.

In our method of farming, we do not use chemicals to stifle the competition or speed the growth of the trees, and we do all mowing and shaping manually. For this reason, our yield is difficult to predict, as is the geometry of the final product. This kind of growing is not common, but we think it leads to greater variety, more fun in the selection process and less damage to the ecosystem.

Oak Shade Farm