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Finding the Perfect Christmas Tree

It was an unusually warm, late fall day when Randy Ketchum arrived at Bowser Christmas Tree Farm on Stauffer Road in Lititz. He was on a mission to get the perfect Christmas tree and, between taking calls on his mobile phone and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of different species with owner Mark Bowser, he found the right seven foot Fraser fir for his Lititz home.

Bowser loaded the tree into a special cart designed by his (late) father Lewis and drove it around to the parking area in front of Mark’s brother’s auto body business. The tree was loaded and Randy headed home a happy man.

Like Randy, millions of families will visit Christmas tree farms, greenhouses, produce stands, big box stores and pop-up operations in the weeks before Christmas to purchase just the perfect tree for their holiday season.

The first and second weekends in December are the busiest for those selling a variety of trees and evergreen decorations. And at around $10 a foot, a decent tree is not inexpensive and will decorate a families’ home for only about three weeks before being put out for trash or to be recycled into mulch.

So, what’s the trick to getting the perfect tree for the season so everyone is happy? There really is no secret to buying. “Know the species you like,” tree farmers’ say is important and to be the freshest the tree should be cut at a farm the day to find it. Or if you have confidence in your retailer, that the tree wasn’t cut a month ago in North Carolina, squished on a flatbed truck and shipped to a wholesaler where it sat for weeks, buy there.

If you want the Christmas tree farm experience, you’ll find it in Lancaster County. But if you think you’ll have dozens of choices, think again. Acreage is much too expensive here for farmers to wait eight to 10 years (that’s how long it takes) for a tree to mature and then sell it for $70-$80.

There’s a long history of Christmas trees in Lancaster County. Many early German immigrants used evergreen as part of their Christmas celebration. The Christmas trees (a 1600s Lutheran tradition) dates back in Lancaster County to 1821. Although the tree is a focal point in many home in celebrating the season, it is not the case for our Plain family community neighbors who have always felt that decorations, especially a tree, would be a distraction from the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

Getting the right tree at the right height, shaped correctly with needless that will last the season all wrapped in a holiday smell can take some serious shopping.

All trees are usually shaped in the tree farm before they are cut. Most Christmas trees are shaped into a cone.

At some tree farms, owners may let customers cut down a tree if they cut the trunk at ground level, which is very difficult. If a stump is left, mowing the tree farm and re-planting becomes difficult.  Many tree farms let you identify or tag the tree and they will cut it and bale it for you. Some farms recut the trunk base while others just scrape it to allow water to be sucked up into the tree, just inside the bark, while it is in a stand at your home.

If you purchase a tree at a garden center, a big box store or even at a pop-up stand in a parking lot, it will be advertised as “fresh cut.” These trees use to be called “pre-cut” but, for marketing purposes, “fresh cut” has a better ring to it. Retailers usually get only one shipment of trees and they arrive late in November to be on sale right after Thanksgiving. Even some local tree farms might ship in some tree species that don’t thrive in the county soil.

There are not as many trees available this year as there has been in the past. During the recession of 2008, trees sales were way down, farms closed or started growing grapes or produce and consequently a lot less seedlings were planted. These were the trees that matured this year. However, locally there appears to be plenty of selection of all species. According to Tim Abbey of Penn State Extension in York, there are 1,400 Christmas tree growers in the state with 31,000 acres planted with one million trees. He has not seen any shortages of Christmas trees in the state.

Here are some, but certainly not all, of your local options for securing the right Christmas tree for the season.

Miller’s Christmas Tree Farm, 470 Trail Road North, Elizabethtown — Scott and Susan Miller have been selling trees in Elizabethtown for years. They planted 2,000 seedlings in 1990 and replant each year. The Millers cut daily for their wholesale market and customers can visit tag and cut their own tree on site. Like many of his fellow tree farmers, Miller says Fraser and Douglas firs are the most popular sellers. The Millers have 12 acres in production growing between 12,000-15,000 trees.  Scott manages the operation with the help of his adult children. In their 27th year, the site is a destination for families who pick a tree and also enjoy the complimentary hot dogs, hot chocolate and marshmallows. Scott reminds all buyers to scrape the bottom of the trunk or re-cut the base if the tree is not going into the stand immediately so it will suck water and remain fresh during the season.

Bowser Christmas Tree Farm, 551 Stauffer Road, Lititz — The Bowser family farm has 3.5 acres devoted to growing with space for nearly 6,000 trees. They grow Douglas Fir, Blue Spruce and bring in Fraser Fir from a near-by Pennsylvania Farm. The Bowsers planted their first trees in 1985 and began selling in 1991. Mark Bowser’s dad Lewis H. Bowser, Sr. also was an inventor and developed the Auger Transporter which allows for easier replanting of new transplants next to stumps in a tree farm. Nearly 1,000 of the patented units are in use in the United States and Canada, according to Mark. Douglas fir is Bowser’s most popular seller in a height just under seven feet.

Elizabeth Farms, 212 Hopeland Road, Lititz — Elizabeth Farm is one of the largest Christmas tree farms in southeast Pennsylvania. They sell farm cut, fresh cut and balled trees. They grow a variety of species and you may have your tree cut right in the field. The site is a Christmas destination or an “experience,” as owner Bill Copeland describes it. The farm has wagon rides, food trucks, gift shop, petting zoo and a large train display. Nearly 50,000 visitors are welcomed at the farm each holiday season. Copeland sells wholesale and retail and has been growing trees for 30 years.

Spruce Villa, Brunnerville & Newport Road, Lititz — One of the smallest tree farms in the county, Dana Clark and his family grow trees on a former dairy farm, that has been in the family for seven generations. “We are a niche operation,” Clarks said, “and only open weekends or by appointment.” Spruce Villa has a little of everything including douglas fir and blue spruce. Word-of-mouth and a small sign by the street is the way you hear of Spruce Villa. Clark says their trees are more natural looking as they are only lightly trimmed and shaped every spring. While most farms sell trees by the foot or by height range, Spruce Villa sells any size at fixed price. You may cut down your own tree on the farm or they will cut it for you.

Frysville Farms, 300 Frysville Road, Ephrata — Although Vince Fry has a ton of Christmas trees at his well-known Ephrata location, he has poinsettia plants by the acre too that he sells both wholesale and retail. A destination for spring flowers, Frysville also is very busy in the fall with mums and during the holiday season. Frysville sells fraser fir, concolor, douglas, white pine and blue spruce trees. Many people like the citrus smelling concolor and Fry says some customers ask for the tree that smells like juice. Fry has been in the family business for thirty years and his 86-year old dad, Morton, who got it all started is still on site to keep an eye on the operation. Frysville also sells balled trees for those who want to replant their holiday tree rather than recycle it.

Stauffers of Kissel Hill, 1050 Lititz Pike, Lititz — Stauffers will sell nearly 12,000 trees at its eight stores during the holiday season and stocks douglas, fraser, concolor and white pine. The trees are kept moist with a sprinkler in the garden center storage space to absorb water prior to sale. Open through Dec. 24, many of the locations have been known to sell out their stock of fresh cut trees before Christmas.

The list of area tree sellers is long and also includes major players including Esbenshade Garden Center and Greenhouse in Lititz, Abe’s Tree Farm on Butter Road in Lancaster, and Dean’s Trees on Lititz Pike in Lancaster (Dean’s grows trees locally and regionally). And pop-up operations can be found almost on every street corner similar to Mother’s Day flower vendors. So, if you haven’t bought your tree yet, what are you waiting for?

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