Eric, Eric, Farm Operations Manager…How Does Your Christmas Tree Grow?

The quick answer to this quirky take on a popular fairy tale question is “slowly with a lot of TLC.” This fall, as you search for that ‘perfect’ Christmas tree, keep in mind that growing Christmas trees is a long process. Six-foot trees and over take at least seven years to grow in our fields, and more likely over 10 years.

Our first stop was at Peterson’s Riverview Nursery. The Abbey Farms order was ready and waiting for us!

That is if everything goes well.  In a series of posts this year, we’re sharing what we learn about growing evergreen trees with you. First step is to pick up the seedlings. We tagged along with Eric Mott, the Abbey Farms farm operations manager, when he drove to Michigan to pick up his tree order.

First Step in Growing Christmas Trees – Ordering Seedlings

These Canaan Firs are growing in a transplant bed. They were started in a seedbed, then transplanted to this bed where they will continue to grow until harvested for sale.

Each year Abbey Farms purchases between 9,000 and 12,000 seedlings from various tree nurseries in Michigan.  The nurseries supplying us with differing varieties of pine, spruce and fir trees the last couple of years are Peterson’s Riverview Nursery in Allegan, along with New Life Nursery and Alpha Nurseries in Holland.

Deciding which type of evergreen to order depends on several factors. These could include:

What grows in our clay soil and in our climate,


Disease resistance,

Mixture of long- and short-needle species,

A variety of species and varieties to ensure that we don’t have “all of our eggs in one basket!”

Each nursery hires seasonal staff to sort, grade and prepare the seedlings for shipment. They are sorted by species and variety, and also by size. They are then bundled and/or boxed for shipment or pickup.

Choosing Evergreen Species and Varieties

You’ve asked for them, and we’ve tried. Fraser and even Balsam firs are ever popular, but we haven’t had luck growing them in our soil. Firs, and generally all evergreens, like a sandier soil that drains well. Unfortunately, the soil at Abbey Farms is mainly dense clay. We’ve tried various firs, with the Canaan fir showing the most promise as it is more tolerate of poorly drained soils.

In 2016, we purchased about 11,500 seedlings, including 1,000 Canaan firs. Spruces we purchased were the deep green Norway spruce, some Colorado blue spruce and white spruce. The pines included Scotch or Scots pine (two varieties: French and East Anglia) and white pine.

Trees, trees, trees! A field of evergreen seedlings and transplants at Alpha Nursery.

2017 Seedlings

This year, we purchased 9,000 seedlings. Of the 4,000 Scotch pine we bought, they were equally divided between East Anglia and French varieties. We choose different varieties (seed source) as a disease deterrent. In theory, each variety may react differently to a disease, giving us a better likelihood of growing the trees to marketable size.  It takes about seven to eight years for the pine tree to reach a suitable size for cutting.

As a Christmas tree, the Scotch pine is known for its dark green foliage and stiff branches, which are well suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. We didn’t bring in any white pine this year as we already are well supplied. The white pine has soft, flexible needles and is bluish-green in color. Because they are softer, they aren’t recommended for heavy ornaments. They have little aroma, too, which is one reason many of us like our fresh trees!

The machine attached to the tractor is used to lift the transplants growing in the field. They will then be sorted and bundled for customer pickup or shipping.

Norway and Black Hills spruce make up the 5,000 spruce seedlings this year, with the majority being Norway spruce. The spruce will take at least 10 years to grow a 6-7 foot tree, and more likely 11 to 12 years. For Christmas trees, the overall color of Norway spruce is good. You’ll get good needle retention as long as you cut it fresh and properly water it.

The Black Hills spruce features dark green to blue-green needles, and grows in a nice pyramidal shape with less pruning – a time saver for us!

Seedling/Transplant Sizes

The owner at Alpha Nursery helps Eric Mott, farm operations manager, load up the trailer to head home to Abbey Farms. Then, the race to plant begins!

When we purchase our trees, they are marked by a set of numbers, such as 2 – 0, 2 – 1, 2 – 2, etc. The tree nursery sows the seeds directly in a seedbed. The number of years grown in the seedbed corresponds to the first number, so a 2 – 1 tree grew for two years in the seedbed. It was then lifted and transplanted into a bed at even spacing to continue to grow until sold. The number of years in the transplant bed corresponds to the second number.

This year, we purchased larger seedlings – some were already 3-feet tall! By replacing an old, outdated tree planter, we anticipate a better success planting larger seedlings. Cross your fingers – let’s hope it works!

Enjoy the photos of our excursion and watch for the next installment. You’ll see our new and old tree planters and watch a video of planting in action! If you have questions about growing Christmas trees that you’d like answered in an upcoming blog, please send them to or send us a message on Facebook.

Category: UncategorizedBy Shirley MottMay 23, 2017Tags: Abbey FarmsAgri-tourismAurora IllinoisChristmas treesevergreensFarm EducationFarm Fresh NewsFarm operationsIllinois AgricultureKane County Farmsnonprofit organizationNorway SpruceScotch pineTree SponsorshipUrban Farm

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