Finding the right Christmas tree

By on December 6, 2017

Randy Ketchum (right) with the Fraser Fir he picked out with
Mark Bowser at Bowser Christmas Tree Farm in Lititz.

It was an unusually warm late fall day when Randy Ketchum arrived at Bowser’s Christmas Tree Farm on Stauffer Road in Lititz. He was on a mission to get the perfect 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 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 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.

Stauffers of Kissel Hill in Lititz keeps its Christmas trees moist with a sprinkler system.

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 around here. Many early German immigrants used evergreen as part of their Christmas celebrations, and trees (a 1600s Lutheran tradition) date back to 1821 in this county.

Although a tree is a focal point in many homes, that is not the case for the Plain family community that feels decorations, especially a tree, are a distraction from the celebration of Christ’s birth.

Getting the best 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.

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

A flatbed brings trees in from the farm at Elizabeth Farms.

If you purchase a tree at a garden center or big box store, or even at a seasonal 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. They arrive in late November to be on sale right after Thanksgiving. Even some local tree farms might ship in a few species that don’t thrive in the local soil.

A good source of information on Christmas trees is the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association (http://www.christmastrees.org). A link on the website will show all the farms in the state by county.

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

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

Bowser’s Christmas Tree Farm551 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 nearby farm. The Bowsers planted their first trees in 1985 and began selling in 1991. Mark Bowser’s dad, Lewis H. Bowser Sr., was also an inventor who 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, according to Mark, in use in the United States and Canada. Douglas

Fir is Bowser’s most popular seller in a height just under seven feet.

Elizabeth Farms212 Hopeland Road, Brickerville

Elizabeth is one of the largest tree farms in Southeast Pennsylvania. They sell farm cut, fresh cut and balled trees. They grow a variety of species, and customers can have their trees cut right in the field. It’s become a local Christmas destination over the years, an “experience,” as owner Bill Copeland describes it. The farm has wagon rides, food trucks, a 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 roads, Lititz

This is one of the smallest tree farms in the county. Dana Clark and his family grow trees on a dairy farm that has been in the family for seven generations.

“We are a niche operation,” Clarks says, “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 road is the way you hear about this place. 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 a fixed price. Customers may cut down their own tree on the farm, or they will cut it for you.

Stauffers of Kissel Hill1050 Lititz Pike

SKH 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 system 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 like Esbenshade Garden Center and Greenhouse in Brickerville, Abe’s Tree Farm on Butter Road in Lancaster, and Dean’s Trees on Lititz Pike (Dean’s grows trees locally and regionally). And pop-up operations can be found on many street corners, similar to Mother’s Day flower vendors. So, if you haven’t bought your tree yet, what are you waiting for?

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net.

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