Freshness is the key to quality Christmas trees, and with choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms scattered across the state, all Mississippians can get a great tree every year.
John Kushla, forestry specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, said locally grown trees can look great for weeks when they are put in water immediately.
"Leyland cypress has excellent needle retention and is non-aromatic, so it is a good choice for people sensitive to scent. Virginia pine also has excellent needle retention but is aromatic. Both species will last four to five weeks when kept in water," Kushla said.
"Blue Ice, Carolina Sapphire and Eastern red cedar all are grown locally and are excellent varieties but last about two to three weeks when kept watered," he said.
Michael May, executive secretary of the Southern Christmas Tree Association and owner of Lazy Acres Plantation in Chunky, said this year was a very good growing year for Christmas trees.
"We had a little stretch of drought, but other than that, the weather was not too bad for Christmas trees," May said. "Hurricanes are a Christmas tree nightmare. It will blow them over, and it’s not fun to stand up a few thousand trees afterwards."
After the first year, a tree can grow about 2 or more feet a year. Trees are planted as many as 1,000 per acre and typically grown for four years.
"You usually harvest about one-fourth of your crop every year," May said.
Recent tree prices in Mississippi are $35 to $45 each for 6- to 8-foot trees, and $50 to $75 each for trees 8 to 10 foot trees. Growers can plant about 900 trees per acre. At an average sale price of $40 per tree, each acre can gross about $36,000 every four years.
"You can afford to carry some of the larger trees over a few years, but many farmers will clear-cut the tallest ones and start over after six or seven years because of the diminishing return on their investment," May said. "After that point, you could never charge enough to make anything on those trees."
The average Christmas tree farm in Mississippi is about 4 to 5 acres. Christmas trees are a labor-intensive crop, and most who grow them have another full-time vocation.
"You start with planting in the spring, then you come back and fertilize them, and there is constant spraying and mowing around the trees," May said. "The toughest job is trimming the trees two to three times a year, depending on rainfall."
Trimming the trees carefully gives them their Christmas tree shape, and doing it right is a combination of art and lots of experience.
"My dad always told me to make it look like an upside-down ice cream cone, but training someone to trim it like that is hard," May said.
Kushla said cutting a Mississippi-grown Christmas tree guarantees a fresh tree and provides an opportunity to start a holiday tradition.
"If you go to a farm and cut it just when you’re ready to use it, you&rsquoll get the freshest tree around," Kushla said. "There’s something about having a family tradition of going to the farm and picking out a tree every year."
Kushla suggested mixing a little bleach into the tree’s water to reduce mold growing in the tree stand. Add a few tablespoons of corn syrup per gallon of water to feed the tree.
Choosing the right stand is an important part of keeping the cut tree well-watered. Kushla said trees need a quart of water for every inch of stump diameter.
"You need a gallon of water for a typical, 4-inch diameter tree that is about 6 to 8 feet tall," Kushla said. "If you’re going to buy a really big tree, buy the stand at the tree farm where you’re buying the tree. Most of them carry the right size stands to fit their trees."
To locate many of the choose-and-cut Christmas tree farms in Mississippi, Louisiana or Alabama, visit http://southernchristmastrees.org.