Finding the perfect tree

by Heidi Augustin Published:

There may be no prettier sight than a magically glittering Christmas tree, standing lush and fragrant in a living room or family room, beckoning all to sit near its branches and anticipate the joys of Christmas. For many people, this ultimate Christmas decoration deserves the careful selection that can only be accomplished by finding and cutting their own tree from a nearby Christmas tree farm.

Christmas Tree hunting season "officially" begins the day after Thanksgiving and lasts all the way until Christmas Eve. Northern Summit County offers a few prime picking spots for hunters whose saws are sharpened and who are hankering to bag a perfect specimen.

Long tradition in trees

Heritage Farms in Peninsula just looks like Christmas. The great white house with bright red and green trim stands on a hill overlooking acres of neat rows of Christmas trees. It is easy to imagine that Santa Claus lives inside and will be out any minute to help choose a Christmas tree and then finish the deal with a cup of hot cocoa.

Owner Carol Haramis has lived here all her life, as did her parents and three generations before them. She remembers her father pulling her in the tractor and wagon around the fields to choose their tree. He planted the first trees on the 115-acre farm in 1955 and Carol and her husband George have been running things since 1979.

Heritage Farms has 25 acres devoted to growing Christmas trees. Half of the trees are Scotch pines, the other half made up mostly of blue spruce with some white pines and a very few Black Hill spruce thrown into the mix. Haramis brings in popular Fraser firs from another grower as necessary throughout the season because the deer population in Peninsula makes it hard to grow Frasers on her land.

When people come to Heritage Farms looking to cut their own tree, they are given a sled - the flat plastic kind with a rope attached to it - and a saw if they need one. And over the river (well - it is really a trickle) and through the woods they go to find their perfect tree. For some, the ultimate tree is a soft full Scotch Pine, for others the stout prickly blue spruce is the only way to go. Whatever their choice, there are many to choose from at the start of the season. The best ones go fast- the following weekends offer fewer and fewer trees to be cut, but fresh pre-cuts are brought in weekly throughout the season.

Visitors to Heritage Farms should not miss what's inside the big red barn. The fragrance of fresh greens mingles with that of homemade cookies and hot cocoa and the cozy crackle of a fire in the huge hearth in this rustic setting where shoppers can find wreaths, swags, cut greenery and Christmas decorations for sale.

Heritage Farms is located in Peninsula at 6050 Riverview Road- 330-657-2330. From Nov. 23 until they sell out, they are open from noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

Trees in Stow

Christmas tree farming must be in the blood because Haramis isn't the only local grower with long family ties to their farm and the land.

Mike Rauh and his wife Carrie are the third generation to live and work on a lovely piece of land set in an otherwise residential neighborhood in Stow. His wife's grandfather bought the property in the 1940s and started growing Christmas trees. Each successive generation has had sons and then a daughter who has married and, with her husband, taken over the farm. Mike and Carrie have two sons who are Eagle Scouts, and a daughter who at 13 might not be ready to become a Christmas tree farmer yet, but there is this tradition to uphold ...

Rauh is just plain crazy about his tree farm. His love for the life of a farmer is evident as he strides through the 15 acres of trees planted on the rolling hills behind his 1820s farmhouse. He points out the Scotch pines and the blue spruces and describes how some can smell like pine and others like oranges. He demonstrates how pine trees set terminal buds which means that the bud is set at the end of the branch, and that spruce and firs have "internodal" buds which are set along the length of the branch. He truly loves his side job and his enthusiasm isn't limited to the Christmas trees -- he is experimenting with growing peaches, sour cherries, pawpaws, plums, pears and berries.

He knows the geological history of his land too. During the tour of his farm he turns and points out a "sweet little swale" at the base of a hill where the glaciers came down from Canada thousands of years ago and scraped fertile topsoil into a hollow that still holds the richest soil on the property. On top of the hill the dirt is harder but that doesn't seem to bother the trees growing there.

The Rauh Christmas Tree farm is located just east of Route 91 in Stow, at 3001 North River Road- 330-678-7474. Beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving, they are open Wednesdays and Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

More trees in Hudson

For sheer variety of trees, The Shawnee Trail Christmas Tree Farm on Terex Road in Hudson is hard to beat. The dirt road that leads to the farm itself is lined with trees as well as stacks of firewood that shoppers can add to their purchase to complete the perfect scenario of crackling fire and shimmering tree. A long and picturesque walk around a lake, dotted with ten Jersey cattle and a frisky donkey, are 92 acres of a veritable arboretum of Christmas trees. The sweeping curved branches of Serbian spruce, the flatter true green branch of the Norway spruce, and the shorter but softer needles of the white spruce make it very hard to choose. Myers, Black Hill and blue spruces, Concolor firs, and Scotch and white pines round out the wide selection available. The cows are there to keep the grass "mowed" and the donkey keeps the coyotes away. Once the Christmas season begins, the animals are safely penned in for viewing by visitors and to keep them from bothering anyone looking for a tree. The perfectly shaped trees are all grown without use of pesticides or herbicides.

Owner Joe Stribrny has lived on this land all his life, his father having bought it in 1938, before Terex Road split the property into two sections in 1966. On the other side of Terex Road is a 17-acre parcel which contains more trees which can be tagged by shoppers and then cut by Stribrny and his crew for customers. Wreaths and swags, handmade by Stribrny's wife, Myong, are available and she will accept custom orders for very large wreaths and swags. Like their counterparts at Heritage Farms, Shawnee Trail also will have Fraser firs and other pre-cut trees available. They will supply the saws and sleds to those who wish to cut their own trees and will shake and bale all trees for customers.

Shawnee Trail is located at 900 Terex Road in Hudson; 330-486-7024. Trees are available well before Thanksgiving and Myong says that she had people come in to buy trees as early as Nov. 9. The regular hours begin the day after Thanksgiving from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; and from 1 to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Long, dry year

2012 was a hard year for Christmas tree growers. These growers lost most of the seedlings they planted in the spring and some lost a substantial portion of the crop planted in the spring of 2011. Since it takes anywhere from eight to 10 years for a pine to mature into a Christmas tree, and 12 to 14 years for a spruce, the economic impact of this year will be felt long into the future. For growers this means hundreds to thousands of trees were lost and must be re-planted.

Despite the fact that these farmers will be re-planting the seedlings they lost last year as well as the regular 2013 crop next spring, they have no plans to raise the prices on Christmas trees this year. Haramis says that the price of trees will not be affected this year at Heritage Farms. "Our cut-your-own trees will cost exactly what they did last year and for the past five years. We are not raising the prices of pre-cut trees either."

Culling fields is part of the maintenance required on a Christmas tree farm, as well as trimming the trees to look like Christmas trees. When you have hundreds and even thousands of trees, it soon becomes quite the side job. These farmers do the trimming of the trees themselves -- beginning with the white pines at the beginning of summer, followed by the Scotch pines in mid July. Once the hot weather breaks, the spruces are trimmed up to achieve the perfect conical shape of a Christmas tree.

So, what about the myth that trees should be cut before it freezes so that the sap remains in the tree keeping it fresher longer? According to Haramis, if you are buying a tree from northern Michigan or the Pennsylvania mountains, a tree cut earlier is not necessarily a bad thing.

However a hard freeze will send the tree into dormancy and can help a tree hold on to its needles for longer. She recommends getting a tree after the first freeze if at all possible. Cutting your own Christmas tree ensures that you control when the tree is harvested and there is the added benefit of supporting the local economy and agriculture.

Haramis also advises that customers get their trees, especially pines, shaken before bringing them home. Pines lose their three-year-old needles in the autumn and without a few good rains to knock the needles off the trees, they may remain on the tree.

It is perfectly normal for trees to hold a few brown needles and doesn't generally mean that there is anything wrong with the tree. Just be sure to have the tree shaken on the shaking machine before loading it into the car.

When caring for a fresh cut tree, Haramis advises to re-cut the tree base immediately before bringing it into the house. Then place it into the stand with plenty of warm water. Water is all that is necessary to keep a tree fresh.

"They do not need an aspirin in the water -- they don't have a headache, and other additives can damage the tree" says Haramis. When properly cared for, a cut tree can last for weeks.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, trees can use up to a quart of water per day during the first week inside.

From an environmental standpoint, the debate seems to be settling about whether a fresh cut tree is better or worse for the environment than an artificial tree.

According to the USDA Census of Agriculture and The National Christmas Tree Association, Christmas trees are now planted like any agricultural crop. They remove dust and pollen from the air, and provide the daily oxygen requirements for 18 people. They estimate that 93 percent of people recycle their Christmas trees in some way. Artificial trees average six years of use before they are discarded to remain in landfills for centuries.

Choosing a tree from a local tree farm also ensures that the tree only has to travel once to get to its final destination.v

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