Choose-and-Cut Your Tree for an Old-fashioned Christmas

It is an annual ritual for some families – bundling up the kids and heading to the farm for a warm cup of hot chocolate, a wagon ride through the fields, and best of all, a chance to grab a saw and chop down their own fresh Christmas tree.

"It's a family tradition for a lot of people," says Glenda Dykes, who owns Lakeside

Christmas Tree Farm with her husband, Donald. "It's a nice family outing."

Each year, thousands of people descend on the Dykes' farm in Crawford, Ala., located just across the river from Columbus, Ga. The Dykes have about 36,000 trees in several varieties, including the best-selling Leyland cypress, Virginia pine and Eastern red cedar. Visitors can peruse the 40 acres of trees, searching for their favorite, then use a saw provided by the farm to chop down their tree. Tractor-pulled wagon rides through the fields are offered, and on weekends The Brotherhood, a men's group from nearby Crawford Baptist Church, operates a concession stand on the farm.

The Christmas tree industry in Alabama isn't exactly booming, says Dr. Ken Tilt, horticulturist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, but it provides a special resource for those longing for a more traditional Christmas.

"The farms are called choose-and-cut farms, and sometimes it's referred to as entertainment farming. The industry in this state is made up mostly of small farmers, and most of them have a second income," says Tilt. "They do it a lot of times because they enjoy the Christmas season, and they enjoy people coming out to the farm."

"We really do enjoy it," says Dykes. "We have some families that come year after year to choose a tree. It's really a great opportunity for people who live in the city, and don't have a chance to come to the country much, to come out and enjoy it for a day."

Tilt says that's what keeps the industry going. Though Alabama does little wholesale shipping of Christmas trees, many people around the state enjoy their annual trek through the Christmas tree plantation to choose the perfect tree.

"We have so many people living in urban areas like Birmingham and Mobile, and the kids don't get out to the farm," says Tilt. "So this is a nice way for the kids to get out and have the country experience and visit a farm. A lot of the Christmas tree farms have petting zoos and train rides through the Christmas trees. Some also have educational programs. They play Christmas music and have Christmas stores that sell crafts that you don't typically find when you go to regular stores. But the big thing you get when you go out there is really a high-quality, fresh tree. There's nothing wrong with the live trees like the Frasier firs that are brought in from North Carolina and higher elevations, but picking your own tree gives you the tradition of Christmas. It's really a fun thing to take the kids and the grandparents and have hot chocolate and tour the Christmas tree farm."

Tilt says four cultivars of Christmas trees are grown in the state.

"The one that has become the Southern Christmas tree is the Leyland cypress," he says. "We have found that as long as you keep it in water, it really does much better than any other tree we bring in, such as the firs and spruces and some of the pines. It's a great tree for the house because it doesn't shed its needles. It's not a messy tree, and it holds ornaments well."

Tilt says some people prefer the Arizona cypress. "We're growing those now, and some come in a blue color that people really like. The Leyland cypress and Arizona cypress will stay fresh for six to eight weeks if you keep them watered. Some people enjoy having the old-fashioned smell of cedar, so the red cedar is one that people traditionally get. White pines are popular in north Alabama, where the cooler environment is conducive for good growth."

A recent trend growing in popularity across the state is buying container Christmas trees and planting them after the holidays.

"This works really well, but I advise against getting some of the firs and spruces as a balled-and-burlapped or a container plant because they don't grow well in Alabama," says Tilt. "They don't tolerate our heat. Frasier firs only grow at an elevation of 4,000 feet, so if you plant them out in your yard, they will just sit there and probably die within two or three years. Buy a Southern tree if you're going to plant it out in your yard."

Tilt says container trees and live trees should be kept in cool spots, away from radiators. "It's good to be concerned about fire, but as long as you keep the tree in water and don't allow it to dry out, there's no danger of fire," says Tilt. "Most of the Christmas lights now are safer, they don't get as hot. So real trees are very safe to use and much more environmentally-friendly than some of the plastic Christmas trees."

They are also more traditional.

"Some people just really like having a tree that they cut themselves," says Dykes. "It's a great family Christmas tradition."

SOURCE: Dr. Kenneth Tilt, (ktilt@aces.edu), Extension Horticulturist, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-5484