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How Christmas trees are made, explained by a tree farmer

It takes 11 years to grow a tree, and they require repeated shearing.

A Christmas tree, freshly cut, being prepared for transport to someone’s home with netting.
Christmas does just grow on trees — but growing those trees is a lot of work, too.
Getty Images/EyeEm

Karabin Farms is located right in the middle of Connecticut, which means that for the last four decades, Diana Karabin has been selling Christmas trees to the good families of Bristol, Waterbury, New Britain, and every other township in between. She and her husband moved to the state in 1972 and started the farm so it could serve as an idyllic environment for their children. But by the ’80s, the Karabins had accumulated more than 100 acres of land, and Diana decided to give the yuletide business a shot.

The average evergreen pine takes over about 11 years to grow to 6 feet and requires repeated shearing to keep its picturesque look. Once a crop is prepped for market, they’ll sell out in a matter of weeks. Diana says her busiest weekend is the one after Thanksgiving, as the country gets its first taste of the Christmas season.

No company is exclusively built around Christmas trees, and Karabin Farms has diversified well outside of its seasonal decor. Diana sells apples freshly picked from their orchard, meat products sourced from their livestock, and bouquets pulled from the greenhouses around the farm. In fact, Diana tells me that pine farming is one of the more stressful parts of her business. Mother Nature is fickle, and there’s always something on the horizon to worry about. The Karabins don’t rely on irrigation to keep their trees alive. Instead, they simply hope for rain. This season, Connecticut was mired in a severe drought, which means that hundreds of Diana’s new saplings died in the parched soil. That won’t matter this Christmas — remember, these trees take a long time to mature — but 10 years down the line, the Karabins’ customers might be suffering through a light crop.

Still, it’s easy to socially distance when picking out a tree, and the Karabins are blessed to work outdoors. The family farm is exempt from some of the more pernicious questions facing other businesses in the pandemic, but Diana does make sure to enforce all the rules. Hand sanitizer is everywhere, as are foot-activated portable sinks and one-way directional signs. She’s become accustomed to telling her customers to keep their mask over their nose, even as they’re taking an ax to a Douglas fir. We talked about that, as well as her favorite Christmas tree varieties and why she thinks business will be better than ever during the pandemic.

What’s your background in the Christmas tree business?

We purchased this property back in 1984. We decided that we needed to get some money out of the land in order to pay for it, and one of our ideas was to grow Christmas trees. So in the mid-80s, we started planting trees. We thought the sales each year would allow us to pay for the college tuition for our kids.

What are some of the mistakes people make when they first start growing these trees?

I don’t know if we’ve ever learned to be completely successful, because mother nature has a way of humbling you. This year, for instance, we planted 500 seedlings of one variety, and out of that 500, 480 died because of the drought. We’re not capable of irrigation. We depend on rain. So, at the end of the day, we lost a huge swath of our planting. The thing is, though, Christmas trees take a really long time to grow. So this loss will be felt eight years down the road. That’s when those trees won’t be available.

How long does it take to grow a field of trees?

It takes about 11 years for a tree to reach 6 feet tall. When they go in the ground, they’re already 4 feet tall, and it takes another seven years, at minimum, before they hit the requisite height. So you’re talking about a very long-term investment. Along the way, you’re shaping and trimming the trees. Christmas trees don’t have that perfect look naturally; that’s all man-made. So it takes all those years of pruning to get it right. And of course feeding and fertilizing them, making sure they’re insect- and disease-free. There’s a lot going on.

Is that difficult for you guys? Is there a chance that one thing could go wrong in those 11 years that wipes out a crop of trees?

Obviously, we’re at the mercy of the weather. We’re at the mercy of whatever insect happens to be flying by. But for the most part, because of our intense maintenance, once we’ve got the trees going, we’re in good shape. Though, one time, we planted a particular variety of tree, and about three years later, they died. We were really perplexed as to why that happened because they seemed to be doing well. It turns out, the land that we’re on had corn planted in it once upon a time. The chemical used on that corn got into the ground, and it’s toxic to that particular variety of Christmas tree. We’ve planted other trees successfully there, but not that one. This chemical was used before we were here, which tells you how long ago it was. And that chemical has since been pulled from the market.

Do you have a favorite type of Christmas tree that you grow?

We’ve always grown Douglas firs. That’s a soft tree. If you have children or pets, they aren’t going to poke their eyes out. The past few years we’ve been bringing Concolors into the house. They’re incredibly hardy. We tend to keep our tree up all year to see how far we can push the envelope. This year, we took it down around July 1, and it was pretty crunchy. But the Concolor needles don’t fall off of it. This year, we’re bringing in a Meyer Spruce to our home, which is supposed to be even more resilient. If I talk to you next year, I’ll let you know if we take it down around November.

Is that important to you? To get the user experience of how all these different trees work in a household?

Absolutely. We have greenhouses here where we grow a huge variety of flowers and foliage. We plant those for ourselves and treat them the way our customers might. Most likely, consumers aren’t going to fertilize their plants after they buy from us. They’re just going to water it and forget about it. I want to see how those plants perform so I can educate my consumers on what works and what doesn’t. That’s how it is for the Christmas trees, too.

What’s your busiest time of the year?

This upcoming weekend [after Thanksgiving]. That’s changed over the years. The busiest weekend, prior to Christmas, used to be the second week of December. But the whole production of Christmas has changed over the years. These days, you see Christmas stuff in stores next to the Halloween stuff. People feel pressure to get their trees up. I’m talking to you on the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and I’m selling a lot of trees today.

Christmas trees are basically only sold for a month at the end of the year. What’s it like to be in a business where you are expected to turn a profit in a very short amount of time?

I don’t think you ever get used to it. We’re really nervous. They’re promising rain this weekend, and that might mean sales are depressed. We can only hope that we can recover in the next few weekends. We just have to roll with the punches. We prognosticate our sales as best we can with our experience. And then we hope it all goes well.

How has your business reacted to the Covid-19 regulations?

I’ve got the whole nine yards. I’ve got the signs all through the pre-cut Christmas trees and in the cut-your-own Christmas trees, asking people to respect social distancing. I have foot-activated hand sanitizer. I have a portable sink with soap and water outside. In the store, I’ve got arrows that go one direction. I’ve got the plexiglass screens over the registers. And masks are required, and I make a lot of people upset because I say, “Would you please pull your mask up above your nose? Because it’s doing nothing for me or you right now.” I don’t want to see your nose.

Do you think the pandemic will change the demand for Christmas decorations this year?

I honestly think that sales are going to increase. People are staying home more. They’re in their own cocoon. They want something that will make them happy and cheerful, and Christmas decorations in the house do that. I hope I’m right. I felt that way when we were selling pumpkins in autumn. We didn’t expect to be busy, but we very much were.