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Friday, July 11, 2014

Christmas trees are another miracle after summer’s heat

By Annie Calovich
The Wichita Eagle

I have to admit that, in the midst of the inferno that was summer 2011, when we were trying to keep tomato vines alive and shaking our heads at the unending heat, I did not give a thought to the growers of Christmas trees. The thought of seeing Christmas, or anything approaching cold weather, again seemed as likely as winning the lottery.

But now we’ve moved on, and we’re ready to demand our Christmas trees.

But how did they take the heat?

It turns out that the Christmas tree growers were out hand-watering evergreens when they had to so that we could cut them down and bring them indoors to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year.

“We have a couple of wells, but even doing that, it was like a convection oven outside,” said Susan Grelinger, owner of Windy Knoll Christmas tree farm in Derby. Scotch pines, for example, don’t have deep taproots, and "you couldn’t pop water fast enough" to keep them watered, she said.

Susan is also secretary of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association and has heard tales of summertime woes from around the state. Some growers had to chop down a lot of trees, and not at the time of year they’re used to doing that. In addition, "several people have lost a great amount of seedlings,” she said.

"It’s not been the best of summers for Christmas tree growers,” Susan said, “but we’re a hardy lot." And, because trees are grown at a variety of sizes and ages, the one summer won’t affect the selection of trees, she said.

"We’ve been building every year, and we hand-water trees," she said.

Fortunately, the Christmas tree farm is coming off a good 2010.

"Our business increased last year," Susan said. "With the economy you always wonder, but Christmas seems to be the one thing that people will always try to have.

"We didn’t raise prices this year, and we didn’t raise prices last year. We should have raised prices, but we’re trying to hold them." The minimum cost at the tree farm is $35, and customers can find a nice tree for that, Susan said.

Adverse weather in other parts of the country also has an impact on cut Christmas trees trucked into Wichita. Early snows in New Mexico meant that concolor firs were a little later coming in to Johnson’s Garden Center this year. But “a little later” meant this past Monday, so it’s not exactly what you and I would call late for the Christmas season. I love the idea of having a tree that’s already been dusted with snow this year.

And that’s what I love about fresh Christmas trees, especially when you go out into the Christmas tree fields and cut one. They have held birds’ nests, they have experienced all the elements from snow to withering heat to rain to wind to quiet, starry nightfall. To me it’s an ultimate luxury – and fitting symbol of Christmas – to get to cut one down and bring it into the tame, temperature-controlled house to live ever-so-briefly as an expression of hope, light and our joy.

As the garden centers and tree lots do, Windy Knoll also brings in the types of firs that the Kansas climate can’t grow. They include noble firs from Oregon and concolors and corkbarks from Michigan. The corkbark is like a concolor with short needles, Susan said.

"They come very fresh. We maintain them so they don’t get so dried out," keeping them in water, she said.

As I did some research on area Christmas tree farms, I found out that Nativity Pines in Benton had closed its Christmas tree operation, its website (www.nativitypines.com) says because of pine wilt disease. But the barn is still open as a place for banquets and weddings.

The loss of another farm is another reason to go out to one of the farms we do have to witness another Christmas miracle.

Reach Annie Calovich at acalovich@wichitaeagle.com or 316-268-6596.

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