Christmas holiday rituals vary from family to family, from country to country. Here in the Northeast, the hunt for the ideal holiday tree takes many forms. Some trek bravely through the aisles of department stores, looking for the perfect tree in a box. Others wait for a man in a truck to circle their neighborhood so that they can select a tree that was felled a week ago. Then, there are some who turn their tree quest into a family outing to a local tree farm where they use a hatchet to personally harvest the evergreen that catches their fancy.
The Hudson Valley is rich in Christmas tree farms, each vying to be the place where you start—or continue—that age-old tradition of cutting down your own tree. (These days, in a quest to be green, people seek out an ecological alternative: balled trees that can be planted after the festivities are over.)
Two Ulster County neighbors in the business are Bell's Christmas Trees of Accord and Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm of Ulster Park. The proprietors of both enterprises, bursting with the generosity of the holiday season, happily shared their business stories and insider tips on selecting the perfect tree.
Paula and Gordie Bell of Bell's Christmas Trees are fourth-generation farmers who switched from dairy cows to growing and selling trees. The inaugural year of the new strategy, 1991, was less than stellar, Gordie recalled.
“In the first planting year we lost about 80 percent of trees due to drought. And as trees grew, the deer ate the new growth.” The massacre was halted in 1995 with the addition of a deer-proof fence. Now Bell’s offers 24 acres of trees that include nearly 12 different varieties.
Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm, occupying a space that was a farm as far back as 1791, also had a rickety first season. In 1985, Randy and Margaret Marz decided to restart the farm with a twist: by growing and selling Christmas trees. They named the new venture for the road that led to the property.
That April, Randy recalled, “We planted our first seedlings with little fanfare and even less experience. We made plenty of mistakes but the trees persevered.”
While the first years were rocky, due to voracious deer, Bell’s has become an Ulster County tradition; families flock to their grounds from soon after Thanksgiving to hours before Christmas Eve.
“We realized it was a success when word traveled, customers came and had a good time, and then they referred their family and friends to us,” Gordie said.
Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm now has 31 acres of growth. Varieties include various Spruce (White, Blue and Norway), as well as Douglas Fir. The Marz family also grows Pines and true Firs (Fraser, Concolor and Canaan).
The couple learned the virtues of patience, since tree growth cycles take up to ten years.
“Starting the farm was a leap of faith and youthful enthusiasm,” Marz explained.
“There are many places to buy a tree,” Marz said. “A visit to our farm is as much — if not more — about the experience as it is the tree.”
Those looking for immediate gratification in the form of healthy payoffs are disappointed, because success often comes to the second or third generation of growers, he added.
The challenges often outweigh the joys from the start. Among the potential hazards: Fickle weather in the form of a drought, excessive rain, or crippling early snows. Then there’s always the unwelcome factor of hungry deer that nibble on tender young trees. “Mother Nature constantly tips the scales,” said Marz.
In order to create a festive atmosphere to complement the tree-hunting experience, Bell’s offers numerous business improvements, from sleds to transport your tree to your car to the convenience of charge cards. Wreaths were also added to the inventory.
Over a period of ten years, the Marz family has established a loyal following of return customers. To lure them back, Marz keeps introducing changes and improvements to the product mix. “There are always different tree types to try, new seed sources, and better genetics and growing techniques.”
A visit to Hardenburgh includes a tractor ride to the field to harvest a tree and a stop at the Wreath Shoppe, offering country holiday decorations, hot cocoa, and a tree shaking to jettison any loose needles.
There is an ecological aspect to maintaining a Christmas tree farm, and the Bell and Marz families are committed to learning how to keep their offerings attractive and sustainable. Both profit from important cutting-edge growing information offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension and attend meetings of the New York State Christmas Tree Association, where they can exchange experiences and information with other tree farmers across the state.
“The cooperative spirit amongst growers is an excellent tool for progress,” said Randy Marz.
There are care tips that will guarantee the longevity of a tree, Marz said. “In general, treat a cut tree much like a bouquet.”
Trees should be kept in water in a cool, moist environment, away from wind and sun. Ensure the tree stand water reservoir is between two to three gallons, so that the base is not exposed. The first bowl should be warm to open the capillaries in the tree base, which permits quick water uptake.
Fraser and Douglas firs do well across the board. Spruce and Pine do fine if you have freshly cut them yourself.
Randy Marz stresses that Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm sells memories in addition to trees and wreaths. The staff watches the march of time in these annual customer visits as the tradition of tree harvesting is passed to another generation. When he sees a younger taking his first swing of the ax to a tree, Marz can think back to just a few years earlier when this same child was “a newborn, bundled against winter's weather.”
“Our goal,” said Paula Bell, “is to offer warm memories on cold days.”
Bell's Christmas Trees
647 Mettacahonts Road
Accord, NY 12402
Hardenburgh Christmas Tree Farm
206 Hardenburgh Road
Ulster Park, NY 12487