Food Forum: Countdown to Christmas

It can be a jolly holiday for grocers who offer their customers fresh-cut Christmas trees.

By P. Allen Smith

In planning for the holidays, which seem to come earlier and earlier every year, I came across a poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) revealing that Americans purchased nearly 30 million fresh-cut Christmas trees in 2011. The still-struggling economy seems to have little effect on the tradition of displaying a fresh-cut tree.

There are 17,367 farms producing conifers for the American fresh-cut tree market. When retailers purchase wholesale fresh-cut trees from one of these growers, they are supporting the U.S. economy. They can also add marketability by advertising to customers that these trees are locally grown. This should increase traffic from “green” shoppers.

Sustainability also factors into the case for fresh-cut trees. Sustainably raised trees allow consumers to feel good about purchasing fresh-cut trees. Additionally those trees create habitat for wildlife while they are growing and later can be 100 percent recycled and turned into mulch or compost.

Typically, retailers place their wholesale tree orders in late spring or early summer and the trees are cut on the farms in early November. The tree shipments then go out and arrive at retailers about a week or two before Thanksgiving.

If at all possible, I highly recommend that you go out to a Christmas tree grower’s farm and select your own stock. Here are some tips on what retailers should look for when selecting trees to ensure a great experience.

Before you go, you can do research on the different tree species by browsing the NCTA website at www.fresh-cutchristmastrees.org  to become familiar with the species that are popular in your area. Pine, firs and cedars are good choices since they dry out slowly and hold their needles best.

Go to the farm prepared for a day in the country. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and old clothes. Don’t forget to bring along cold or rainy weather gear if the weather is threatening.

Some farms measure and price their trees individually; others sell them by the foot. Ask about the pricing policy and the method of payment before heading out in the field. Be sure you know what sizes you need before you go.

Head out to the field and select the trees that fit your predetermined needs. Check the trunks to see that they are sufficiently straight. Keep in mind that pines will usually have, at least, some crook in their trunks. Be sure that the overall shape is right for the species and that there are no gaps or gaping holes because of missing or misshapen branches.

Once your delivery comes, run a branch through your closed hand. The needles should not come off easily. Bend the outer branches; they should be pliable. If they are brittle and snap easily, the tree is not fresh. I also look for other indicators of dryness or deterioration: excessive needle loss, discolored foliage, musty odor, brittle needles, and wrinkled bark. If too many trees are in this condition you may need to refuse the delivery.

Remember, the Christmas trees purchased from local tree farms are as fresh as a Christmas tree can ever be. They will spend less time in transit so they are fresher which translates into more sales at the cash register.

To help the inventory last through the holiday sales season be sure to keep them cool and out of the sun. Spray the greenery with an anti-transpirant. This solution is available commercially and will hold the moisture in and make your greenery stock look fresher, longer throughout the holidays.

Another option to help keep trees moist is to mist them with a hose connected to a misting tip. It is worth the time and the small amount of effort it takes to help prolong the trees “shelf-life.” Retailers could benefit from making a Tree Care Tip Sheet available for customers to take home along with their purchases.

I wish everyone a happy and prosperous holiday season.

P. Allen Smith is an award-winning designer, gardening and lifestyle expert and host of two public television programs, P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home, P. Allen Smith’s Garden to Table and the syndicated 30-minute show P. Allen Smith Gardens. For more information, visit www.pallensmith.com.

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