Seed to Santa

Quality transplants for quality Christmas trees
By Patrick White

Photos courtesy of Bill Asack, unless otherwise noted.

Christmas tree farming takes long-term vision. After all, in what other segment of agriculture do farmers wait seven, eight or nine years for a crop to mature in the field?

The reality is that those waits can be much longer if you don’t begin with a quality transplant. So, it’s not surprising that Bill Asack (www.billasack.com) has seen strong demand for his nursery-grown trees since he began offering transplants several years ago.

Asack began growing Christmas trees in Plainfield, Vt., more than 25 years ago. He joined the New Hampshire-Vermont Christmas Tree Association (NHVCTA) and began learning the art and science of growing and improving trees. He credits early pioneers such as Norm Hudson, Max McCormack and John Young for sharing with him their research in experimenting with different seed sources in an ongoing attempt to identify superior strains of balsam and Fraser firs.

Asack moved to his current hilltop farm in Barton in 1987 and planted Christmas trees, which he initially sold primarily to the wholesale market, reaching a high of about 2,000 trees per year. Around that time he began to focus more and more on starting a nursery business, hoping to provide other Christmas tree growers with quality transplants. That meant identifying the best trees to take seeds from and developing successful strategies for germinating those seeds.

The nursery operation begins by collecting seed from a number of specimen seed trees, sometimes requiring the use of a bucket truck.
After growing for two to three years in a seedbed.

He continues to operate his own choose-and-cut Christmas tree farm, selling about 750 trees annually. But for much of the year, his attention is focused on the 4-acre nursery, which he started several years ago after purchasing an adjoining farm “with some of the best-drained soils in the state,” he says. Together with his son, Andrew, Asack gets the young trees started successfully, giving Christmas tree farmers around the country the best chance of success themselves.

The process often begins with seed taken from Asack’s own seed trees—those that he has identified over the years as having superior growing characteristics such as shape, color and fullness. He’s proudest of his mountain balsams, as well as his hybrid trees that originated from a crop of Fraser fir that hybridized naturally with native balsam several decades ago.

Photo by Patrick White.
The seed is then planted into seedbeds covered with screen

In other cases, as with Canaan fir, which is popular with growers at the moment, he has to purchase the seed from a supplier. He’s also currently testing some “exotic” firs—Korean and Noble fir and a few others—to see how they perform. “I wanted to see if they have any real potential; I want to make sure they’ll do well overwintering in this climate,” says Asack.

The seed is then planted into seedbeds. “I broadcast the seed, I don’t drill it,” Asack explains. A low, wooden frame topped with screen, which he says helps to keep birds away and regulates the temperature, covers the seedbeds. Currently, he maintains about 42,000 seedlings that are grown for two to three years in seedbeds before being lifted, moved and planted into transplant beds.

Transplants are identified by two numbers, the first indicating the number of years it spent in a seedbed, and the second the number of years it was then in a transplant bed. For example, a 2-2 transplant was grown two years in a seedbed, and then moved to a transplant bed for two years.

The seedlings are dug by hand and taken to the garage, where they are washed, graded (as much as 25 percent are culled) and then taken to larger transplant beds, where they are planted by machine—Asack plants in the fall—and remain for another one to two years. Trees in the transplant bed are mulched with a mix of sawdust and bark mulch, which Asack gets from a local mill. That helps keep moisture in, keeps the soil temperatures even, decreases the chance of frost heaving in the winter and helps keep weed pressure down. Still, because weeds can outcompete the small trees, and because they would create problems during harvest, Asack says it is important to use herbicides on the transplant beds to keep it free of weeds. He uses a backpack sprayer to apply the herbicides.

The transplants are usually “harvested” in April. The bed lifter lifts the trees, along with the roots, completely out of the ground and lays them on the surface. At that point, workers put the trees into 5-gallon buckets of water. “It’s important to always keep them moist and cool,” says Asack. The transplants are then brought to the garage where they are laid on long, screen-covered tables where the soil is washed off. They are then culled and moved to a second table covered in lengths of 4-foot-wide burlap. The trees are placed on the burlap in two directions (with the roots meeting in the middle), packed in moist sawdust, and then rolled tightly into burlap bundles. From there, they are stored (usually less than one day) in an air-conditioned room until they are picked up by UPS for shipping or directly by customers.

Last spring, Asack sold about 12,000 transplants, as well as 10,000 seedlings to growers who have their own transplant beds. Next spring, he expects to sell more because he is in the process of opening up 2 acres of transplant beds.

With everything he does, Asack tries to take notes and record observations. “I used to grow trees the way people bake bread, a pinch of this and a pinch of that,” he says. “But now I need consistent results, and people want good information.”

Photo by Patrick White.
The seedlings are moved to transplant beds.

He also works to educate his customers about selecting quality transplants and planting them properly. “A lot of buyers think height is the most important thing. But there are other factors to consider: the shape, the terminal bud and the root system, for example,” he says. “If you have good site preparation in your field, 2-2s should perform very well. If you don’t have good site preparation, it doesn’t matter what you start with.”

He also continues to experiment himself with new, more effective and efficient ways of running the nursery operation. Andrew, an engineer, is great at devising new systems and modifying equipment to be more efficient, Asack says. The two have made significant investments in equipment. At the heart of the nursery operation is a new, 70 hp Kubota M7040. Asack had the dealer make several modifications, including the addition of a creeper gear cassette, allowing the engine to maintain power while moving slowly, something that’s needed during the planting and harvesting of the trees. He also had the wheels reversed, providing 6 feet between the tires and sufficient clearance to allow four rows of transplants to pass beneath the tractor.

After two years in the transplant beds, the trees have an extensive root system and are harvested.
They are then washed and packed in sawdust and burlap for delivery to Christmas tree growers.

Additionally, Asack purchased a Fobro 2000 bed lifter to mechanize the process of harvesting transplants each spring for customers eager to plant the trees on their own farms. Two Mechanical Transplanter Company planters were added, mounted side-by-side off the toolbar on the back of the tractor’s three-point-hitch.

To protect all of this equipment, Asack takes great pains to remove the large rocks from the nursery soil. “The bed lifter goes down about 1 foot deep, and the front blade oscillates back and forth with a chopping action. What you don’t want to do is hit a large rock in the ground, because it’s an expensive piece of equipment,” he explains. “So, we go through with a scarifier behind the tractor. The teeth on that are 14 inches long and 1 foot apart. We go along with a person walking behind the tractor; any time they hear one of the teeth hit a rock, they mark the spot with a metal rod.”

Each nursery bed is covered in two directions in this manner. “Then we bring a backhoe and dump truck in to remove all of those big rocks,” he says. “It’s not inexpensive, but I think in the long run it’s the best way to do it.”

Asack continues to attend every meeting of the NHVTCTA (www.nh-vtchristmastree.org), which he says helps him learn new ways of growing and caring for Christmas trees. “I think that finally, after 25 years, I’m getting pretty good at it! But there’s always new information out there. This is a tricky business. If people understood what we went through from seed to Santa, they would look at the price of a Christmas tree and say, ‘What a bargain!’”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.