Christmas tree growing takes year-round care

Staff Reporter

MANCHESTER, Md. – Christmas trees weren’t initially the crop of choice for Wayne and Jean Thomas. After a largely unprofitable, years-long struggle to raise hogs and cattle and grow wheat and corn on their midsize, 80-acre farm in northeastern Carroll County, the Thomas’ threw their arms in the air and began planting Christmas trees. That was in 1982.
More than three decades later, the Thomases are bonafide tree growing veterans. They’re one of many growers whose top crops will be competing at the Maryland State Fair.
“The key to growing a championship tree is knowing how to trim them,” said Wayne, 74.
Trimming has an effect on many of the individual criteria fair judges use to scrutinize trees. There’s a tree’s foliage, foliage density and foliage freshness to consider. There’s the size of the tree’s so-called “handle,” which is placed into the tree stand. And of course, there’s the tree’s triangular taper and its overall merchantability.
Trim a tree too much over the course of its life, Wayne said, and it turns into something far too dense, more like a shrub. Trimming too little can lead to shapelessness. It’s not a laid-back growing experience, he added which is lost on lots of new growers looking to break into the market.
“There’s no holidays, no vacations, nothing,” he said. “Most people at the start are very naïve.”
The Thomases have won awards at the fair, and Wayne has been a judge. He said he’s been experimenting with new approaches to his cultivation style, but you don’t know whether your changes are working for eight years – when it’s time to cut the tree.
The tree competition in the fair’s Farm and Garden Building includes eight entry classes: Douglas, Fraser (the “Rolls Royce” of Christmas trees as Wayne calls them) and Canaan firs and an entry for other fir varieties; blue spruce and an entry for other spruce varieties; and white pine and an entry for other pine varieties. A grand champion and reserve grand champion will be chosen as will awards for first through fourth place. All trees must be between 5 and 8 feet tall.
The Thomases said they’ve stopped planting trees. They still have several years worth of trees on their farm, but as they get older – both are 74 – they don’t see anyone interested in taking over for the future. If they continued to plant, in eight years, they imagine no one would be able to cut them.
But Wayne Thomas said he still likes attending the fair’s competition – to see the competition.
“They’re the cream of the crop,” he said.