Tradition Takes Root With Living Christmas Trees
When Hurricane Katrina raked across the nursery at Steve Mannhard’s Fish River Trees last August, the holidays looked bleak for his choose-and-cut tree farm.”Trees were lying all over — it looked like a bomb hit,” said Mannhard.And though Katrina’s winds claimed about 5,000 trees on his 40-acre farm, there was one group of evergreens that weathered the storm better than even he expected — the potted variety.”Nearly all the living trees made it,” said Mannhard, referring to his crop of about 1,200 container-grown Christmas trees. “About 90 percent of them are in really good shape and that’s really critical because that’s a very valuable part of our crop.”Container-grown trees are also one of the hottest items in the wintry wonderland of Christmas trees, accounting for roughly a fourth of his annual sales. In fact, the potted plants have become so popular with consumers wanting to replant their tree after the holidays that Mannhard estimates half of Alabama’s 40 or so Christmas tree farms now offer them on at least some scale.Soon after Mannhard turned a soybean field into his first plot of Christmas trees in 1983, he noticed many customers liked the idea of choosing their own tree but didn’t like the idea of cutting it down.”Some people are a little sensitive about cutting a tree,” he said. “These trees are replaceable. It’s like any other crop — they’re renewable. We replace every one of them. It’s no different than a watermelon, but people have more of an emotional tie to trees, and I understand that. I do too. I treat trees differently than a blade of grass, but they’re both biological organisms — you just treat them with more respect. That’s just us I guess.”So, rather than bringing saws to cut their tree, some customers brought shovels to dig theirs.
“They’d get their shovels out and try to dig them, but the soil was kind of sandy and it would all fall off,” said Mannhard. “I’d tell them, ‘No, it’s just not going to work.’ And they’d cut all the roots off, and I’d tell them, ‘No, it’s just not going to work.’ But they’d keep trying, and I kept saying, ‘These people want a tree that can live.’ Anyway, after they kept wanting to dig, I decided there had to be a market for them.”He tried growing Leyland Cypress trees in aboveground pots — and quickly discovered he had to spend all his time setting them back up every time the wind blew. He then tried burlap-and-ball root bags, but they were too heavy, messy and awkward.Next, Mannhard tried the pot-in-pot method commonly used in the nursery business for other plants. “This pot would have another pot inside of it with the tree in there, and then, you were supposed to be able to root prune it, but that didn’t happen — the roots went out over one pot and into the other and then into the ground,” said Mannhard. “So you had two pots and the roots in the ground so we had to dig them anyway.”About that time, Mannhard discovered that if he let the pot-in-pot trees go ahead and take root back into the ground, the trees fared much better. He then began using a jackhammer-like tool with a spade blade on the side to cut off most of the roots at the bottom of the pot. The tree is then lifted out and root pruned before being placed back into the ground where it is intensely watered and fertilized.”After a month, they start regenerating a new root system in that pot with brand new white root hairs all throughout,” said Mannhard. “That’s what makes it such a nice, viable product because you’re not dealing with old roots. You’re actually dealing with a burst of new roots inside that pot.”It proved to be the perfect solution as Mannhard watched his container-grown tree sales go from 50 a year to 100 a year. Then, it began multiplying …200 then 400 then 800 and on and on until it has reached about 1,200 a year. “We haven’t had any left over in the last 10 to 15 years that we’ve been growing them,” he said. “I finally made the decision this year to expand some. I’m going to expand the nursery over into another area and try to double the production because the demand is there.”More and more of my customers are seeing the value of a tree grown in a container … they’re getting a double value out in their yard.”
Brian Hardin, director of the Horticulture Division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, agreed. “Container-grown trees are the ideal option for those who want their investment in a real Christmas tree to last,” he said. “The use of living Christmas trees will gain popularity because it allows the homeowner to plant them in the landscape where a visual screen is needed.”Living trees have already caught on with homeowners in Baldwin County where larger lots create a demand for more landscaping. “Some put them down in rows along the side of their property,” Mannhard said. “Some will plant one for every kid or grandkid, and they do really neat stuff with them.We like it because it’s not necessarily more profitable, but it’s more in tune in my view with the actual symbolism that’s involved with Christmas trees anyway because they are supposed to represent new life, and a tree that will go on and live does that.”