It was one of those gifts that you don?t quite know how to take.But when Frank Wadsworth?s father-in-law stopped by his office to give him 2,000 Virginia pine seedlings because “he thought that it might be something that I might want to do,” Frank did what any good son-in-law would do — he planted them.Now, 30 years later, the seedlings proved to be the gift that keeps on giving every season as thousands of people find their way down a winding dirt road to Wadsworth Christmas Tree Farm in Wetumpka to not only pick out the perfect tree, but to rediscover the joys of the season.”My father-in-law was in the wood business, and he was always cutting timber, planting trees and dealing with seedlings,” Wadsworth explained recently. “But then somebody at one of the nurseries told him about these new Virginia pines that people were starting to grow for Christmas tree farms. So he bought 2,000 of them, and he said, ‘You just plant them, and they turn into a Christmas tree.’ Of course, I planted them, but it wasn’t quite that easy.”By the third year, when Wadsworth returned to his two-acre tract of trees, he found them surrounded by weeds and tall grass and in bad need of pruning. He quickly turned to Auburn University for help, and found that his new tree farm would require much more than sun and rain.”I thought you just planted them, and went back four years later and sold them as Christmas trees,” said Wadsworth, who also handles wholesale operations for a gasoline distributor. “But I learned real quick that there’s a lot of work involved. I learned you had to prune them, you had to spray for bugs, and you had to put herbicide applications out. It was first one thing, and then another.”At one time, Alabama had a lot of Christmas tree growers, but very few of them are still around because of the labor and time that’s involved.”Wadsworth recalls he once got a phone call from a would-be Christmas tree farmer asking questions about where to get trees and general farming guidance. “Then, the next thing I knew, he was calling and telling me he had planted 15 acres of trees — at once! “That?s 15,000 trees! The rule of thumb is ‘Don?t plant any more trees in one year than your wife can prune.’ If you stick to that rule, you?ll do pretty well,” Wadsworth said with a laugh. “But if you plant 15 acres, that’s 15,000 trees. The first and second years aren’t too bad. But the third year, when you have to start pruning them twice a year, you’re looking at pruning 30,000 trees. I don’t think your wife will want to prune 30,000 trees!”Wadsworth, of course, was only joking. He does the bulk of the pruning himself with the help of a long-bladed trimmer armed with an extension that he has mounted to a backpack. That helps reduce the stress on his shoulders.Nowadays, Wadsworth keeps it to a manageable seven acres, or about 7,000 trees — Leyland Cypress, Arizona Cypress, Eastern Red Cedar and Virginia Pine. He also brings in about 100 Fraser Firs from North Carolina each season, which runs from the day after Thanksgiving until Dec. 21 this year.”At one time I was planting about three acres, or about 3,000 trees a year,” he said, “but now I’m down to 1,000 a year, and that’s about where I want to keep it. But regardless of how many trees I’ve had to sell, every year I’ve always sold every marketable tree that I have.”One reason for that, he says, is that the Wadsworth family –Frank, his wife Lucie, daughter Carrie, and sons Jacob and Josh — strives to create the kind of holiday experience upon which families build traditions. That’s why visitors to the farm may find a big bonfire the perfect gathering spot to drink down a cup of hot chocolate.”We’ll light that bonfire up first thing in the morning,” said Frank. “We?ll let it die down at night, but the next morning the first thing we do is put more logs on the fire. Customers absolutely love it. It’s like a magnet.”Others may prefer a ride in Santa’s sleigh, a tractor-drawn wagon decked out holiday style. That’s a popular treat for the scores of school kids who visit the farm on field trips each year. So are the giant inflatable snowman and Santa that fill the sky not far from the bonfire.Still other guests may want to have their tree baled, right along with their kids.”That’s something the kids started themselves,” said Wadsworth, referring to the practice of kids being put through the tree baler so that they are bound up in the nylon netting like a holiday gift. “They started their own tradition. A lot of those kids who have done that come back and want to get baled again. Now during the field trips when the teachers and classes are here, we try not do much kid-baling then. You can see what you?d start there because every one of them would want to get baled.”The rides, the bonfire, the trees, the kid-baling all add up to repeat business for Wadsworth. He tells of one Montgomery family — a father, his children and their spouses and his grandchildren — who’ve been coming for about 10 years now.”They all show up, and they’ll do the wagon ride,” said Frank. “That’s sort of a tradition, too — they want to ride on the wagon. Then they go out looking for their tree. Then, they?ll come sit up here by the fire, throw logs on the fire and just have a good time. Sometimes, they?ll bring their picnic with them. The dad always brings everybody a present so he’ll gather them up, and they’ll find a spot out under a tree somewhere and do their family presents there.”Wadsworth says those memories are far more valuable than any tree he sells.”I don’t try to grow the most trees in the world,” he said, “but I do believe in quality, and I think the kids enjoy the experience of coming to the woods, to the country. There are people who want the fir tree, but yet they want the experience of coming up here. They’re willing to drive in all the way from Montgomery rather than go to Lowe’s and buy a Fraser Fir. They could get the same tree at Lowe’s or one of the stands in Montgomery, but they want to come to the country.”For more information, call (334) 567-6308.
WINTER WANDERLAND: Wadsworth Christmas Tree Farm Was Gift That Took Root