Farm Horizons, December 2012

From seed to Christmas tree

By Kristen Miller

If there is one thing about growing trees that can’t be controlled, it’s the weather, said Crow River Nursery owner Paul Saunders.

Situated on 45-acres north of Howard Lake on Wright County Road 6 is a variety of spruce and fir trees, many of them waiting to be cut just in time for Christmas.

Owning a Christmas tree nursery isn’t a seasonal business. Though there are busier times, Saunders said, it’s a 12-month operation.

In the spring, Saunders can be found in the field planting young trees and applying herbicides to help keep the weeds down.

“Weeds are the only sure thing that grow every year,” Saunders said.

As pesky as weeds can be, they actually help smaller trees when it comes to deterring wind, he explained.

“After planting, wind is my nemesis,” Saunders said. Weed growth protects the trees from drying out.

Last spring, he planted 5,000 trees that resulted in about a 97 percent survival rate. “Which to me, is outstanding,” Saunders said.

Considering the lack of rain, Saunders said, it has much to do with luck. “There’s nothing wrong with being lucky.”

Though he would love to have a well so he could place tubing along trees for those dry spells, realistically, there aren’t enough resources, he said.

Instead, you “do what you can,” he said.

That includes testing the soil (trees like it more acidic, he said, which is around 6.8 pH) and load [the trees] with nutrients, “and hope for the best.”

He also makes sure to go with good seed stock to help ensure the trees will do well for the area.

What is the biggest challenge? Saunders said, “Like any farmer, you can’t control the weather.”

Another challenge he encountered recently was applying a new herbicide that ended up killing 4,000 of his trees. Those were his 3- to 4-foot trees that would’ve been ready in two to three years. On average, trees need to grow seven or eight years before they are ready to be cut for Christmas trees.

In January, if the snow isn’t too heavy, Saunders can be found removing stumps leftover from Christmas tree sales. By stumping, Saunders can remove any disease or competition for nutrients and water that can have a negative effect on the other plants.

Saunders’ tree crop has also become more diversified since his first planting in 1990.

Much of the crop at that time consisted of Scotch Pine, Norway Pine, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, and a few spruces.

Now, Saunders has taken more of a global outlook to identify what trees are growing in other countries at the same latitude and climate. Mixed in with his traditional trees are Korean and Siberian firs, along with Chinese and Siberian spruces. These typically have longer needles and different scents, Saunders explained.

Not only does this add diversity to his field, but it’s also fun for him to learn about different varieties and how to grow them effectively. He also has to essentially guess what consumers will want in the future, which can be a bit stressful.

All in all, Crow River Nursery sells about 3,500 trees from the day after Thanksgiving until the day before Christmas Eve. Roughly 1,200 of that is wholesale, he noted.

Before the economy went south, Saunders could depend on additional revenue from the sale of transplanted live trees. “That was good egg money in the spring,” Saunders said. Now, he depends solely on the Christmas tree business for his profits.

For pre-cut or cut-your-own trees, Crow River Nursery is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through Dec. 23.

Visit its website at for more details, or call 888-551-5630.

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