December 16, 2012

Going chopping? Here's the tree story

Your Maine-grown Christmas tree represents years of nurturing, but it gives something back, too.

By BEN McCANNA Morning Sentinel

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Dick Bradbury, owner of Bradbury’s Christmas Trees in South China, walks through his crop of two-year-old balsam firs earlier this month. Bradbury, who plants between 500 and 1,000 trees every year, will tend to these young trees for eight more years – pruning, fertilizing, spraying – before they’re ready for sale.

Photos by Ben McCAnna/Morning Sentinel Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Ashley Hamilton-Ellis fells a 10-year-old balsam fir earlier this month at Bradbury’s Christmas Trees in South China, with the help of her husband, Pat Ellis, and dog Gracie. The couple have been cutting their own trees at the farm for four years.


CHRISTMAS TREES are a relatively new tradition in English-speaking countries, first appearing in England in the 1800s, then migrating to the United States soon afterward.

IN THOSE early days, before electric lights, trees were cut down on Christmas Eve and  open-flame candles affixed to their fresh boughs.

THE NOTION of a Christmas tree originated in Germany, evolving out of pagan traditions in that region, said Steve Lewis, dean of Bangor Theological Seminary.
When and why are harder questions harder to pin down.

“A LOT OF traditions that were pagan were eventually Christianized, but knowing exactly when it caught on or when it was embraced by the church in Christian Europe isn’t easy,” Lewis said.


FOR MORE information on the Maine Christmas Tree Association or to find member farms in your area, visit

"I just kept planting," he said. "It kind of gets in your blood after a while."

Bradbury does all the work himself. Every year in April, he plants between 500 and 1,000 of Eastman's seedlings by hand.

"It's hard work, but when you're done, you've got an instant forest," he said.

There's other work, too. Twice a year, in spring and late summer, Bradbury applies more than a ton of fertilizer to the tree bases. He also applies herbicide around young trees because grass can overwhelm and kill them. In May, he typically sprays for bugs, particularly the balsam twig aphid. He also mows between the rows about 10 times a year during the growing months.

When the trees grow to be about elbow high they need to be sheared once a year until they're sold. Bradbury, using a folding knife, can shear at a rate of one tree per minute. It may sound like a speedy job, but the time adds up quickly. He'll work about four hours a day for more than a month to work through the entire farm -- from the Fourth of July until the second week in August, he said.

"I used to do about 800 a day, but I'm petering out. I'm old," he said.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, Bradbury opens his farm for business on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. During that time, he'll sell about 500 trees at $35 each, for a grand total of about $17,500.

"I've got about 12 to 15 days to sell everything I've worked all year on," he said.

Bradbury is planning to plant one more crop next spring and ease out of the business as slowly as he entered.

"By the time I'm 68, hopefully they'll all be gone," he said.


On a recent Sunday, newlyweds Ashley Hamilton-Ellis and Pat Ellis strolled Bradbury's farm searching for the perfect tree. About 20 minutes later, they found it and sawed it down.

Hamilton-Ellis said she would never consider an artificial one.

"Never. No. Never ever, ever," she said. "I'm anti-artificial Christmas tree. They ruin the Christmas spirit."

The couple has been cutting their own trees at the farm the last four years. Cutting a tree themselves is a holiday tradition on par with tinsel, turkey or mistletoe.

"We like getting out and cutting your own. It just seems more real," said Ellis.

Real trees are also more environmentally sound than artificial ones, said Jean English, editor of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener newspaper, who also holds master's and doctorate degrees in plant and soil sciences.

In Lincolnville, English and her husband plant between 200 and 400 trees annually at a cut-your-own farm, which she described as a small, organic operation. The fir trees provide homes for wildlife and they help absorb greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change, she said.

"Real Christmas trees sequester carbon while they're growing," she said. "The ground they're growing in keeps building up organic matter, which also helps keep carbon out of the atmosphere and in the soil."

Also, nearly all Christmas tree growers plant a new tree for every one that is cut down, so sequestration continues long after the holidays, she said.

Artificial trees, on the other hand, cannot be recycled when their usefulness ends, plus a lot of fossil fuels are burned to create and ship them, she said.

When trees are cut and decompose, they release their stored carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere. However, many Maine towns now reuse the trees in ways that lessen the carbon release.

In Portland, for instance, the city collects about 20,000 Christmas trees every year, which are either burned for energy or chipped for mulch, according to the city's environmental programs manager.

The mulch, which is later spread on the ground, slowly decomposes. The organisms that decompose the mulch will absorb some of the carbon, English said.

In Waterville, city officials have found a second life for about 500 of the 5,000 Christmas trees the city collects each year. Matt Skehan, director of Waterville's Parks and Recreation Department, said the trees are arranged into a maze, like a hedge maze or corn maze, for the city's annual Winter Carnival. Afterward, they're burned.

The 4,500 remaining trees, however, are fed through a wood chipper in the spring and the mulch is spread through parks and playgrounds, which is a relatively new practice for Waterville, according to Public Works director Mark Turner.

"Within the past 10 years, we've become more recycling-conscious," he said.

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:


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