NC Christmas trees: grown by hand, protected by science

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins - The Absentee Gardeners
Joey Miller among his trees. - Photo by Sandy Windelspecht

I’ll start with a disclosure, we are real Christmas tree people. I understand the arguments for fake trees, but I don’t want a hunk of plastic in the middle of our family memories. “Unbox the tree” isn’t as much fun as “go find the perfect tree.” For the past two decades our family goes to the same place the week after Thanksgiving to get our tree. I’m so focused on the fun that I hadn’t given much thought to what goes into producing these trees.

Some facts from the NC Christmas Tree Growers Association:

• NC is the #2 producer of trees in the nation and Ashe County produces more trees than any other single county in the country.

• NC trees are sold along the east coast, out into the Midwest, and internationally with trees going to South America and Europe.

• While over a dozen species are commercially grown, our native Fraser fir is the top selling tree. A Fraser fir cut in November can hold its needles until February making it popular with buyers.

• It takes seven to 10 years to produce a Christmas tree and the work is done by hand

That last item caught my eye. The 5 to 7 million Christmas trees harvested annually in our state are grown by hand. Growers typically purchase 2- to 3-year-old seedlings, plant them by hand, shear and shape the trees by hand each year, and manage their fields to ensure weeds don’t overtake the young trees. Decades ago that weed management was done by applying chemicals, but since 1994 in NC there’s been a steady reduction in the pesticides applied — saving tree growers time, money, and helping the environment.

Our native Fraser firs reign as the most popular Christmas tree. With its soft long-lasting needles, dark green color and scent, it’s the Christmas centerpiece in most homes. But this native tree is attacked by outside invaders and growers have adopted the same Integrated Pest Management practices gardeners use to minimize their impact.

Dr. Jill Sidebottom, who specializes in mountain conifer production for the Cooperative Extension Service, explained the problems. Saying, “Our main pests are those that aren’t native to North America but have been introduced from Europe or Asia so our trees don’t have a lot of natural immunity. So if growers didn’t control those pests they wouldn’t be able to grow the tree. Sometimes those pests can piggyback on a tree when it’s shipped to other areas of the country or other parts of the world.”

So growers plant cover crops to attract beneficial insects who prey on the unwanted pests, manage their soil fertility to produce robust trees, and continually scout their fields for problems. The goal is to identify an infestation and treat it while it’s still small by physically removing the impacted branches or tree, or as a last resort using a spot chemical treatment. It takes a lot of science and experience to grow a Christmas tree.

The reality of growing Christmas trees came together for me when I met Joey Miller, a Watauga County Christmas tree farmer. We talked about the work and I had to ask what he likes best about farming. He said, “Just being out in it. Just being out here working every day, even the shearing. It’s hard work. But just being out in the sunshine, or rain, or whatever. Just enjoying life.”

That sounds a lot like gardening to me.

Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins can be contacted with questions or comments at

Joey Miller among his trees. Miller among his trees. Photo by Sandy Windelspecht

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

The Absentee Gardeners