While Christmas manifests itself in many wonderful ways, there is one iconic symbol of the holiday that generates a feeling of excitement in all of us: the Christmas tree. And whether you’re a devotee of the artificial variety or a member of the staunch it’s-not-a-tree-unless-it-came-from-the-ground camp, Kentucky’s Christmas tree farms have something for you. Choose and cut your own, select from a variety of pre-cut trees, grab a balled-in-burlap type for post-holiday planting, or simply stop by for fresh wreaths, garlands and handmade holiday crafts. Kentucky growers offer everything from products to services to tongue-in-cheek advice for those fantasizing about owning their own farm.
Aptly located at 1 Christmas Tree Road, the Christmas Center at Hutton-Loyd Tree Farm in Wallingford, east of Flemingsburg, offers varieties such as Scotch and white pine; Fraser, Douglas and Nordmann fir; and Norway and Colorado blue spruce. Families can enjoy a hayride out to the fields to choose and cut their own tree followed by a fireside hot chocolate, or they can have the folks at the farm handle the cutting for them. Pre-cut and pre-dug trees also are available, as well as wreaths, garlands, swags and assorted artisan foods and crafts.
“We sell about 600 trees a year, with most of our customers cutting their own,” said proprietor Herb Loyd, adding that individual taste and need determine which tree is the favorite. “White pine is the most effortless and holds its needles well, but its branches are more flexible and not as good for heavier ornaments. Scotch pine has stouter limbs and holds heavier ornaments better, and some people are looking for the tree that smells really good and go for one like a Fraser fir.”
In addition to its Christmas enterprise, Hutton-Loyd runs a full-service garden center, offers a barn and extensive outdoor spaces for a variety of events, maintains a cabin for weekend rentals, and oversees a fishing club for its 40-acre lake.
Southeast of Owensboro, in Philpot, is Hilltop Tree Farm, where choose-and-cut Christmas tree shopping is enjoying a major comeback. “It used to be a tradition,” said Hilltop’s Dennis Duke, “but people got out of the habit. Now, they have kids and grandkids, and want to start it up again.”
Thirty years in business have made Hilltop an area favorite for buying that perfect Canadian fir, white pine or spruce. While there, customers also can gather their holiday greenery. “We make all our garlands ourselves,” Duke said, “and do about 400 wreaths.”
A gift shop offers assorted items. Live trees with their root ball freshly wrapped in burlap and ready for transport also are available. “We have people who come from all around,” Duke said. “They can’t find a place near them, so they come here.”
Have an artificial tree you wouldn’t dare part with but love the scent of the real thing and the idea of visiting a farm on a crisp December day? Then head to up-and-coming Gubser Tree Farm in Alexandria, where owners John and Debbie Gubser are cultivating lush forests and tapping local artisans for unique handmade Christmas crafts.
According to the Gubsers, their Christmas season craft barn offers homemade crafts only, made by local artisans. The selection includes holiday wood crafts, afghans, potholders, towels, plastic canvas items, custom jewelry, folk art, wreaths, homemade soaps, Christmas ornaments, wood canes, custom embroidered sweatshirts and baby bibs, bird houses, and children’s necklaces and bracelets.
The craft barn was opened in 2012, and the farm now has roughly 700 3-year-old trees growing and 1,500 seedlings for later transplant to the field. Pre-cut trees will be available next season, with choose-and-cut to follow in 2019. The Christmas craft barn was slated to open the last weekend of November and will be open the first two weekends in December on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tucked into the gentle rolling hills of southern Kentucky is Hartman Tree Farm. Run by retired Western Kentucky University chemistry professor David Hartman, this Bowling Green business has been going strong for nearly 20 years. “We only sell choose-and-cut,” Hartman said. “I provide the saws, or I can cut it for you.” The Scotch and white pine trees grown there are shaken and baled. Tree stands and 14-inch wreaths are available.
A hop, skip and a jump down the road in Alvaton, fellow Warren County tree purveyors Twin Bridges Tree Farm also offers abundant white pines this year, with limited Scotch pines and plans to add Norway spruce in the near future. Opened by the Beane family in 2010, Twin Bridges offers choose-and-cut and a moderate selection of balled-in-burlap trees. You can do the work yourself or simply select the perfect tree, and the folks at the farm will cut it for you. Tim Mitchell’s Yule Stand System tree stands are available for purchase. Free baling and assistance in securing your purchase to your vehicle are offered, or your tree may be delivered locally
For those in the central Kentucky area, Nieman’s Tree Farm in Lexington boasts 20,000 trees for landscape and Christmas purposes, and specializes in the regal Fraser fir. “We began the tree farm in 1978 with just a handful of trees and no idea as to what the outcome would be,” said owner Thomas Nieman. “It wasn’t meant to morph into a full-blown business; it just happened.”
Along the way, Nieman decided to focus on one of the most popular and beautiful types of trees. “While we grow blue spruce, Norway spruce, Serbian spruce, white fir and white pine,” he said, “our primary Christmas tree is the Fraser fir. The National Christmas Tree Association calls it ‘the Cadillac of Christmas trees.’ We decided that if we were going to be in the business, we would have only the best or not do it at all.”
Most growers import their Fraser fir stock due to Kentucky’s generally inhospitable conditions for this particular species. “Fraser fir are not supposed to thrive here,” Nieman said, “so the challenge was to modify the soil and the growing process to be in concert with the climate and soils of the Bluegrass. It took over 20 years of experimentation before we figured out how to grow the Fraser fir. We now produce trees that easily rival those grown in North Carolina or Michigan.”
Trees range from tabletop size to 12-plus feet. There are no pre-cut trees available as the choose-and-cut experience is the focal point of a visit here. “We keep the process of selecting a tree simple,” Nieman said. “Our clients drive out to the farm and are directed to a tree patch, which, if the weather is not too wet, they can drive right up to. Our trees are all grown in a lawn-like setting with no tall grass or weeds. So, walking around and selecting a tree is like a stroll in the park. Upon selecting a tree, one of our young, congenial and willing staff will bundle it up, cut it and load it on your vehicle for you. You merely make the selection—we do the rest. However, if you want to cut it yourself, we can easily accommodate you. And we will still load it for you.”
Several species are offered in balled-in-burlap form, and a pre-tagging service enables customers to visit the farm in the milder months of October and November to select a tree. It will be tagged and cut just prior to the pickup date. Though some greenery is sold, Nieman’s is almost exclusively about the trees. “We do have greens available, but that is it,” Nieman said. “Our philosophy is: ‘We only do trees, but we do them very well.’ And, oh yes, our three Labrador dogs are there to greet you and are anxious to play with the kiddies.”
If all this talk of pine and spruce and fir has you entertaining thoughts of owning your own tree farm, consider the comments and advice from two successful growers on the labor and love of this endeavor. “How old are you?” asked Herb Loyd. “Do you plan to move? Because you pretty much need to be here the rest of your life.”
And if your only experience with a tree farm is visiting one in December, perhaps you should come back and experience some of the grittier daily grind. “We’ve had people ask about starting their own farm,” Loyd said, “and we tell them to come back and help when we’re pruning in the summer. There are snakes in the trees, bees, briars, weeds and the heat. We wear two layers of dungarees, snake-proof boots, long-sleeve shirts, bandanas and gloves.”
When asked if anyone ever took them upon their offer, Loyd added with a laugh, “Only two people ever got that far, and only one of them actually came out. They were dressed in shorts and flip-flops. They didn’t last long.”
The love of the job and the ability to keep control over what you do ultimately are what keep the growers going. “You can’t do it from a distance,” Loyd said. “One person, one family can handle about 30,000 trees. If you go any bigger, you have to hire people, deal with regulatory stuff, taxes, etc.”
Interacting with both nature and the community is what these farmers thrive on and what ultimately provides Kentuckians with lovely holiday memories season after season. “Growing trees is a yearlong endeavor,” Thomas Nieman said. “From early spring, where we prepare the soil and plant the baby trees; to summer, where we keep them weed free and prune them; to Christmastime when, 7 to 8 years later, we cut them, the task is endless—but immensely rewarding.”
Tree Care 101
Follow the National Christmas Tree Association guidelines when caring for your farm-grown tree.
1. Make a fresh cut a half-inch or so up from the bottom of the trunk.
2. Place tree in an appropriately sized stand. Do not whittle down the sides of the trunk to make it fit, as the outer layers are most efficient in taking up water—capable of holding a minimum of one gallon. Fill stand with water.*
3. Keep trees away from major sources of heat (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents and direct sunlight). Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process.
4. Low-heat lights, such as miniature and LED, will reduce drying of the tree.
* Stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of the trunk’s diameter.