Fruits Of My Labor
by Brenda McBride of Enumclaw, WA
We recently had a week of warm, sunny weather, here in the Pacific Northwest. During my morning chores, I imagined I caught a whiff of spring in the air. Apparently a couple of dandelions thought so too and bloomed ahead of themselves. I saw them on the south side of the barn, a bright yellow patch, glittering under a blanket of frost. My garden also looked hopeful that week. A ribbon of green lettuce still lingers in a crooked row, and some grass and chickweed are growing along the edges of the raised beds. The little apple tree that I planted last summer is tilting to one side, a casualty of a powerful east wind. I need to stake it up and I hope it’s not too late. The “Jack-be-Little” pumpkins that I left around in the garden as decorations last fall have softened and split open, spilling seeds. I’ll need to clean that up pretty soon too.
The warm week that interrupted winter disappeared last night, blown away by a wild wind. Now a curtain of gray rain has closed us in again. Ahh, winter.
Even though my garden lies fallow right now, and most gardeners are thumbing through bright seed catalogs, sharpening their hoes, and counting the weeks until true spring, I am preparing for the arduous task and delightful pleasure of planting 300 Christmas trees this month.
Last year, I came to the hard realization that my daughters were finally grown and didn’t need or want my constant attention. I began to look elsewhere to put my energies. I have been a registered nurse for almost 30 years and I still work a few days a month as such. But my heart lies steadfastly in my home, family, garden and animals. One look at my bookshelves shows a decided lack of anything about nursing, but rows of books on gardening, farming, animals and rural writing abound. Jim and I have raised chickens, turkeys and pigs for years. We have mastered gardening and are working on composting. We have planted scores of fruit trees, and although we are not experienced in growing crops for profit, we love trees, and I love Christmas trees most of all.
After talking to other Christmas tree farmers, who were encouraging, and reading up on planting the trees, I began a plan for a small Christmas tree farm. I figured out what parts of our farm were suitable for trees, i.e. dry enough. I figured that we can fit in around 1500 to 2000 trees here and there around the farm. I learned where to order them and how to plant them. In February of last year, Jim and I and our work horse, Snip, ploughed up and disked an area to the east of our house. My “field of dreams” became my “field of screams” as rocks and boulders boiled up out of the earth. Tons and tons of them, a reality not too surprising as we live up against the foothills of the Cascades. Only slightly daunted, I tackled the rocks. I raked, scooped, picked and dumped them for days. When the little plot was relatively clear, the fun began. I untied the strings and opened the brown paper bundles that contained my Douglas and Noble tree seedlings, and inhaled pure Christmas, pure magic! I hope I never become immune to that sweet pleasure. It took several days to plant 160 seedlings as I was still clearing rocks as I went. And it seemed as if every hole I dug contained a rock to pry out. My 72 year-old father came over on my last day of planting. Together, in a cold, blowing mist, we crawled down the rows of wet earth, finally meeting each other in the middle of the last row, planted the last two trees and helped each other off of our stiff, cold knees. I don’t know how my dad felt about our hard work, but it was one of the best days I ever had. The outside of me was frozen, but my spirit was toasty warm!
Bright, feathery, green growth emerged on my seedlings; right on schedule, and all but 7 survived their first year. This February we will plough up another piece of our land and plant 300 more trees. We will do this for the next few years, and then the first group of trees will be ready for harvesting. In the meantime, there is much to learn from other farmers about planting, weed and pest control, shearing and the selling of trees.
Because of the time it takes for a seedling to become a mature tree, growing Christmas trees for profit takes a leap of faith. In our case, faith that Jim and I will be able to afford to stay on our farm after he retires. Faith that our health and energy will hold up as we age. Faith that people will continue to appreciate and value the beauty and incomparable fragrance of a freshly cut Christmas tree. And finally, faith that war or terrorism won’t interrupt or devastate our lives. Planting trees for harvest is very much like raising children. We don’t give birth to an adult. We start out with a tiny baby. Raising a child to maturity takes a capacity to understand and love growing things. The same with a garden and with growing trees. It is a day-to-day endeavor and joy must be found in the journey, not just in the destination.
Compared to most tree farms, mine will be quite small. But it is just right for me. I will be acquainted with each tree. I can tend to them individually and be as organic in my approach as I possibly can. Right now, when I walk among the trees, I can easily step over them. Luckily they are very bendable, as I and my dogs trip over and step on them regularly. Our neighbor’s horses got out yesterday, and all six of them galloped right through the tree rows. Each tree was still standing afterwards! I am looking forward to rambling up and down between the rows of tall straight Nobles in the coming years, doing whatever the season calls for. My grandsons can come along, and peer through the branches at bird nests, hidden deep inside, woven with the golden hair of our draft horses. And I will be, more fully, a farmer. I will officially join the ranks of those who work with their hands, squint into the sun and dig in the dirt. The seasons will drift by with me, standing observant, in the center of them, ever more appreciative of life giving rains and sun kissed days. I will be even more familiar with the aches and pains of aging and physical labor, but I already know that a steaming bath is one of life’s greatest comforts.
I look forward to the time, years from now, when families will be wandering around our tree farm, calling out to each other, searching for Just the Right Tree. “Here’s one.” Or, “Stand over there while I look up here.” Or, “Are you kidding!” Or, as frequently heard in our family, “Brenda, are you out of our mind? That tree is at least 12 feet tall!” Best of all, the fruits of my labor will stand in people’s homes, draped in twinkling lights and fragile ornaments, the “Grand Dames” of Christmas, adding joy, mystery and fragrance to our most blessed of celebrations.