My Search For the Imperfect Christmas Tree


I used to think a lot about starting a Christmas tree farm. Hilly cheaper land could be used and I had some, machinery investment would be low, or so I thought, and the customer would maybe do the work of harvesting.

What stopped me was what I took to be the insane human desire for the “perfect” tree. Every true American is convinced that a Christmas tree must be shaped in a perfect, pyramidal form and so thick with foliage that a flea can’t fly through it. To prune an evergreen tree to this kind of perfection requires hours of hand trimming, often in the heat of the summer. It also requires sprays to combat bugs and sometimes fungal disease, and almost constant mowing around the trees. Instead of a natural grove, a Christmas tree plantation is almost as environmentally hazardous as a corn field.

Then there is consumer fickleness to deal with. Right now in our area, everyone seems to think that the perfect tree is a Canaan fir, which I never heard of until a few years ago. If I started a tree farm now and planted Canaan firs, how do I know but what they’d be out of style by the time I shaved and groomed them to the proper perfection. A blue spruce will grow to near perfection without trimming, but no sir, most of the American public does not, will not, buy a blue spruce. Beats me.

For awhile I argued against the idea of a perfect Christmas tree in my writing, a debate I was doomed to lose. People are bent on having  the most perfect tree in their circle of friends and family and if it scrapes against their cathedral ceiling, taller than other trees in neighborhood homes, so much the better. Why? Why does a tree have to be so thick with needles that you can barely find air space enough to hang the ornaments? Why does having the tallest tree in town make you the tallest guy in town? The ornaments don’t hang on trees today; they drape. What is wrong with a perfectly natural tree that you can actually see through? Does it really matter that the branches aren’t perfectly symmetrical?  Do people understand the cost, in human labor and in environmental risk, to make a “perfect” Christmas tree?

Then I met my wife and was introduced into her Kentucky family. On their farm grew thousands of red cedars (common juniper) considered by most farmers to be a pesky weed. Her father went to the woods and pastures every Christmas and cut one of them for the Christmas tree. Red cedars can be a cultural shock to someone like me used to seeing pines, spruces and firs in the parlor, but they very quickly look just as pretty with the gifts piled around them as any evergreen. And the scent of cedar oil is heavenly.

These trees grow naturally into a nice bushy shape without a bit of laborious pruning.  They are immune to bug damage except sometimes from bagworms, and deer, the bane of the Christmas tree farmer, rarely bother them. Red cedars also make long lasting fenceposts, beautifully grained woodenware and cedar chests, and the trees provide food and cover for many kinds of birds.

Eventually I planted red cedars on our farm, bringing seedlings up north from Carol’s home farm. Apple growers do not like to see red cedars, which can support a fungus harmful to apple trees, but in my experience that threat is vastly overrated. One of Carol’s brothers had an orchard surrounded with red cedars and he didn’t spray any more than any other orchardist. So now we go each year into our fence rows and woods like Carol’s Dad did and cut a free Christmas tree that requires no labor whatsoever to grow. The boughs are also great for wreaths especially when the branches are loaded with blue berries, which is nearly every year. Much of the mid-South is literally covered with these shapely trees while most of the people are buying their perfect firs and spruces and pines. Just doesn’t make any sense to me but I suppose I irritate Christmas tree growers by showing a way around the hard work they have done to make their trees salable.

All I can say is that if we could change the definition of the “perfect” Christmas tree, tree farmers could be selling red cedars with a fraction of the labor they now must employ. And they would have bluebirds on their farms all winter, even in the north.


I, admittedly, grew up with those perfectly conical, needle-dense trees upon which ornaments drape rather than hang. I must admit to still having a preference for such trees, simply due to the nostalgia factor (which is a big piece of Christmas, anymore.) However, I love cedars and love the idea of using them as Christmas trees. I dare think I may try that out one of these days.

Here on our farm, the Christmas tree this year consisted of a few branches from miscellaneous trees, scavenged up a nearby logging road, haphazardly arranged in a vase, strung with lights and adorned with a few stray ornaments. It wasn’t particularly impressive, but I liked it quite a bit.

I think some flexibility on the form and feel of Christmas trees would do a world of good.

When I was younger I sold trees of almost every species you could imagine and I’m still drawn to a good Frasure fir. Not the ones you see at Wal-mart that have been cut since September. Go cut a fresh frasure and the smell is intoxicating. As far as blue spruce goes, I have to disagree with you Gene. If you have ever tried to handle one you’ll realize why no one wants them. You’ll need a blood transfusion by the time you get it decorated. But, whether it be an evergreen or a house plant, or a chair, it isn’t what you decorate that makes it a good holiday. It’s who you spend it with. Happy hoildays!

A perfect tree is like a perfect friendship … they do not exisist. There is always a bump or blemeish that lends itself toward imperfection. The best trees and the best friendships have been around enough to have survived some awful bumps and brusies. The imperfections give each their character. I am just such a character… Merry Christmas.Gene

This year both of my daughters came out to get ceder trees for their Christmas trees. They dont look perfect but my oldest told me “whenever I look at the tree I think ‘that came from my Dads place’ ” . Does it get anymore perfect then that?

To make a fuller “tree” from wild ones, I’ve taken 4-5 small saplings and wired them into a bundle. The fullest at the top is cut longest and shorter ones are used to fill in the rest of the space. This still keeps plenty of open spaces, more than what you have with a commercially sheared tree. I used Virginia Pines growing wild on my farm, but this would work with any common evergreen.

Wonderful! I grew up in an area surrounded by national forest, and in addition to being able to buy permits to clear deadwood for heating, you can also buy a Christmas tree permit, listing defined species allowed to be cut down as part of the forest management. Every Thanksgiving we went out into the forest and spent hours roaming up the hills and slogging through the snow, arguing about which was the “perfect” tree. Of course, it was never “perfect perfect” in the commercial way you describe, and always had gaps or holes or bald spaces or a crooked bit on the trunk, but it was so much fun–and looked beautiful after decorating. It also stays fresh for months. It’s common for people in the area to leave “Christmas trees” up until at least March, progressively redecorating it into a “Valentine’s day tree” or an “Easter Tree”, before finally, regretfully, taking it down around the time the snow melts.

And Cedar garlands draped over window-frames and arch-ways make for such Dickensinian feasting….

Here is an interesting tidbit of information. It is from the the ministry of natural resources here in Ontario.
“A resident in Ontario is entitled to harvest one Christmas tree per family each year from Crown land north of the French and Mattawa Rivers. We encourage residents to get these trees from areas where active forest management is not occurring. For example, we suggest cutting trees from hydro or highway right-of ways rather than from Crown land forested areas. Also consider a species of lesser commercial value like balsam fir. An OMNR office closest to your location can help you determine a Crown land area that may be best suited to harvest a Christmas tree.
Due to the large amount of privately owned land and the extensive Christmas tree industry in southern Ontario, the opportunity to cut trees from Crown land in that part of Ontario does not apply south of the French and Mattawa Rivers”

I have bought trees and I have cut trees for christmas, even red cedar. The ones with the most and best memories are always the the ones we cut ourselves. That and with the cost of trees these days why would you want a $50+ “perfect” tree?

This was a timely piece for me; last Sunday I took a friend out to dinner, and she told me a story about her favorite Christmast tree. Her father’s name was Charlie, and you have met his widow, Gene.

We are in our mid sixties now, but when my friend was a small girl, she was talking with a neighbor girl about getting a Christmas tree, and her friend said their family decorated a chair. My friend realized that her friend’s family couldn’t afford to buy a tree, and she took her sadness to her father, Charlie. Charlie was a very wise man, and he invited his neighbors into their woods to help their family cut their Christmas tree, and cut one for themselves, too. Of course, the local pines were pretty mishapen and scruffy looking, but Charlie’s neighbor had a Christmas tree, and it looked just like Charlies family’s Christmas tree. My friend said that was her all time favorite Christmas tree.

Charlie was only in my life for a couple years before he died of cancer. At least I was blessed with two years. There were a lot of things I could have learned from him, and some I did learn. He taught me a lot about how to live.

Hi Gene,

My family and I get our tree from our property every year. It is invariably a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree, but looks wonderful after it is all decorated. And it is pretty fun to go out and pick a tree together. I like the idea of using red cedar; we use coastal douglas fir because that is what we are surrounded by.

I would add that the idea around a perfect-looking tree has been manufactured in the same way that a perfect apple in the produce section of a grocery store has.

My kids and I always searched the mountain where we lived for “wild” trees that must have been the offspring of forgotten WPA planting projects of long ago. We usually made it an evening after work and school. We ate supper early and headed out, saw in hand. In the growing darkness we had many adventures and saw many sights – rabbits in their burrows and deer getting their supper. Once we even thought we heard Santa’s sleigh bells as he scouted his routes for the big night! Everyone, no matter how small, took a turn or two on the saw with Dad left to finish up. Then all took a hold and helped drag our treasure home. These trees were never perfectly pyramidal or thickly branched – we thought the errant branches were simply “arms to give hugs”.

Unfortunately, cedars are anathema to apple growers. And in considering a tree farm, you have to think of the liability of having consumers with saws on your property (shiver!)

I think we’ll stick to admiring the trees outside and hanging ornamental bird feeders in them. As colorful, and more fun!

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