Northeast Kingdom Christmas Trees




​​Shearing is a word used by the tree growers to best describe the annual process of shaping, pruning and trimming the trees. It is a timely operation starting in late June and continuing until completed, (no later than mid October hopefully). It is the most laborious chore on the farm and becomes intense because the correctness of shearing dictates the future of the tree inventory. The grower can develop a bit of a nervous condition because of it. It may be why a common greeting among growers is, “You got your shearing done yet?”,  instead of "good morning" or "what a beautiful day".

A pyramidal shape is a natural shape for Balsam and Fraser Fir. They grow with a straight trunk and a new whorl of opposite branches each year. If this is the case you have to wonder why you have to shear at all. The reason is Market demand. A natural tree still has a minor demand on a tree retail lot, but today’s consumer asks for more. The tree must look natural but be thicker and cannot have any holes in this thickness and it needs a straight top to place the star or angel on. The height must be exact and the width has to leave space to walk around...and it has to fit the antique stand great grandpa left. Also, don’t forget space needed for presents and maybe a Nativity set. Shearing scars are not popular and old dead branches give an unhealthy look to the tree. Having retailed trees for 30 years I have heard all of this and more. But with a smile I explain to the customer that all trees need to be loved and need a home. Maybe you can turn it a bit etc. Then armed with this list of consumer preferences it is back to the farm. Next year I will “perfect” shearing to best fit these consumer demands.

The grower is not bound by strict industry shearing standards. But, keeping consumer preferences in mind, the following principles should be followed.

Achieved by removing the end bud on each branch. This forces new buds along the branch to open and form new buds for future years and stops the branch from growing longer in the given year. Care must be taken to ensure the lower branches are not cut too short because all branch ends must be able to see the sun or they will die back. This mistake will cost one year in the production cycle. Remember, firs grow one whorl of branches each year. The pyramidal shape, known as the taper, is ideally in the area of 30%.

As a tree is growing it is sometimes necessary to control the height so the desired thickness can be achieved. This is accomplished by shortening the top (known as the leader) to 10" or less. Doing this not only shortens the tree but removes the whorl of growth for the year. Usually it is necessary to remove the buds on the first row of branches at the same time because they have a tendency to pull to the sun and try to become tops.

Unusual growth
Reverse and upward branching has to be removed or the natural tree look will be compromised. This type of growth, although it can be genetic, is usually caused by improper or heavy shearing in the past. Dead branches should be removed along with an occasional “witch’s broom”, (unusual growth caused by damage to the stem).

Known as the “leader” are adjusted most years. Multiples and crooks are removed leaving the straightest one. Here in Zone 3 of the North East Kingdom we often leave a short redundant leader as a spare in case the main leader aborts buds because of the cold winter. Sometimes all fails and a new leader has to be established either by waiting for mother nature to create one or by “splinting” up an existing small branch. This small branch should be on the north side of the tree because it will pull towards the sun as it travels east to west in the south. The power of the sun and a trees response to it is amazing!

The bottom of the tree, the place where the first complete row of branches are should be 12" above the ground or more if branching dictates it.  Branches below this first row, known as basil brush, will take energy from the rest of the tree and should be removed. A 10" handle is normally a grading standard when a tree is going to market. However some customers ask that you leave this brush for their wreath making and in some states the standard has been adjusted to leave it on. Culturally speaking it is best to remove it.

Hand pruners, hedge trimmers (manual and powered), machete type knifes, pole pruners and other variations of the same. I have tried power trimmers but find them noisy, heavy, smelly and overall uncompromising to the natural character of the tree. A knife in my right hand and a hand pruner in my left hand is my personal choice. A tree can be sheared in this manner in one minute or less unless a great deal of corrective pruning is necessary. Note: Leg chaps and gripping type gloves must be worn.

Shearing is a tedious job but can be very satisfying in that over a few years you can chart the trees response to your actions and realize just how manipulating you can be to get your desired results.

A common question is how many trees should I plant? The answer is no more than my spouse can shear. Keeping it in the family is a great concept but as a tree farm becomes larger it is usually necessary to hire some outside labor.

A most satisfying reply to "do you have your shearing done yet?" ..."Yes...yes my shearing is done. Boy what a beautiful day!"


A practical approach to all aspects of growing, marketing and retail sales