"I am extremely picky,” says Teresa Millner with a smile. “I know just what a tree should look like.”
As a second-generation co-owner of The Planter Box, a family-run nursery and garden center located in Long Beach, Wash., Millner has seen her share of exquisite shrubbery. And this year, as always, offering a wealth of knowledge on all things evergreen, she stands ready to assist her customers as they engage in one of the best-loved pursuits of the holiday season: the quest for the perfect Christmas tree.
“We have four varieties this year: Grand, Noble, Shasta and Douglas – all firs. The Douglas is the most affordable and the Grand the most fragrant, but our bestseller,” Millner says, “is the Noble.” Hand-selected from a farm in the rolling highlands of southwest Washington, the trees are freshly cut and carefully transported, with the first batch arriving the day after Thanksgiving, just in time for the earliest of shoppers.
Americans have been buying their Christmas trees commercially since 1851, when the first tree lot opened in New York City. In those days, trees were harvested from forests without a thought to sustainability, leading to an eventual decimation of the natural evergreens. But today, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, of the 30 million trees that will be sold this year, almost all will come from Christmas tree plantations like the one sourced by The Planter Box.
“It’s now a very green industry,” Millner says, no pun intended. “Christmas trees don’t require heavy chemicals and growers replant to renew what they sell. Also, since we live in prime tree-growing country, the purchase of a real tree supports our local economy. It’s very appealing.” Statistics from the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association concur: Christmas trees absorb harmful greenhouse gases, provide loads of fresh oxygen, and, unlike their artificial lookalikes, are both recyclable and biodegradable. Additionally, of the 350,000 acres of Christmas trees planted in the U.S., responsible farms in Oregon and Washington make up almost one-third. For fresh-tree enthusiasts here in the Columbia-Pacific, that’s all the encouragement they need.
“This year, I’m going for petite,” says Marti Gilland, standing with her husband and two teenage sons at the foot of Saddle Mountain, amid acres of firs at the Noble Ridge Christmas Tree Farm, just 12 miles outside of Astoria. Like most, she has a running list of criteria for the tree that will become the decorative centerpiece of her family’s holiday season: Not too bushy, nor too “straggly”; vivid, striking green needles; “and I like it to be nice all the way around, even if one side is going against the wall. I just want it,” she grins, “well, I just want it perfect.”
“Everybody has to have the perfect tree,” laughs Joe Funari, owner of the Noble Ridge farm, “and everybody’s perfect tree is different. The best part is, they always find it.” Funari, who has owned the choose-and-cut farm for six years, believes, like Millner, that the appeal of a fresh Christmas tree is returning. “We see more and more people up here every year,” he says. “They bring the kids; they drink some hot chocolate; they cut a tree and make a memory.”
Some families, like the Gillands, have been coming to cut their own tree for years, making the trek to the 87-acre farm a tradition. Others, like Erin Knick and Tim Harrell, are newcomers. “We’ve both always had artificial trees, so I guess we’re crossing over from the other side,” says Harrell. “Since this is our first tree together,” adds Knick, “we wanted it to be special.”
Lucky for them, that’s just what a fresh Christmas tree is all about. Because whether you buy from your trusted local nursery, at a lot sponsored by a nonprofit service club, or from a choose-and-cut farm on the outskirts of town, what you’re really taking home is more than a tree. It’s a fragrant, age-old symbol of participation in the season – a marker for another year gone by, a beacon for the hopeful one ahead. It’s the gift of time spent with loved ones on a light-hearted quest for perfection that can only end in success. It’s quite a lot of effort, but it’s quite a lot of joy. After all, it’s a fresh Christmas tree – an experience that just won’t fit in a cardboard box.