Flying trees

I live among Christmas tree farms.

Christmas trees in the fieldI took this photo today, looking north from our property.

The trees in our neighborhood are native Douglas Fir trees, and once every year they are “sheared” with machetes, which make a whoosh! sound that is quite distinctive. The workers move over the field, swinging machetes against the trees, slicing smooth all the surfaces to create a perfect cone. (Some farms in other places grow varieties that don’t get sheared, like Noble Fir or White Fir…)

Several times a year the fields by us are sprayed. Usually the sprays are administered by crop-duster planes or helicopters, swooping low. It’s very exciting, like an air show. But often there is a breeze blowing our way, and drift occurs.

Some of the sprays contain herbicide, to kill all grass and weeds in the field. (I keep thinking there must be an alternative. Chickens maybe. Or mowers.)

The drift from herbicide spray sometimes kills leaves on our roses, raspberries, rhubarb, maples…It happens in the spring, when the plants are growing and new and I am so enjoying the gardens.

woodruff damageThe herbicide drift shows up here and there. I took these photos on June 1 of this year. These Sweet Woodruff plantings were both in my garden, near one another.

Lupine spray damageThese two lupines grow about 3 feet apart.

Of course I can’t know for certain without testing, but the sporadic damage shown in the images (and there were other affected plants) appeared soon after an aerial spraying of the trees.

Once, years ago, we were over-sprayed so severely that we filed a lawsuit.

I think it was someone from the Department of Environmental Quality who came and collected samples from the plants. They determined that the drifted spray material was indeed present, and after about a year we recovered enough to pay our legal costs. But all we wanted was for the over-spray to stop, and that farm owner DID stop doing aerial applications near us. But then the farm sold to a new owner.

helicopterThe trees are harvested in November, then trucked or otherwise shipped all over the country.  Helicopters are used to move huge bundles of them from the field, as shown here.  (The bundle of trees is suspended below, at the end of a long rope.)  Today the helicopter in the photograph flew most of the afternoon.

Now, to me it seems like you would need to use tape, or maybe glue, to attach Christmas ornaments to the sheared trees. Because of where we live, when we want a Christmas tree we are able find some retired sheep farmer or other guy who has a couple acres of trees he grows for a little holiday money, trees which are not sprayed and not sheared.

We hike around the field with Max and maybe with the farmer’s dog too and Mr. O gets all muddy cutting the tree with a hand-saw, and then we carry it out of the field and take it home in the truck.  But I know not everyone can do that.

Max and treeI tried having a live Christmas tree one year. It grew in a huge pot and after the holiday we planted it outside — and it died. But I know some people who had a live tree every year through all the years of their children growing up. And every year, after the holidays, they planted the trees in their city lot and now they have a beautiful shady urban forest around their house.

I do think a Christmas tree farm sounds fun, like a lollipop bush or a chocolate factory.  Happily, there is an increased demand for organically grown trees.

Really I love Christmas and it’s many traditions. Maybe, if I am very very good, Santa will make our neighboring farms go organic.

Or possibly they could grow turnips instead.


About linniew

Unpublished novelist seeks therapy in gardening. Westie assists.
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28 Responses to Flying trees

  1. Holleygarden says:

    I never knew Christmas tree farms were sprayed! I never heard of this, although I’ve lived by some farms, but not next to one, like you, so maybe I just missed it. I would think the trees would grow much faster without all the herbicides being sprayed on them. I also think the weeds and such would eventually die from lack of sun, and wouldn’t affect the trees’ growth. I see no need to spray. I would be very upset if my neighbor were spraying herbicides close enough to drift on my property. Thanks for educating us. I will be much more aware when I go to get my Christmas tree now.

    • linniew says:

      Hi Holley
      The herbicide doesn’t seem to hurt the trees, but it kills the grass and weeds below–the trees never get big enough and crowded enough to block the light from the ground and kill undergrowth that way. Sometimes large unsold trees are cut and burned in piles to make room for new seedlings. The seedling trees are planted by machines… It’s just not a hobbit sort of industry at all I’m afraid.

  2. Trouble is – you can’t hang many decorations on a turnip.

  3. We haven’t had a Christmas tree for years! We put up some holly (not sprayed) and a couple of wreaths and a few candles. Are you suggesting that we use a neep (turnip) instead? I can see us explaining that great Scottish tradition to one of our friends who comes over from Tokyo for the Festive season….

    I used to try to do things organically with the garden in Orkney. But all the neighbouring Farmers sprayed everything several times through the growing season and it does drift. It must be especially if the spraying is dome from planes. Have you no right to complain?

    • linniew says:

      The only recourse to the overspray that I know of is the long process we went through years ago. It sounds like you live it too. At least some years are better than others.

      I could be happy with just fragrant evergreen boughs for holidays, I’m sure. But the grown children come home for Christmas, so I can’t quite give up on a tree. But yes Janet, it is time for you to embrace the age-old new tradition of decorating a neep. (The Japanese do this with pomegranates– Not really.) It will need some glitter certainly. Maybe a candle? I love candles. Must be a way to do this… And I bet fields of turnips don’t need no dumb spray.

  4. It’s awful. And it’s not as if the trees could not grow without the spray.

    We buy our Christmas trees in pots when they are moderately small and bring them in and out each Christmas (still in their pots – or potted-on pots) until they are too big to move. Until now, we have had Norway pines. Last year we replaced the last with a Blue Spruce. It smells good.

    If people knew there was herbicide on their Christmas trees, I doubt they would be keen to bring them into their homes – though these look big. Do they go to shops and shopping malls?

    • linniew says:

      Of course trees grow everywhere (my garden for instance) without spray. I expect killing the grass etc facilitates harvest. Hopefully the herbicide is long rained-off by the time November arrives. Or maybe it’s responsible for millions of houseplants dying after Christmas…

      I think a live tree is a terrific idea. I have some tiny ones in pots. Maybe I will keep potting them up and bring them in some year and try it again.

      The trees harvested here go all over the US. I really don’t know how they are marketed, but in December here they are sold on lots, in nurseries, at farms and everywhere. The shipped ones are cut so early, I wonder they don’t drop all their needles by Dec. 25th.

  5. Bridget says:

    So horrible to have to put up with this pollution of your land. Hope this will make people think about the tree the bring into their homes…and the hidden price some folks must pay.

  6. The farm where I am at daily is a Christmas tree farm during the holidays where people come to cut their trees. The Jamaican workers also use machetes that they are allowed to bring from Jamaica to trim and shape the trees. I know the sound you are talking about.

  7. Grace says:

    I went to Jamaica too. Beautiful but sad. And speaking of sad, it’s a shame that the owners of the neighboring tree farm can’t be a little more innovative. Maybe while the workers are sheering the trees they could whack back the taller weeds too. How hard could that be? Think of the saved fuel and crop duster-rental costs. Duh. It doesn’t take rocket science.

  8. Roberta says:

    The herbicide drift sounds awful. For one, the herbicide and two, I imagine the sound of the plane overhead buzzing and buzzing.

    We’ve gone the way of the artificial tree, lights attached and all. You can buy them that way now. It’s just the two of us, we put up our little 30″ specimen and decorate. The real holiday fun is putting the lights up outside. I think it’s one of my favorite holiday activities.

    • linniew says:

      It’s true, the helicopter reminds me of a war movie. And you know I love lights! Like in the Chevy Chase movie, Christmas Vacation? No I bet the whole town doesn’t go dark when you flip the switch.

  9. b-a-g says:

    Linnie – I hope your orchard doesn’t get affected by the spraying. (I have a soft spot for your lopsided pear tree.) I love the idea of gathering the family together to fetch the Xmas tree.

    • linniew says:

      Sometimes trees are damaged. We lost a lot of the leaves on maples one year. But the damage is never fatal, and some plants recover later in the season. (The woodruff didn’t). I don’t remember fruit tree damage ever.

  10. Fay says:

    I had no idea either – we don’t spray our biomass crops – although if we wanted more wood and less weeds I guess we would but it defeats the purpose of sustainability I guess.

    Poor trees – are umbrellas the solution – to guard against the nasty spray or an all in one plastic suit?

    I’m being a bit glib as I don’t feel spraying for an ormanmental tree is very appropriate under any circumstances – therefore I’m offering a comedy science solution.

    Hangs head in shame at ‘agro-forestry’ industry’s need for ‘perfect trees’

    Peedie concurrs

    • linniew says:

      Thanks for the supportive perspectives Fay, and Peedie too. I do appreciate everyone putting up with my whine here. Hopefully next year the wind gods will save us!

  11. Indie says:

    Wow, I never thought about the use of herbicides on Christmas trees! It seems so unnecessary! That is so sad that you get some of the drift, as well.

    How you get your Christmas tree every year reminds me of when I was a kid and we had just forest behind us. Several times we just went in our back yard and cut down a little pine for a tree. How things have changed!

    • linniew says:

      Hi Indie
      I agree– fir trees hardly need chemicals in Oregon. I liked your story of cutting trees in the forest. When I was a child we would walk up the hill behind our house. It was a long narrow 18 acres that my parents owned, and we could always find a Douglas Fir up there for Christmas. Once I walked into a leafless winter vine of poison oak– It was an itchy December.

  12. Sheila says:

    Reading about the herbicide drift makes me ill – and angry. But what can you do – move away? For years we have decked our giant ficus tree with Christmas lights and a few (lightweight) ornaments. It’s festive, if a little strange for traditionalists. Last year when our 2-year-old grandson was coming, we reverted and bought a real, dead Christmas tree. We did find an organic one at Whole Foods. After reading your story, I think we’ll have a tropical Christmas again!

    • linniew says:

      Hi Sheila
      I think even lights over a doorway make a party. But I do love the evergreen presence. Mr.O always waits until December to prune up the garden trees so I can bring in the boughs- fir and pine and cedar.

      Seems like an organic tree is a great plan. I read that some careful tree growers leave the stumps in the ground because they quickly regrow a new tree. So in that case you aren’t even using a dead tree, more like a pruning. But I do know lots of people use houseplants as a tree. Mr O’s grandfather was an early environmentalist and he used a rubber plant. (I’d like a ficus tree better.)

  13. Alistair says:

    Linnie, I am not exactly over the top regarding environmental issues, but spraying Christmas trees seems very wrong. Oh yes turnip has its place in Christmas. You cant make a good pot of broth without the use of neeps. Cut them into big chunks add to the soup pot with all the other ingredients, flavours the soup nicely, then have it mashed and serve along with all the other goodies in the main course. Myra! get out the soup pan—get it yersel.

    • linniew says:

      Yes Alistair, I am starting to understand, and I very much appreciate all your culinary input on neeps. Please stay tuned for my official Turnip blog post. And do share the soup with Myra.

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