Where Christmas Trees Are Born

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Workers follow the vintage John Deere tractor lifting some of the hundreds of thousands of seedlings that are sold each year.

I’m sorting and counting Christmas tree seedlings and now have 25 stellar ones to make up a complete bundle. Starting the next bundle, I pull a seedling from the overflowing bins and check to make sure it meets the criteria. The seedling is the correct species and age but is borderline for length and looks a little wussy, so it gets tossed into the cull pile, condemned to become compost instead of a future shimmering Christmas tree. I’m at the New Hampshire State Forest Nursery in Boscawen, and we are filling orders for tens of thousands of Christmas tree seedlings from professional growers all over New England. We are also filling orders for landowners purchasing a small number of trees for privacy border, windbreak, landscaping, or perhaps growing a few Christmas trees for their family.  

This time of year, it is not uncommon to see truckloads of Christmas trees headed south on the interstate bound for sale at pop-up stands on town commons or in store parking lots. The more ambitious tree hunter might seek out their tree from a cut-your-own farm where mini-forests of perfect, plain and Charlie Brown trees line up hoping to be chosen. All of these Christmas trees started from a humble seed, and likely at this nursery. This nursery grows roughly three million seedlings on 16 acres of seedbeds and sells 200,000 to 300,000 Christmas tree seedlings every year. Fifty different species are raised here. There are an additional 20 acres dedicated to seed orchards and testing areas. So, if you’ve ever wondered where Christmas trees come from … this is the place. 

My day started following a vintage John Deere tractor pulling a “lifter” down a row of 3-year-old red spruce seedlings. The seedlings are about 8 to 10 inches tall, and we picked 3,000 of them in half an hour. In addition to the red spruce, by lunchtime we had also lifted red pine, balsam, fraser fir, hemlock and concolor fir seedlings. Balsam is the most in demand species by Christmas tree growers this year, and we pick 12,000 of them. Concolor fir trees are a new variety gaining in popularity but not yet in high demand, so we need only 700 to fill the order. 

The lifter straddles the row of trees, scoops beneath them, lifts them out of the ground and deposits them onto a vibrating rack.

The rack shakes off all the dirt before spitting the seedling back out onto the ground. Field crew, including me, pick up the seedlings and untangle their interwoven root systems. The separated seedlings are then deposited into bins. Nearby native trees have spread their seeds on the wind, and hemlock and larch have mixed in with the spruce. This free-range hemlock and larch are also offered for sale, so we put them aside in different bins. There are six of us chasing the lifter, sorting the seedlings and loading them into bins. Two more carry the full bins to a pickup and drive them down the hill to the counting house. Somehow, those two manage to return with empty bins every time the six of us envision a break because our bins are full.  


Nursery staff Billy Kuneluis in the drying room where the seeds are separated.

The work is dirty and bend-over tiring, but the camaraderie is warm and fuzzy. As we work, fishing stories and deer hunting tales are told. Magically, the fish grow longer and the deer gain weight with each successive story. A tin of homemade chocolate chip cookies appears, and the cookies quickly vanish. The weather is gray and dreary, the wind is cold, and occasionally light rain sprinkles us. This is ideal weather for lifting tree seedlings. If it were warmer or sunnier, the roots would be prone to drying out, leading to a higher transplant mortality. While it may not be ideal weather for the workers, neither humans nor seedlings are complaining.

After warming up and lunch, and with all the bins now bursting with tiny trees, we stop lifting and transition to counting. The six people lifting in the field have gotten ahead of the 20 people busy in the counting room. Counters are a dedicated mixture of full-time regular employees, seasonal employees, part-time employees and volunteers. The urge to get dirty is strong, and it attracts volunteer gardeners, foresters and retired nursery employees who can’t resist the call and return every year to help with the seasonal rush. 

In the counting house, the seedlings are sorted, pruned, counted, watered, bundled and bagged. The bags are sewn shut and put into cold storage. I try my hand at sewing up a bag containing 200 seedlings and, although it looks easy, I ruin the bag on my first couple of attempts. Then I discover my instructor was left-handed and this is a right-handed machine. Although I’m right-handed, I was attempting it mirror image. A seasoned right-handed employee then zips the bags closed perfectly, seemingly without effort. When I model his example, I stop ruining bags. He tells me of a first-time purchaser who showed up with a U-Haul truck anticipating filling it with his order of 100 trees, only to be handed a bag the size of a pillow containing his entire purchase.

Seedling sales generally run from mid-April to mid-May, but orders are taken as soon as the catalogs are mailed out in December. All orders are filled to the extent possible, but sometimes weather and growing conditions aren’t cooperative, and the available supply doesn’t meet the demand. Last year, the balsam and fraser fir seedlings sold out by early January. Other sources for Christmas tree seedlings are limited, and local growers like the stock produced at this nursery as it is native seed, not imported or transplanted from other sources, and therefore it is well adapted to the New Hampshire climate.  

If you celebrate the holidays with a locally grown tree in your home, the chances are pretty good that it started life at this nursery. In 10 or 15 years, your tree may be one that I lifted or counted today. In 30 or 40 years, perhaps one of my lifted and counted tiny seedlings will be the star of the White House tree lighting ceremony. I better quit dreaming and get back to filling bundles. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 

The nursery facility and seedling sales are administered by the NH Division of Forests and Lands, which is part of the NH Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. For more information, including how to be added to the catalog mailing list, visit nh.gov/nhnursery.

Categories: What Do You Know