Tree Farm Life: Planting

This past week I spent a little time at Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John, Kansas.

The farm was started in 1959 by my grandparents, Cecil and Ruby Delp. As you might imagine, Christmas trees were an unusual choice of crop in the sandy central Kansas farmland dominated by wheat, corn, and milo. They still are. Tree farms in Kansas are few and far between. Currently, my brother and his wife own and operate the farm. They both work at the local school, and spend evenings, weekends and breaks making sure things on the farm get done. You can read a little more about the tree farm in this Kansas Living article.

Large tree farms are typically located in relatively cool and damp parts of the country — like the Pacific Northwest and the Upper Midwest. Growing trees in Kansas takes a lot of work, patience and special attention. You don’t just “let them grow.” Each year, trees must be sheared in order to ensure they maintain the shape of a Christmas tree. Growing up, this was my summer job (along with my brothers and several friends). One summer we sheared over 275,000 trees. It was hot, messy (lots of sticky tree sap), and tiring work. In addition, at different times of the year trees must be watered, sprayed with colorant (darkens yellowed needles and serves as a fire retardant), pests (like Tip Moth) must be controlled and the fields must be maintained.

During this week’s visit, it was planting season. My brother received a shipment of tree seedlings from Michigan — Scotch, White, and Austrian Pine as well as Douglas Fir. Spring weather in Kansas is extremely unpredictable, so you have to take advantage of the opportunities you have to get trees in the ground. This year I was able to spend some time helping out and getting a little exercise (enough that I am still sore).

Planting methods vary.

In existing fields, trees are “reset” to replace seedlings that have died, or trees that have been cut. This is a multi-step process and requires a great deal of physical labor. It goes something like this.

  1. Using a tractor and auger, a hole is “drilled” into the ground.
  2. A tree seedling is placed, by hand, in the hole and the surrounding dirt filled in and pressed to ensure the roots are covered and the tree is straight.
  3. Then, someone working with a spade (sharpshooter), presses in the soil around the tree. A worker does this by “biting off” about an inch of soil (blade deep) at the edge of the original hole and pushing this soil toward the tree — packing it against the roots. This process is repeated three to four times for each tree to ensure that it is firmly set and the roots are covered. Note: this was my job for an afternoon. It’s not easy for an old guy.
  4. Finally, bucket loads of dirt are moved through the field, using a tractor, while a couple people shovel extra soil around the tree to fill in holes and ensure the tree is standing straight.

The other method used to plant new fields is using a tractor and specially designed planter. The planter has a plow that is used to cut a furrow in the earth, a seat for the person planting, two tires, four spots designed to hold five gallon buckets of trees, and two “presser” wheels that are angled inward so that they push dirt back into the furrow to hold the tree in place.

After rows are marked off, one person takes a seat on the planter. The tractor driver must steer straight and ensure that the plow blade runs at the appropriate depth. As the tractor moves forward, the person planting places one tree at a time (green side up) into the furrow, holding it at a slight angle toward the back of the planter until the presser wheels begin to push dirt in around the tree. In order to ensure that the trees are spaced appropriately, the person planting the trees watches the inside of the planter wheel which is marked, indicating the appropriate time to place the next tree. It takes a bit of muscle memory to get good at it, but with practice it can be done with efficiency. As trees are set using the planter, several people follow behind — packing in the dirt around the trees and ensuring they are straight.

The video illustrates the process — my brother (Joel) is planting and my dad is driving the tractor. Note that Joel is looking at the inside of the wheel so that he knows when to place the next tree.

As previously mentioned, planting is just one of many significant tasks required in successful Christmas tree farming. In about a day and a half we set approximately two-thousand trees using both methods. Sounds like a lot, however, when my granddad started the farm in 1959, he, my dad and my uncle set 10,500 trees in the first year.

That is a lot of trees.

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