It is the dream of every ardent Christmas traditionalist: not just to select and decorate the perfect tree but to fell the evergreen yourself. Luckily, Boston is bursting with options—and we’ve made a map of 60 cut-your-own tree farms within an hour of the city. Before you scroll down to it, however, you need to know what you’re getting into. That’s why we checked in with Ed Marsh, owner of Heliotrope Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Ipswich, for tips on what to wear, what to bring, and the benefits of cutting your own Christmas tree.
Boston.com: I have a confession to make. I’ve never cut my own tree before. Do I need an ax or chainsaw?
Ed Marsh: Here’s a news flash: Axes don’t work very well. City folks sometimes come with them, but on the whole they’re not very practical. You make a big mess, you have a mess at the bottom of your tree, it’s very hard to get it in the stand, et cetera. So, it’s often easier to do it with some sort of a saw. And I would say a chainsaw is distinctively better than a hand saw for most of the big trees, though they’re not allowed on some farms. Some of our trees are quite large, so we do tell people they would be well advised to bring a chainsaw.
When you say “big trees,” what do you mean?
Well, I think big is very much in the eye of the beholder, but some of our trees are 30-plus feet. So that would probably be big by most people’s standards.
OK, I’ve packed my chainsaw. What else do I need?
You need to come dressed appropriately. It’s a funny thing about selling Christmas trees, but the weather is often bad. We offered a big discount if people will buy them in July. But we can’t seem to sell very many that way. So we have to go out in the bad weather.
Any horror stories?
We have people who arrive in their ultra-suede coats with fur collars and four-inch heels. That’s generally not a very satisfactory way to try to get around in the wet grass or snow.
What do you recommend?
You know, wearing comfortable clothes is number one, bringing gloves is number two, having a sharp saw is number three. Then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going get it home. So you’ll probably have to have something to tie it down with, like, bungee cord or twine, because it’s inconvenient if it flies off the car in the middle of Route 128. Trees also get dried out very quickly after they’ve been cut. So we suggest that if they’re driving any distance, certainly at any speed, it’s a good idea to have a tarp or something to cover it with so that the wind doesn’t dry it out. If you’re not going to exceed 25 miles an hour, it’s not an issue.
Got it. No heels and bring tarp. What footwear should I wear?
Well, I think any kind of outdoor shoes. They could be L.L. Bean boots, they could be hiking shoes. There are people that come in their wellies (rain boots). Although, if you’ve got to walk a few hundred yards in wellies, sometimes that’s a little more difficult. But, I think, in general, flat waterproof shoes make sense. And it’s kind of an individual choice how you like to do that. Quite a lot of people show up in sneakers nowadays.
How do I know which tree is right for me?
I think you walk around and look. When you find one you like, I think it’s a good find. I mean, isn’t that the way you choose shoes?
Well, yes, but ...
It’s basically the same.
You find one that appeals to you. That’s the nice thing about walking out, is you can see the trees standing up. They look the same standing up in my field as they look standing up in your house. Now, there is one cautionary note, and that is that everything out in the field looks very, very much smaller than it looks when you get it home. So, if you find a tree that looks a nice size and take it home, you are likely to find that you have to vacate the room that you put it in and walk around some other way because many of them are very, very pudgy. They’re quite full.
How do I know what size to choose?
Go taller. It’s always possible to shorten trees. That may be something that’s not intuitively obvious. But, it’s very difficult to lengthen them. If you get home and you decide that you’d like it a little shorter you can always fix that by cutting more off the bottom. If you decide it’s a little too short, that’s awkward.
Do some trees last longer than others?
Well, I think the firs as a rule all last longer than the pines and the spruces. But everything depends on how they’re taken care of. The first few hours when you take a tree home out of the field, they suck up water like it was going out of style. People neglect that, they don’t check on it, and then it dries out. It’s a matter of being attentive to a few details and then being able to enjoy it.
Water. Check. So how old is a typical Christmas tree?
Well, I would say that the usual eight- or nine-footer is about between 8 and 10 years old. They’re about foot tall when they go into the ground and the first year or two they don’t tend to do very much and then they begin to grow a little better.
Why do some trees cost more than others?
At Heliotrope Hill farm, all trees cost $70. Because it makes it easier for me to tell people how much things cost. Otherwise, I’ve got to go out, try to measure each one, bicker with people, and so forth. As it is, I say, “Go to this place, all those trees over there are $70. You can choose any tree you want for $70. It’s doesn’t matter how big or small. Bring it back, pay me $70, and take it home.” White firs, in particular, are trees that to my knowledge nobody else is growing. And there is a certain number of people that absolutely want them and so I could get premium prices for them, if I wanted.
Wait, why would I saw my own Christmas tree when I can buy a pre-cut one?
It beats me. I have no clue. Especially when you can buy one at Home Depot for $29.95.
There must be some appeal.
A certain amount of the experience that people appreciate is the fact that they are doing this themselves. They have this sense in their mind that they’re out in the boonies—and, especially if it’s pouring down rain or snowy—it’s quite challenging. Then they have this tree and they can go home and tell all their friends all of the troubles they went through to get it and how terrific it looks. And their friends feel obligated to agree with them that it’s absolutely the most stupendous tree they ever saw. It’s all part of the experience.
OK, I’m convinced. But has anyone ever encountered wildlife?
Oh, heavens above, yes. There are people who take trees home and the mice come out of the trees when they get them in the house.
You know, it’s country. I think that a Christmas tree lot in Chelsea probably is shaking all the mice out of their trees, but as far as the mice up here are concerned, they’ve got a nice place to live until somebody cuts it all down and takes it home and then they find they’re in a nice warm house and decide to check around.
Gross. What about other types of wildlife?
We have to beat off the deer because they ruin the trees. The coyotes have shown occasionally, but we don’t see too much of them.
What’s the most important advice for extending the life of my tree?
Always keep it in water and keep it out of the sun and wind. But the water is absolutely the key point. And don’t forget to enjoy your tree!