HARRISONBURG — Black Friday doesn’t just kick off the unofficial start of Christmas shopping with a day spent hunting for clothing and electronics. Tree farms around the Shenandoah Valley also were open for business the day after Thanksgiving to usher in the season.
“It’s just not Christmas without a real tree,” said Delmas Ratliff, owner of Ratliff Tree Farm in Timberville.
In 1975, Ratliff’s family began the 10-acre Christmas tree farm at 19101 Ratliff Lane. The farm has 15,000 trees.
“Mainly, we have Canaan firs here, that’s really the only thing we sell. The reason for that is because we used to do white pine and scotch pine and they fell out of favor with the customers because they didn’t hold ornaments as good,” he said. “We started growing these Canaan firs and they do a good job and everybody seems to like them.”
It’s a holiday tradition for many families to go to a tree farm together, walk through the fields in search of the perfect one, cut it down and have the tree shaken out, wrapped and loaded in the car.
“When I was growing up we always cut our own tree and it was always just part of Christmas,” said Laura Wolfe, owner of Evergreen Tree Farm in Keezletown. “It’s not the reason we celebrate Christmas, but it sure is a fun thing that we can do for Christmas.”
Ratliff has seen generations of families who come to the farm each year after Thanksgiving to pick out a tree.
“We’ve seen families when they first started they didn’t have any kids, now their kids have kids,” he said. “We’ve had people who’ve been coming here for 40 years.”
Wolfe said the smell of a fresh tree is a therapeutic experience.
“It’s just nothing like having the experience of a real tree. The smell, being in the fields, harvesting it, just being here at the farm getting your tree — the family fun — hearing the giggles,” she said. “When you look at the whole picture of the experience, you can’t get that with an artificial tree. It’s just a totally different experience.”
Wolfe and her husband, Bobby, purchased the 36-acre Christmas tree farm at 2411 Flook Lane in April last year when the previous owner retired after 40 years in the business. The Wolfes also bought the adjoining 120-acre family farm. Together, Every Soul Acres spreads over 150 acres.
Evergreen Tree Farm operates as “choose and cut.” The farm also has fresh-cut trees available for those who don’t want to cut their own.
They grow six tree species: Canaan, white and Douglas firs, blue and Norway spruces and white pine. Fraser firs were also brought in from other farmers through the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.
The trees range in size from 2 or 3 feet tall — perfect for tabletops — to 13 feet or higher.
“There’s a tree for everyone,” Wolfe said.
The white fir, often called concolor, has a citrus aroma that families tend to love.
“They smell like tangerines. It’s such a fun, unique smell,” she said. “I think industrywide, a Fraser fir is very popular, but the concolor for our farm is extremely popular.”
Wolfe said they last longer than other species because of its greater needle retention. The heavy branch system also makes them ideal for holding ornaments.
The price of the trees vary based on height and the type of tree. The base price is $49 for one that’s 6 to 8 feet tall and $15 is added to each additional foot.
The Wolfes planted 4,000 trees in the spring. While some suffered from root rot because of heavily saturated ground as a result of this year’s wet weather, Wolfe said planting the firs on slopes helps protect the trees.
Ratliff said his trees actually benefited from the extremely wet season, whereas other farmers in the Valley had their crops wiped out.
“Usually, you lose half of what you plant. But this year, probably all of them grew, which is wonderful,” he said. “It worked out pretty good.”
Ratliff’s trees are mostly 6½ to 7 feet tall. The farm offers a flat price of $35.
“One price for any size tree they want,” he said.
Buffy Ostlund, owner of Ostlund Christmas Tree Farm in Singers Glen, said Norway spruce has the quintessential Christmas shape that everybody knows and loves.
“It’s the most popular because it just naturally grows in a beautiful Christmas tree shape,” Ostlund said. “It responds very well to shearing. It has sturdy branches and small needles. It’s just a naturally beautiful tree.”
She said scotch pines resist shearing and white pines may be harder for hanging ornaments.
Ostlund Christmas Tree Farm also grows scotch pine, white pine and Douglas fir. The farm sits on 15 acres at 8050 Sprucedale Drive. The Ostlund family, who planted their first trees in 1986 and began selling in 1993, planted 2,500 trees in the spring.
The trees are priced at $42. The farm mostly sells 6- to 8-foot trees.
While the Ostlund’s offer full service cutting, shaking and netting, the family also welcomes guests with hot chocolate served in the springhouse once they’ve selected their tree. Customers also received a free ornament with each tree, while the children are tasked with finding the hidden candy cane tree. They also have a sled outside for family photos.
“Our whole intent is that you can get a tree almost anywhere, but here you get the whole experience,” she said.
The key to maintaining a real Christmas tree in your home is to make sure it gets enough water.
“The best thing is to keep watering it. If you keep watering it they’ll be fine,” Ratliff said. “You don’t have to put aspirin in it or honey and all this stuff, it doesn’t do a bit of good.”
He also said to make sure you know the height of the ceiling of the room you intend to put the tree in. It’s also important to make sure the tree is away from heat sources to avoid causing fires.
Wrapping the tree before leaving the farm also makes it easier to unload at home.
“We like it to be easy,” Wolfe said. “It’s nice when they’re wrapped when they get home, it’s easier to get in the tree stand and get it in the house if it’s wrapped.”
Ratliff Tree Farm is open every day from 9 a.m. to dark until Christmas. Evergreen Tree Farm is open Thursdays from 1 p.m. to dark and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. until dark. Ostlund Christmas Tree Farm is open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
“If people want to create a tradition with their family that they can repeat every year, cutting your own tree is a wonderful way to start the Christmas season,” Ostlund said.