My earliest Christmas-tree memories are not of candy canes or twinkling lights, but of cold knuckles and snow boots. Always, in the first week of December, our family would tromp out through the early-winter cold to the farthest corners of a Christmas-tree farm in search of the perfect specimen. Papa Kelly was a big fan of "roof scrapers," something we'd have to trim just to stand it up straight. But since moving to San Diego, I've been contenting myself with lot trees, mostly out of convenience. I never seem to plan ahead for that trek to the tree farm. This year, I decided to revive the tradition. This year, the Kelly clan will take saw in hand."We grow the Monterey pine," said Richard Gass, owner of Family Christmas Tree Farm in El Cajon (619-448-5331; www.cachristmas.com/familychristmastreefarm ). "It's the tree of choice for choose-and-cut farms in Southern California. It's basically the only tree we can grow that looks nice -- it's a dark green, and it holds its needles really well. It's like a cut flower -- if you take it home right away and put it in water, it'll stay fresh right through to January."
Growing a Monterey Pine into a decent-sized Christmas tree "takes approximately five to six years," said Gass. "That will give you a six- to seven-foot tree. We plant them from what we call bare root, or seedling. In the first year, we'll do some top pruning to maintain the top. In successive years, the top pruning has to be done monthly. All pines are just pines until they are shaped into Christmas trees. We have to do a lot of side shearing. I use a knife because it gives a nice, clean shape. Other people use hedge clippers or power clippers, but I like the knife. It looks like a long bread knife; you have to swing from top to bottom to make a nice, clean cut on the young growth. I walk through at least once a month." While he's walking the lot and pruning, Gass can make assessments about water and pests -- his chief enemies are the pine tit moth and mites (the latter suck chlorophyll out of the needles, taking the green out of evergreen).
The average price for choose-and-cut trees, said Gass, "is $40 to $50 . The tags are on the trees; they go from $29 all the way up to $200 for the really tall ones. We provide the bow saw -- I try to keep them sharp. You go out there, get on your knees, and hack away -- it doesn't take very long. The average tree weights 20 to 25 pounds; two people can handle it. You bring it to us, and we shake it to drop out any dead needles or lizards that are in it. Then we can net it for you, and if you'll be putting it in water within an hour, we'll re-cut the butt." (Otherwise, Gass advises re-cutting the butt yourself before watering the tree.) "And we can also do a flame-retarding. We spray a salt on the tree that will keep flame from spreading. But your best bet is to keep the tree moist, keep it green. That way, it won't burn. Keep the water level above the bottom of the tree."
Gass also carries a large selection of potted trees. "They're grown in Escondido, up on the east end of Highland Valley Road. I have Monterey pine; it'll last about 20 years in Southern California. I carry an Aleppo, which is more of an open-top tree, kind of wispy. It grows well in San Diego County, all the way out into the desert. I have an Italian stone pine; they've been around for eons. In Italy, it's called an umbrella pine, because of its flat top. Next, I've got the deodar cedar, which is called the California Christmas tree. It's bluish-gray, with a short needle. The Eldarica pine is a good desert pine, but it leaks sap and gets a sort of white spittle on it -- some people don't like that. The Leylandi cypress is very bushy. Potted trees are nice for someone to use as a Christmas tree and then plant or give to the parks. I Love a Clean San Diego has a program for donating potted trees after Christmas. And I have blue and green spruce, which are short-needled and prickly, but they're brought in for people who live in higher elevations or on the coast. They don't like the heat." And the festive-minded herb gardener can get a rosemary bush pruned into the classic Christmas shape. Prices on all the potted trees vary by size. "I have the Aleppo in six-inch containers starting at $10 and also in 5-gallon and 15-gallon pots. A three- to four-foot tree is going to cost $30 ; a four-to-five foot tree will be $40 to $50 ; a six- to seven-foot tree will be around $100 . We'll give you a care sheet when you take one home."
Maximum convenience, of course, comes from the cut trees. "The noble fir is probably the most popular, but we also have the Douglas fir, the grand fir, the Nordman fir, and the Frasier fir. They're all short-needled. The Noble is unique because it's so layered; it's good for displaying ornaments. The Douglas is denser and dark green, while the Frasier's needles are silvery. The grand fir is silver-green as well, with longer needles -- about an inch -- that smell lemony when you squeeze them." Cut firs range from $29 to $100 , depending on size and kind.
The Family Christmas Tree Farm is open through December 23 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Gass noted that the lot is not spot-lit, so customers looking to cut their own should consider the early darkness in planning their visit.