Persistent questions about growing Christmas trees

One of my favorite sketches in the old Garrison Keillor radio show was "Guy Noir, Private Eye" and his search to find answers to “life’s persistent questions.” While I will never have Keillor’s knack for humor, I’d like to offer some tips about finding answers to persistent questions that come up with growing Christmas trees.

Over my four decades in Extension, I’ve been asked thousands of questions about forestry or Christmas trees. I most certainly have not answered these all correctly but I try. Generally, I can classify these into three types of questions: what, how and where.

The “what” questions include: “What is killing my trees?” “What is causing my trees to look so yellow?” “What should I spray to control the grass?”

These types of questions often lead to a series of related questions — in the same vein as a detective trying to solve a mystery. For example, the common question of “What’s killing my tree?” The flippant answer is water, either too much or too little. But to really get the correct answer, a great deal of time needs to be spent in careful observation.

Observations should include information on the pattern and timing of mortality, what symptoms could be observed and what the roots look like. Ask questions like: "What has happened in the area around the trees?" And "What have the weather patterns been for short- and long-term?" Too often, I get a photo of a dead tree with the question "What killed my tree?" In this case, the default answer is still water.

If you don’t spend the time with these detective-like questions, chances are you will not solve the true mystery. And if you reach the wrong answer to “what,” you likely will waste money and time solving the wrong mystery.

The “how” questions typically are something like, “How do you shear Christmas trees?” Or “How do you take a soil sample?” These are questions I will often push back on and ask the callers to do more of their own research. My initial answer is to try and address the caller’s immediate question. I will ask the caller to further investigate the problem and learn more than the immediate answer to the posed question.

For example, it is fairly straightforward to answer “How do you take a soil sample?” But invariably that answer is only a small part of the bigger questions involving items like how to interpret the results of a soil sample or how to add the needed nutrients, if any. So, my answer to the “how” question is typically that you need to read the Christmas Tree Nutrient Management Guide cover to cover twice and memorize Table 3 (just kidding), then call me back.

The “where” questions are perhaps the easiest, assuming there is a list or set of names available. A typical question here is, “Where can I get seedlings?” Or “Where can you send a foliar sample?” If available, I can provide a list of nurseries or a list of labs that offer special services. One thing I try not to do is offer only one name or say something like, "So-and-so is the best contractor.” So, I avoid endorsements since they certainly could be wrong, and the other service providers get very cranky if they are excluded.

A place that I would suggest growers look at to find “answers to life’s persistent Christmas tree questions” is my website.

Certainly not every question is answered here but that will lead you to other places to find information, and those will bring you to other suggestions and so on. And don’t neglect asking your neighbor tree farmer. Perhaps they have had the same question.

So back to my tips. The most important one would be, do your investigative work, look at all the factors and you may see the bigger picture, and find the answer. I’m always happy to assist if needed though!

Previously titled
Christmas Tree Updates: Finding the Answer

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