For those of you who don’t know, being a Christmas tree grower is unique. You plant from seedlings and your harvest comes IN SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS!
Mr. B and I took the appropriate two to three weeks to recoil from our intense Christmas Tree Farm selling season. It was a wonderful season in terms of familiar faces and astounding numbers of new families who came out to Fort Osage Christmas! If I had a single drop of energy and time to spare, it would be enlightening to share some stories from “from the trenches” in the midst of it all, but last check I had no viable solutions for breathing space during our “crunch time” of the year.
The catalyst for all the huff and puff this year was indeed our massive loss of Scotch pine trees. Mr. B had already had his fill of the finicky variety and stopped planting the “she devil” of pines over four years ago. Up until this time the Scotch had behaved and been the majority of our inventory, like most other farms in Missouri. The European Scotch Pine is a foreigner to Missouri, even North America, it hails from Scotland where it is the national tree (called a Scots Pine).
This foreigner needs to pack it up and head back to the land of bagpipes, haggis and whiskey.
What we’ve learned from our experience, the Missouri Department of Conservation and from our other Christmas tree growers: You might get a decade of healthy scotches, then disease develops. And like a rebellious teenager the problems started three or four years ago with ours, and that variety has outstayed its welcome on our farm.
The first “acting out” from the scotches began on a beautiful mild and sunny day. Many of the tasks on the farm fall out of my range of . . . expertise, but sadly mowing has not. Important considerations must be taken. My penchant for preserving my skin and complexion requires white long sleeved cotton button down over my tank top, and long pants and tennis shoes. Then my hat needs to have a wide enough brim to cover not only my face, but the back of my neck. Then lastly I wear gloves so the top of my hands won’t take the fast track to freckling. (Positive spin on the words age spots) I wear a 50 SPF on anything exposed. I always wear lipstick, and when I do the final check in the mirror I have to take a few moments for the pep talk I will need after seeing my “farm hand” image. The promise of the rows of beautiful pine trees, fresh air and white clouds against blue skies usually does the trick.
After rows and rows, then more rows and rows of the same thing, the mind can wander. I have to tell you this is where several of my story lines have developed. Besides the occasional shock and furious swatting surrounding unusual insects that might land on me, my imagination is enough to keep me entertained.
Was that a figure lurking from behind one of the trees? What would happen if I came upon a crime scene and when I returned with authorities, the scene was nowhere to be found? Could the lost Union payroll from the civil war be in this exact location, perhaps lying under the tires of my zero degree mower?
When my body has been shimmied and shaken for miles, and the sun is low on the horizon, I can hang up my sun hat and call it a day. Mr. B comes into the house after a little inspection.
Mr. B: Honey couldn’t you see this all over the trees?” Mr. B proceeds to take me out to the trees and show me.
Me: Um . . . what is that?
Mr. B: It’s a scale infestation, it’s everywhere!
Me: I didn’t see anything like that, honey.
Since this pest problem Mr. B has retired from teaching school and coaching high school wrestling, so now he is on site to catch any potential problems, whew! Here is a picture of what he was seeing magnified . . .
Me: I had some weird things that landed on me, but that’s it.
Mr. B goes into crisis mode to save our inventory, our future from the clutches of the enemy. I’m left scratching my head . . .
How a man who can’t find the cinnamon in the pantry, his black belt hanging in the closet or fail to notice the blaring words “sugar free” on cookies in the supermarket, notice this tiny predator?
The next several weeks would bring the chemical guru, and mad dashes of spraying the scotches…that season we lost a few hundred… Why is the scale so hard to kill you may ask? Apparently they can only be sprayed during a specific stage of infestation, before they form a hard shell protecting themselves. If you spray after the shell is there, you are wasting your time and money.
I informed my husband that he would not be able to depend on me to monitor the health of the trees, thank you kindly.
The next few years would bring a similar scenario, except we would have a different variety of scale to contend with (different look, and treatment) This new particular kind of scale would suck large quantities of sap from the tree, and because the insect can’t completely utilize all the nutrients in this large volume of fluid, it uses what it needs and excretes the rest as “honeydew”… which quickly becomes a sooty mold and the sweet black mess attracts flies and lots of bees. The soot is the “aftermath” of the infestation, and can remain when the predator has been eliminated. It is harmless but makes it is hard for the tree to survive covered in the gunk.
Another visit from the chemical guru, conservation guys, Missouri Dept. of Ag we were advised to try and remove any of the soot that we could. We were informed that spraying water with a mild solution of dawn detergent might save some of the trees.
It was a very soggy experience around here. You can imagine the water bill. The familiar scene of an industrial sized bottle of dawn next to the water spout near our barn welcomed me each time I came home for a few weeks. We lost hundreds of trees but were able to stop the insect….that time.
Before the next disastrous infestation of scale, we learned about the Lindorus beetle a scale predator! They EAT scale!
Would they be wearing little red capes and have “L” on their chest?
Mr. B: I will contact the bug farm and order some.
Bug farm? Things could be worse!
Out of all the things you can shop for on line, this has to be one of the most disappointing
Mr. B: You release the beetles on the trees and they multiply….you are supposed to put 10-15 on a tree after dark.
I don’t want to be involved in handling beetles for obvious reasons
How do you count out a bunch of moving bugs….ask them to choose teams?
If you are supposed to do it at night, how can see what you are doing? Or is this suggestion so the critters can’t follow you back in the house?
He comes in later with a smile of satisfaction. Supposedly the Lindorus Beetles multiply very quickly and live until the next frost. All summer long they devour their favorite food, scale. They are harmless to the trees and all nature. And fortunately they did the job!
They should, they cost a pretty penny!
Of course the next obvious comment from my entrepreneurial husband . . .
Mr. B: I think we should breed these Lindorus beetles ourselves! They have to be kept in a dark place and if fed they multiply. We could put them in aquariums in our storage area under the stairs.
Me: Ummm . . NO! That is what we have Orkin for! We have enough challenges keeping pest OUT of our house!
The last portion of my Scotch pine saga is a chapter called “brown spot”…
Christmas trees must be sheared and pruned individually at the end of their growing season, here it’s early summer. After the growing season they could star in a Dr. Suess story with their wiggly and squiggly tentacles growing out of control. About 12 inches of the new growth must be removed for the tree to have the kind of shape and spacing expected of traditional Christmas trees. The task would be no big deal if you had a handful of trees, but when you have 10,000 trees, the shearing season stops life as you know it. (A story for another time!)
When the shearing was completed this past season, we breathed a sigh of relief. But soon we saw real problems forming. The bottom branches of many of the Scotch pine trees were brown. There were so many that had this brown that I didn’t want to mention it to Mr. B. I was hoping the wet spring might be the culprit (27 inches out here last spring) and the trees would snap out of it. but soon the brown crept higher on thousands of trees. We had another major problem, but this one was not so easily identified, and was not a predator that we could see.
We would be opening our doors for our busy season on Nov. 1st and the stress was moving from our feet upward just like the brown branches of our scotch pines. Enter chemical guru, Missouri Dept. of Ag, and University of Missouri Extension office, and conservation people. Two independent labs confirmed we had “brown spot”.
This scientific lab calls it this? Yup, already knew that!
This is a fungus that forms on the tree roots in wet soil. The entire tree can be consumed and the spores can go airborne and infect other trees. We would be the poster child of those exact particulars.
Our infected trees turned brown from root to tip top. I think Mr. B was in mourning for several weeks. But that would only be the first portion of a big problem. How would he be able to remove these trees before opening? Cut each down with chainsaw? That lasted about a week, after a dozen trips to sharpen the blades and not even a small portion of removal accomplished. Next he would run them over with his bobcat….effective but left a “war zone” look, and a big stump problem. Finally he rented a “fork” attachment for his bobcat and was able to pull them out by the roots.
In two days he was able to remove 1000’s of dead trees. The next hurdle would be burning them without burning down the entire corner of our county. We would need a burn permit and so it goes. Day after day Mr. B and a friend pulled them up from the roots, loaded them on a trailer and then burned. The two men would come in for lunch hungry and sooty….I think having a buddy took some of the horror out of what we were doing. At the end of the painful experience, they uprooted, loaded and then burned 8,000 of our 10,000 trees and we still had our whole season in front of us. Trust me people, you need to be rested and at the top of your game prior to the intensity of the season, so it was not an easy way to start. Mr. B did not want our loyal customers to wonder what happened when they came to find so many blank spaces, so sparse from last season. So he set a goal to replant about 800 White pines, another big undertaking.
We managed to prepare for our season and serve the 5000 visitors we had to our family Christmas tree farm. Mr. B reminds me and the rest of the family: We are in the “happy business” and we will not dwell on the loss, or worry about the future. Be thankful the disease didn’t harm our white pines! Right now we have families who count on us to carry on their traditions, and that is what we will do!
Through all the bumps, bruises and beetles in the process of growing live Christmas trees, it’s a guy like Mr. B that makes you want to!