Katalin Coleman is from Hungary - she now lives in Sweden - but every Christmas she travels here to spend the holidays with her brother and father.
Among her duties each year: select the family’s Christmas tree. This year she went to Mahoney’s, a garden center in Boston. And so she’s picked out a 7-foot balsam fir, one of the most popular choices for a Christmas tree here in New England.
Mahoney's horticulturalist Nathan Mahan takes the tree off the pole, puts it on a converted paint mixer that shakes any show off the tree, gives the trunk a fresh cut, and puts a net on it. Katalin’s tree wasn’t grown here in New England, or even grown in this country.
Like many of the balsam firs you’ll find at garden centers and Christmas tree lots around Boston, her tree is from Canada.
Ken Risher is an assistant director of operations for Mahoney’s and helps manage their 500-acre tree farm in Nova Scotia.
"It’s colder, it’s also got the moisture from the ocean as well up there, so that definitely makes it unique as a prime balsam growing location, he said. "When we go just to tag the trees, we’re like walking over rough terrain, over boulders, they just grow everywhere up there."
At many tree farms, workers plant the trees themselves, but at Mohoney’s farm, they don’t plant a single tree. Instead, the staff “manages”
an entire forest.
"What we leave on the farm is what’s called seed trees. These are larger balsam trees that have been there a good 20 to 30 years and they give off their seeds and that spreads out and little trees grow all over the forest," Risher said.
About eight to 12 years ago, Katalin’s tree was one of those seeds that took root. Risher noted that while they don’t plant the tress on the farm, they do manage their growth.
"Every year, it’s been pruned, cut back, and we usually do that in July and August," he said. "That’s important point, said Mahan. Without a little guidance, most trees will no-doubt grow up to look like evergreens, but they probably won’t look like Christmas trees."
"Definitely irregular, definitely shaped by wind, stunted maybe due to lack of water, really cold temperatures. Getting killed back every year by maybe a lot of snow," he said.
Like most of the 15,000 trees that Mahoney’s has shipped to the Boston area this year, Katalin’s tree was cut in early to mid-November, which according to Risher is actually a little later than at many farms. But Mahan said that if you’re looking for a long lasting tree, don’t get too fixated on when it was cut.
"A lot of people want to buy the freshest tree. The ones we received most recently or the ones that were cut most recently, but it’s not necessarily ‘how fresh is it’, it’s the weather it was experiencing when it was getting harvested," he said.
By November in Nova Scotia, the weather is cold. A perpetual frost. This is a good thing.
"That process of the frost that draws the sap – the resin -- back into the tree and that more than anything helps to control the loss of moisture through the fresh cut on the bottom of the tree when its harvested but also through the porous leaf surfaces," he siad.
Porous leaf surface, AKA the needles. When they dry out, they fall. And as anyone who’s ever had a real tree knows, they’ve yet to
invent a vacuum cleaner that will get them all up.
But no amount of hearty frosts can stave off the inevitable forever. Like all fresh-cut Christmas trees, Katalin’s is already dying. That’s where Rob Derosa comes in. He overseas the residential trash and recycling program for 300,000 Boston households.
For two weeks, beginning December 30, Derosa will designate a handful of the Boston Department of Public Works’ vehicles as Christmas tree collection trucks.
"You’re looking at maybe 40 loads of Christmas trees that will go to the compost facility on American Legion Highway in Mattapan," Derosa said.
Katalin’s tree will be one of more than 40,000 trees that Derosa figures will be collected. Once on site, they will be piled up and eventually chopped down into tiny bits by an enormous tub grinder.
"Some of it will be used for odor control, say if we’re turning the compost piles we place it throughout the property so you get a nice pine smell," he said.
But the vast majority of the 1,200 cubic yards of material will be used as mulch.
"It sounds like a lot but 1,200 cubic yards isn’t a lot of volume, but they’ll haul it off site and they’ll put it up for sale for landscapers in the springtime when the demand is there," he said.
Many of the cities and town in the area have similar programs. In Somerville they even make the tree mulch available to the public
for free. But enough about all that. It’s not even Christmas yet, and Katalin and her family have some work to do.
"We do the white lights and tinsel afterwards just to catch the light/we have ornaments from all over the world/A silver colored star/We come from Hungary and there the tradition is that we open the presents on Christmas Eve, so we’ll have a Christmas eve dinner and then we open our presents…..oh it’s
gonna be spectacular."
Thanks – at least in part – to that 7-foot balsam fir.