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Growing the perfect Christmas tree

Nov 01, 2017 12:01PM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm has been selling trees to families in the area for the last 30 years.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

When the Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm opens for the season on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it will be the 30th year that Gary Benjamin and his wife, Kelly, have helped bring Christmas cheer to families throughout Cecil County and the surrounding areas. For many of those families, the trip to the tree farm in Conowingo is a holiday tradition, as much a part of the Christmas season as watching “It's a Wonderful Life” or opening gifts on Christmas morning.

For the Benjamins, the busy weekends between Thanksgiving and the middle of December have become a part of their Christmas tradition, too―the satisfying end to a year-long effort. Gary Benjamin plants and cares for the trees himself even though he works full-time for the U.S. Army at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Spending time caring for the Christmas trees on the 25-acre property is a relaxing hobby for Benjamin―but it’s a lot of work, too. It takes about seven years, on average, for a Christmas tree to reach its mature height. Once a field of trees is planted, they need to be watered, especially in the first few weeks. The fields need to be mowed, and the trees must also be protected from weeds, which means that herbicides may need to be used. The trees must also be trimmed regularly. All the work keeps Benjamin busy.

“I’ll come out three or more times a week,” he explained.

Benjamin’s roundabout introduction to the Christmas tree business came during the early part of the 1980s. His father-in-law, Doug McGlothlin, owned a piece of property in Conowingo, and he was looking for a new use for it. One of the people that McGlothlin had a business connection with was Bill Underwood, the owner of the Pine Valley Christmas Tree Farm. Underwood, who already had two decades of experience in the business, was looking for an opportunity to grow some trees to be sold at wholesale prices to organizations. The property that McGlothlin owned would be perfect for that, so they started a small business, planting the first trees around 1981 or 1982.

Benjamin started helping out in 1984, before the first Christmas trees grown on the property were even big enough to be sold. He learned the business from Underwood, even then an experienced Christmas tree grower. Within a few years, McGlothlin got too busy with other business projects and Benjamin decided that he would take over his share of the business. Underwood and Benjamin continued on as partners, selling the wholesale trees for several years.

“Then, we changed from wholesale to “choose-and-cut” where people could go out in the field and select their own tree,” Benjamin explained.

Benjamin said that it was a great help to have Underwood as a mentor. Underwood taught him the ins and outs of properly caring for the Christmas trees. To this day, Benjamin keeps meticulous notes in a notebook about when and how he cares for the trees he is growing. Some of the conversations that he’s had with Underwood through the years are documented in the notebook.

The Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm’s trees are spread out on a 25-acre property. There’s a wooded area in the middle of the property so there are about 18 acres dedicated to the trees. Benjamin plants Douglas Firs, Canann Firs, Blue Spruce trees, and White Pine trees in the fields. The number of trees that are planted and growing at any one time varies. The average Christmas trees will take seven years to reach maturity. White Pines are the fastest-growing trees, so they might only take five years to reach the height necessary to be a family's beautiful Christmas tree.

Each kind of tree has its own characteristics that make it a good tree.

According to Benjamin, Douglas Firs are the preferred choice for most families.

“They are very popular,” he said. “It’s an all-around good Christmas tree.”

Blue Spruce trees are perfect for holding heavy ornaments. White Pines can grow to a height of about 15 feet for people who are looking for a tree that will stand out in a room with taller ceilings. The White Pines have floppy branches, which are pretty, but won't be useful if a person likes to decorate with heavier ornaments.

As Christmas trees are sold during one holiday season, Benjamin maps out a plan of what to plant so that there is always a good selection of trees available to customers.

April is a good time to plant Christmas trees, but Benjamin explained that it’s critical to the long-term health of the tree to get ample water in the first few weeks after planting. Rain is best, but if it doesn’t rain enough the trees must be individually watered.

“The trees are very durable,” Benjamin said. “They can survive hot, dry summers.”

They can also survive cold wet winters―although the trees are susceptible to what’s called winter burn. The sun is just as bright in the winter as it is and the summer, and the direct sunlight can burn the trees in the winter.

Is Cecil County a good place to be in the business of growing Christmas trees?

“Is this a good area? I would say so,” Benjamin replied. “There are four tree farms within a half a mile of here.”

Losing a certain number of trees before they reach their maturity and are ready to sell is an inevitable part of the business.

“You have to figure that you're going to lose 20 to 25 percent to something,” Benjamin explained. Some years, more will be lost. Some years, fewer trees will be lost. The weather can be a big factor, despite the durability of the trees. One year, they planted about 1,300 trees and ended up losing 1,000 of them because of too much rain in the ground was simply too wet to allow the trees to grow properly. Because he's regularly caring for the trees himself, Benjamin can keep track of their progress and make sure that there's an adequate inventory come Christmastime. Each year, a few months before Christmas, he will go out and evaluate all the trees in the field, keeping a count of how many that are ready to be sold that year. In fact, that is one of the most important parts of the job.

“It’s difficult to manage how many trees we have in the field every year,” Benjamin explained.

All the hard work throughout the year is well worth it when people can start picking out their Christmas trees. The weekends between Thanksgiving and mid-December are extremely busy.

In addition to the Christmas trees, the Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm offers some cold-weather favorites like hot chocolate, cookies, and hot dogs. They also offer Christmas wreaths for sale. The Benjamins get the wreaths from wreath-makers in North Carolina and decorate them themselves. There are also free hayrides through the fields.

As the Christmas season approaches, and it's time to sell the trees, numerous family members, including nieces and nephews, help out the Benjamins.

“When it comes time to sell trees, that's when the family gets involved,” Benjamin explained.

Some customers will show up, saw in hand, and walk directly to the field where they want to select their trees. These are the Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm veterans who come back year after year. There's even one larger group of people who return year after year to “tailgate” before they select their trees. They make a day of it. They even had Tree Hunt t-shirts printed for some of the years. The core of the group started the tradition when they were in their twenties, and return year after year. Now, some of the group members have children of their own.

Benjamin said that they try to make the experience as fun as possible for customers.

“One thing I know people like is that we’re very laid back,” he said. “If someone brings a chainsaw―that’s a no-no at a lot of tree farms―they can use it as long as they know how to use it safely.”

They have a machine that shakes off the needles and another that bales the tree so that it can be transported home easily. Benjamin said that they encourage people to saw off a sliver of the tree once they get it home. That's because, as soon as the tree is initially cut, the sap starts to come out and it starts to seal off the tree. Watering a Christmas tree is crucial to having it look good through the whole holiday season. This is especially true in the first three or four days when it is absorbing the most water.

“If the tree gets in the water immediately, having it last 30 days is no problem,” Benjamin said.

The Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm is open the first weekend after Thanksgiving―this year Nov. 25 and Nov. 26―and will be open for several consecutive weekends after that until all the trees are sold. They also sell pre-cut Christmas trees for anyone who simply wants to buy a tree and doesn't want to cut it down.

“The people who come early are always the ones who are the happiest,” Benjamin said.

For anyone looking to add a Christmas tradition or anyone who hasn't had the experience of going out to choose and cut their own Christmas tree, the Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm is a place to get a good tree and to have a fun experience while doing it.

“Our prices are pretty low,” Benjamin explained. “We’re just here to sell you a Christmas tree and maybe some cookies, hot chocolate, or a hot dog.”

The Hilltop Christmas Tree Farm is located at 106 Old Hilltop Road in Conowingo, Maryland. Visit the farm's Facebook page for information about the hours for this Christmas season.

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