For Mike Ahern, Christmas is a family business. Glove Hollow, his family’s New Hampshire Christmas tree farm, is one of the oldest fir suppliers in the country and has been providing households with lush, green holiday centerpieces for four generations. With a longstanding reputation, and as many as 14,000 trees growing every year, Glove Hollow attracts wholesale and retail customers from all over the Northeast. Some of Ahern’s trees end up in nursery centers throughout New England, including Home Depot, while others are personally chosen and felled on the spot at Glove Hollow by people who take a more hands-on approach to their Christmas tree selection.
With the family business extending all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, Ahern knows everything there is to know about fir trees – when to plant them, how best to grow them, and how to ensure they end up in your den, draped in tinsel and garland, just in time for Christmas Eve. He even has a few choice tips for keeping your tree from going brown before the big day. (Hint: Warm water, hold the aspirin).
If you’ve ever wondered where your Christmas tree comes from, or what it goes through in the five-plus years it takes to grow to size, here’s a brief look into the fragrant, nettle-filled world of Glove Hollow—and the man who runs it.
Free Enterprise: Most people are just now starting to think about Christmas trees. But when does the season start for you?
Mike Ahern: Around the end of October. October is a planning month – getting everything ready, getting equipment serviced and ready to go – and then the cutting starts around the first of November. We’ll go right through until the trees start to go out the door, a week and a half to two weeks before Thanksgiving.
The wholesale business continues right through until Thanksgiving. But the day after Thanksgiving, we switch entirely into retail mode. Actually, the retail business starts even earlier than that. The weekend before Thanksgiving, we’re open for “Cut Your Own.” Some people just have to have the best tree, so they come before the crowds show up the day after Thanksgiving so they can have the pick of whatever they want. We have a lot of people that come up from Boston just for the day to get a tree.
Is it difficult to get into the tree farming business?
Most people have the land and they have a grand idea to plant Christmas trees and then wait a few years and then start bringing in all the money. But it doesn’t always work that way. It’s a lot of work – and a lot of luck in some cases.
The nice thing about the families that have been doing it for so long [is] they’ve already made all the mistakes – they know what they’re doing. There’s a huge learning curve to growing Christmas trees, and not everybody realizes all the pitfalls. So, a lot of times, before the trees come to maturity, they run out of money and they have to either sell the business or find a Christmas tree farmer that knows what he’s doing [to run it].
How do you keep up your supply every year?
What a lot of people will do is they’ll plant their fields all at once, rather than in sections. Once those trees are gone, [those people] are like, “I’m not going to do this again. I wasn’t thinking in advance.” What the smart people will do is they’ll plant in increments – like ocean waves. You [have] to be thinking in advance all the time.
What happens after you plant the tree? Does a tree farmer just sit back and wait at that point?
You’ve got to keep the grass down around the trees, whether it’s mechanically with mowers or with herbicides. If you’re keeping it down manually with mowers, it’s very easy to get a little preoccupied and then, the next thing you know, you’re mowing down your trees. It’s extremely easy to mow over the little trees when they’re small, especially if the grass and the weeds are growing up around them. You’ve got to be very careful.
When the trees get to be about hip height, you start the shearing process, which is a lot of work. We hire, on average, 8 to 12 people in the summertime to shear the trees. It doesn’t take long for the labor costs to mount up.
Are there certain things you have to do once a tree’s been cut from the ground, once you buy it, that can help preserve it?
Keep it out of the sun. Keep it out of the winds.
What do you think about all the products for sale out there that supposedly can mix with water to make cut trees last longer?
All these things are a gimmick. The 7-Up people recommended 7-Up. Then the aspirin people, lo and behold, did their studies and guess what the best thing to put in the water was?
Aspirin. People really got suspect when Smirnoff got involved and said you need to put vodka in your water. Then the pepper people said, “Oh, you put pepper in the water. It helps. Everybody is jumping on board.” People are wasting their money. Just [use] warm water.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.