Homegrown for the holidays

Written by Healthy Living
Cutting down your own Christmas tree can be a Florida tradition, too.
Story: Chris Gerbasi

In the North, many families carry on the tradition of trudging into the woods and through the snow to cut down the perfect tree for Christmas.

It’s the same in Florida, just with a chance of sunburn. Florida Christmas trees look a little different than the Northern variety, too, but a homey holiday in the Sunshine State should have a homegrown touch.

Santa Claus hasn’t been in business this long without knowing a thing or two about diversification. One of his North Pole affiliates is Santa’s Christmas Tree Forest, 35317 Huff Road, Eustis, one of the few farms in the region where customers can cut their own Florida-grown trees.

The elves who run the business are Jodi and Tom Utsman. Jodi’s parents, Jack and Judy Ewing, started the business, though Jack wasn’t sure he could grow Christmas-type trees in Florida’s sandy soil, Jodi says. He discovered the Choctawhatchee sand pine, and they sold their first Christmas tree in 1989. Family members have been involved in the business ever since.

Today, they sell a couple thousand trees from their fields during the holidays. The tree farm spans 17 acres with 1,000 trees per acre. That’s 17,000 sand pines, which are like a white pine, with full branches and long needles, Jodi says. Sand pine is the most traditional-looking Florida Christmas tree. They thrive in almost any soil, and grow up to two feet per year, with some reaching more than 18 feet in height at Santa’s Forest.

“Ours get nice and full with the conical tree shape you’re looking for,” Jodi says.

The trees are irrigated to compensate for any droughts, and because there is no dormant cycle, the sand pines take only three to four years to reach a good size, compared to six to seven years for Fraser firs in North Carolina, Jodi says.

The farm also grows a couple hundred Arizona cypress, a bluer tree also known as Carolina sapphire, and Southern red cedars, which have bright or dark green foliage. Customers can also grab 3-foot, 3-gallon potted trees that can be displayed on tabletops and planted later.

Santa’s Forest provides bow saws, and also shakes, bales, and drills the trees if customers want a spike stand. A hayride takes customers deep into the 17 acres to choose their trees. Sand pines have soft wood and can be cut down in about five minutes, Jodi says. After customers cut the tree, they can leave it along the trail and a “tree caboose” will pick it up and take it back to the tree processing area. The choose-and-cut pricing ranges from $40 for any tree under 8 feet tall to $200 for 18-footers and higher.

“Sometimes people spend two hours out there finding just the right tree,” Jodi says.

Still, some customers prefer a more traditional Northern-style Christmas tree. Santa’s Forest ships in Fraser and Douglas firs, blue spruce, and Scotch pines from North Carolina and Michigan. The fresh-cut trees are delivered on refrigerated trucks, immediately placed in stands with water, and stored in a refrigerated building until they are displayed.

The main difference in trees is the strength of the branch, Jodi says; sand pines have softer branches and may not be suited for heavy ornaments. The other difference is tradition.

“People from the north are used to going into the woods and cutting Douglas or blue spruce or Fraser firs, and they’re very attached to the type of tree they grew up with. It’s an emotional thing,” Jodi says.

But Santa’s Christmas Tree Forest has established its own Florida-grown tradition. The farm will open the weekend before Thanksgiving (Nov. 18-19), then close for a couple of days and reopen the Friday after the holiday. The business will be open for tree sales seven days a week through Dec. 23, and select days for its attractions, which include mazes, a petting zoo, jumping pillow, tire mountain, zip line, and horse and pony rides.

For specific hours, go to santaschristmastreeforest.com or call 352.357.9863.

Long & Scott Farms

26216 County Road 448A, Mount Dora. Phone: 352-383-6900; 352-383-1792. Website: longandscottfarms.com.
Long & Scott Farms has long been known for its Zellwood sweet corn, along with cucumbers and cabbage. But during the holidays, the farm ships in a couple hundred Douglas firs from North Carolina for Christmas tree sales. The festivities begin Nov. 24, the day after Thanksgiving, when the trees and Santa Claus arrive. Tree sales continue daily and Santa appears each weekend through Dec. 10. The farm’s other businesses, Scott’s Country Market & Cafe, and Scott’s Maze Adventures, also will be open through Dec. 10.

Matlack Tree Farm

11631 County Road 561, Clermont. Phone: 352.406.9735. Website: matlacktreefarm.com.
Matlack is the place for large potted Christmas tree options. The farm includes more than 40 acres of a wide variety of trees, including Arizona cypress, red cedar, loblolly and slash pines, and Christmas palms. The farm takes phone orders only, but customers may come out to the farm to look around.

Stanley Pond Adventure Farm

15426 County Road 48, Astatula. Phone: 352.742.8180. Website: stanleypondfarm.com.
While the farm no longer grows Christmas trees, it does have roots in that trade, starting out in 1993 by growing Christmas trees and other varieties. The farm later shifted its specialties, and currently sells 100-, 200-, and 300-gallon ligustrum trees. However, the adventure park also stages an annual Christmas event, manager Tricia Merrill says. This year’s event is scheduled for 11am-5pm Dec. 9-10. The holiday activities include Santa Claus appearances, hayrides and horse rides, train and wagon rides, fishing at Catfish Junction, a giant jumping pillow, Skippy the Airboat and Sparky the Firetruck, rubber duck races, and more.


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Healthy Living

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