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Fresh off the farm: Local spot offers variety of trees for Christmas displays

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Bill Putnam used a hand saw to cut at the base of a Carolina sapphire this past Saturday, a single tree among the rows upon rows growing behind Tommy and Denise Thompson's home.

Putnam and his family have been coming out to Thompson's Tree Farm for the past four or five years to cut down one of two live trees they decorate and display in their homes each holiday season.

"We do it Thanksgiving weekend every year," the Lawrenceville man said. "We put this one in a little foyer area because the smell of the cedar tree just smells so much better and kind of fills up the house. It really says Christmastime."

Going into this year's holiday season, about 3,500 trees are growing on the five-plus acre family farm off Prospect Road in Lawrenceville, ranging from saplings less than a foot tall to trees that tower as high as 12 feet.

Up a hill from where the Putnams had selected and cut down their tree, Suwanee residents Greg and Libby Smith perused Fraser firs as they pulled their 16-month-old son Carter along in a red wagon.

"They're good at holding the ornaments," Libby Smith said. "They've got stronger limbs."

The Fraser firs are already cut and shipped in from Boone, N.C., since they don't grow as far south as the Lawrenceville farm. These trees range in height from 6- to 10-feet tall, while the Leyland, Murray, Carolina sapphire and blue ice cypresses are grown on the farm and stand between 5- and 12-feet tall.

Denise Thompson said more families leave the farm with Leyland cypresses than any other tree, with the Carolina sapphire coming in at a close second.

"A lot of people use it for landscaping, but it's called the southern traditional Christmas tree and it's kind of an airy looking tree," she said of the Leyland cypress. "The Carolina sapphire is blueish-green in color, has a wonderful aroma to it and is more of a close-knit tree."

Thompson said the white pine is the more old-fashioned Christmas tree with long needles. The blue ice is similar to the Carolina sapphire in color and also has a fragrant aroma.

While the Thompsons' last Christmas tree was a Carolina sapphire, Tommy Thompson chose a Leyland cypress this year.

"I never know what kind I'm going to get," Denise Thompson said. "We always have one out of the field. My husband goes out and cuts it and surprises me."

Planting a dream

Tommy Thompson had just graduated from high school in the 1970s when he and a longtime friend drove a rented tractor-trailer to Michigan and brought back 600 trees.

"(The farm) was right on (Lake Michigan) with white sand, like a beach, all up under those trees," Thompson remembered. "It was beautiful and I think that's what stuck in my mind and that's why I always had that back in my mind that I wanted a tree farm."

It was on a rented lot in Sandy Springs that holiday season that Thompson made his first sale.

"That was in the '70s, so you could buy a tree up there from .50 to $1," Thompson remembered. "It got in my blood after that. I said, 'If I ever get property, I want a Christmas tree farm.'"

Years later, after his wife's parents relocated to Lawrenceville, they gave the couple property on which Thompson planted his dream, one he admits is a lot of work to maintain, from trimming trees and cutting the bottom limbs off to mowing the grass in between and fertilizing.

"This is just the time we harvest trees," he said of the weeks leading up to Christmas when the farm, especially on Saturdays, is filled with families selecting trees. "The work never stops."

Thompson shears about 2,000 trees a year -- something that is done in the fall and again in the spring -- to look like Christmas trees.

"There's something always to do," he said. "I never get bored."

"He works out in the field every day," Denise Thompson added.

Tommy Thompson will start cutting stumps after Christmas and begin preparing to plant seedlings, anywhere from 700 to 1,000, again in January.

"You can plant a little tree that's a seedling and in four years it will be a Christmas tree," Denise Thompson said. "It could be anywhere from 6- to 12-foot tall."

The couple's daughter, Natalie Cooper, obtained a degree in horticulture to follow in her father's footsteps and one day take over management of the family's tree farm.

"When we purchased the farm in '97 we planted trees and I started college in '99," Cooper said, "so it was just kind of one of those natural things."

Cooper also minored in pest management and entomology, which is the study of insects, and is the Thompsons' sort of resident expert on selecting a good tree.

"If it's already cut, they should make sure that the needles aren't falling off," Cooper said. "You can run your hand along it and if the needles fall off, then it's not a good tree."

After selecting a tree, "you need to make sure that (the farm) gives you a fresh cut if it's an already-cut tree, so the tree will start drinking water again," Cooper said. "If it's out in the field, you just need to make sure there are no brown limbs inside the tree and that it's evenly shaped."

Once families take their tree home, Denise Thompson adds, it's extremely important to not allow the water level to get below where the tree has been cut.

"If it does, it will seal over and not drink any more water," she said, "or, if you put it up under a heat vent, it's going to dry it out instantly and it will kill it."

As far as those tiny needles that end up all over the tree skirt or on the floor underneath the tree are concerned?

"If you cut one out of the field and you keep it watered and away from a heat vent, it will not shed a needle," Denise Thompson said. "Now, your Frasers, it doesn't matter how fresh they are, their tendency is to shed."

Kicking off the

holiday season

"Business has been booming," Denise Thompson said last weekend. "We've been overwhelmingly busy."

The tree farm opened for the season Nov. 21 and will be open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week through Dec. 20, but the busiest day is yet to come.

This Saturday, Santa will visit Thompson's Tree Farm from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., taking photos with children and listening to their Christmas wishes.

Before or after wandering through the rows of trees any day of the week, families can browse the on-site gift shop and enjoy complimentary hot chocolate and cider.

"We want the people to have a Christmas experience when they're out here," Denise Thompson said.