Winding up a lifetime of growing Christmas trees
by Karl H. Kazaks
DEEP GAP, NC – Forty years ago Chuck Lieberman moved from Central Florida to the High Country of North Carolina.
“I have a master’s degree in ag,” Lieberman said. “I was a nursery inspector in Gainesville. There’s not much to do here in in my field except grow Christmas trees.”
This part of North Carolina is one of the world’s pre-eminent regions for growing Fraser firs. So Lieberman started planting trees, mainly Frasers, but also some Concolor firs.
For the first part of his career, Lieberman sold trees wholesale. In 2001, he opened to the public for U-cut. His marketing was simple: he put up a sign on nearby Highway 421, the major east-west thoroughfare through this part of the North Carolina mountains.
Because the area is frequented by visitors as a tourist destination year-round, including the Christmas tree season, the customers quickly found Lieberman.
“I wish I had gotten into choose-and-cut earlier,” he said. “It’s really fun for a small grower and more profitable.”
During tree season, Lieberman does all the work himself, except Thanksgiving weekend, when he hires help. But after four decades in the business he’s starting to wind down.
“I’m 73,” he said. “You can’t lift trees and put them on cars forever.”
So Lieberman is only replanting a small amount of Christmas trees – but he’s still planting. He is turning his Christmas tree farm into a forest of black walnut trees. “I’m planting them for 90 years from now,” he said.
Some of the walnut seedlings are only knee-high, but others are 16 feet tall and growing. Lieberman limbs the lower parts of the trunks of the walnuts, to keep the saw timber part of the tree clean. He tags the seedlings with ribbon to mark them when the fields are weed-whacked.
In addition to growing Christmas trees, Lieberman still grows ornamentals, blueberries and over 40 varieties of citrus trees in his orangery.
Rhododendrons, particularly the cold-tolerant cultivar PJM, were one of the main ornamentals Lieberman grew. “I’d raise cuttings in a greenhouse for a year,” he said, “then grow them in a shade house for year before field growing them for three to four years.”
Blueberries, Lieberman said, “are a lot of work. After 40 years they’re still a mystery do me, though I think I’m doing better.”
Lieberman kept his citrus cultivation abilities alive in his small hillside orangery in North Carolina. The space has indoor and outdoor growing areas, and is designed to have the trees kept inside in the winter then moved outside once all danger of frost is past. The varieties of citrus include Meyer lemon and Calamondin.
This year, Lieberman, who for 25 years wrote a weekly agriculture humor column for a local newspaper, is hoping to plant cranberries in a boggy area of his property, part of his quest to continually experiment with cultivation.
“In a way it’s a shame that I’m retiring from Christmas trees just as I’ve perfected the technique,” he said. “I’m pretty good at growing Christmas trees.”
The farm has a lot of memories for Lieberman, including last autumn when his daughter got married at home on the farm, a rolling landscape between two ridges.
“I keep saying I’m getting out of it but I don’t get out of it,” he said. “I really love of a field of Christmas trees.”