Row after row of evergreen trees stretch out across the farm fields, lined up for the inevitable holiday rush.

Scotch pines and fragrant spruce trees are planted together in their own areas for customers to browse through. White pines with long, soft needles and a bluish-green color make up another section.

Canaan firs, bred to have the look and aroma of traditional fir trees with hardiness ideal for Indiana weather, are always a big seller.

Steve and Julie DeHart have spent the past 10 years raising these trees. When customers have questions about the best possible Christmas tree, they’re ready to help.

“Some prefer longer needles, softer needles, a stiffer branch,” Steve DeHart said. “We try to find out what they’re looking for, and how they traditionally decorate and make a recommendation from there.”

While artificial trees and pre-cut evergreens remain popular options, cutting down your own tree still draws hundreds of people to Johnson County tree farms each holiday season. Families seek out the chance to tromp through a frosty field, sizing up the needle length, shape and scent before picking out the perfect Christmas centerpiece.

The farms blend nostalgia with a sense of do-it-yourself for people looking for an authentic holiday experience.

“We can help you if you want, but most people really do prefer to do it themselves,” said Sue Peiffer, who helps run Peiffer Christmas Tree Farm with her husband, Joe. “It’s kind of old fashioned.”

In the Christmas tree world, real evergreens still make up the bulk of sales each year.

Last season, shoppers spent $1.16 billion on their trees, according to a consumer survey taken by market research firm Harris Interactive. More than 33 million real trees were sold, though 85 percent of those were pre-cut and bought at a lot or store.

Old-fashioned charm

Still, more than 4 million trees were selected and cut fresh at farms across the country.

That means tree farmers have to be ready as soon as the public’s psychological calendar switches to the Christmas season — often the day after Thanksgiving.

“That’s really grown into one of our biggest days,” Peiffer said.

Part of the charm of cutting your own Christmas tree is the experience, Sue Peiffer said.

Those who look carefully might pick a tree with a bird’s nest or pine cones growing on the tree.

Customers who come to the tree farm in the early morning have startled rabbits, birds and sleeping deer, and on rare occasions, sandhill cranes fly overhead with their cackling call.

“It’s a more natural feel,” Peiffer said. “We try to keep a nice boundary of wildflowers along the edge, so we have good pollinators to keep a nice, healthy environments.”

At Trees from DeHart, customers to can wander through 11 acres of white pines, Scotch pines, Douglas fir and Canaan fir and Fraser fir. Haywagons are used to tow people out to the field they want to start at, and help people carry their tree back.

People can use a handsaw to cut the tree down themselves or have one of the DeHart workers cut it for them to make sure it has a flat base and sits properly in their stand.

When they get back to the parking lot, they can enjoy hot chocolate, browse through holiday decorations and crafts, and have the loose needles shaken from the tree before it’s baled up.

‘It’ll live all season’

Real evergreens can live up to a month or longer when properly watered, so the DeHarts also provide tips on keeping the tree alive throughout the holidays.

“When they leave the farm, put it in water within an hour or two hours,” DeHart said. “Otherwise, the sap will glaze over the trunk, and they’ll have to recut it. But if you keep watering it, it’ll live all season long.”

The busy season for tree farms is the five weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But for the owners of the farms, getting ready for that rush is a year-round endeavor.

Peiffer Tree Farm was founded by three brothers Joe, Jim and Tim Peiffer, after they decided to use their talents and resources on the family business.

Tim Peiffer was a forestry major in college and suggested starting the tree farm would be a good side business. Joe Peiffer had the land, and they started planting a combination of evergreen trees suited for central Indiana’s climate.

Because trees are a slow-growth crop, it was five to 10 years before the trees were old enough to be hewed.

“It’s not a quick crop,” Peiffer said. “It’s not like corn where you’re planting the seed and harvesting in a few months.”

The entire farm is 40 acres, with a portion set aside to grow soybeans and other row crops. As soon as the snow has melted and the ground has thawed, the Peiffers begin the planting season. Assessing where trees had been cut and which species need to be added requires continual monitoring year to year.

“You have to refresh every year, fill in the gaps,” Peiffer said.

Pruning in June

Seedlings are imported from Michigan, where the small trees have established a good growing base in sandy soils ideal for pines.

By mid-June, it’s time to prune the trees. Workers clip up the branches to ensure they keep the traditional cone look. White pines and Scotch pines in particular need to be watched for rogue branches that give it a funky shape.

While the trees are moderately drought resistant, it can be necessary in times of extreme summer dryness to water the crop, Peiffer said.

“As far as agriculture crops go, it’s one that requires some of the least input. You don’t have to do heavy fertilization or heavy herbicides,” she said. “From that standpoint, it’s a very nice thing.”

The DeHarts started their tree farm in 2004.

They were inspired by their own family tradition around the holiday. When their sons were younger, they would drive down to a farm in Brown County to cut down their own pine tree.

After years of visiting the same farm, Steve DeHart learned the farmer planned to retire. Talking it over with his wife, they decided this was an opening into a steady local market.

The opportunity has grown to not only be a sensible side business for the family but also a chance to share in the holiday memories of waves of people who come back year after year.

“We see a lot of traditions with grandparents and grandchildren, parents and children, that it’s a time to spend an hour to two hours together enjoying each other,” DeHart said. “People take pictures with the tree they picked and make it an entire experience.”

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Peiffer Christmas Tree Farm

Operators: Joe and Sue Peiffer

Location: 1185 E. County Road 600S, Franklin

Hours: 9 a.m. to dark Nov. 28 to 30, Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21; weekdays call for an appointment

Tree types: White pine, Scotch pine, Canaan fir

Typical size: 5 feet to 9 feet

Contact: 459-3278

Trees from DeHart

Operators: Steve and Julie DeHart

Location: 3950 S. County Road 200E, Franklin

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to dark Nov. 28 to 30, Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21

Tree types: Scotch pine, white pine, Fraser fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir

Contact: 508-2276 or [email protected]

Tower Family Tree Farm

Operators: Ed and Cathy Tower

Location: 4416 W. Lowell Road, Columbus

Hours: 10 a.m. to dark Nov. 28 and weekends until they sell out; 1 p.m. to dark Monday through Friday from Dec. 1 until they sell out

Tree type: Scotch Pine, white Pine, Fraser fir and spruces

Contact: 812-378-3505 or

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Picking the right Christmas tree

Scotch pine

Fragrance: Pine-like

Form: Cone-shaped to more round, depending on shearing

Needle length: 1.5 to 3 inches

Color: Natural winter-green

Branch stiffness: Good for ornaments

Eastern white pine

Fragrance: Pine-like

Form: Cone or pyramid shape

Needle length: 2.5 to 5 inches

Color: Light green

Branch stiffness: Not stiff — ornaments will droop

Douglas fir

Fragrance: Sweet and fragrant

Form: Cone-shaped to more round, depending on shearing

Needle length: 1 inch

Color: Natural green

Branch stiffness: Moderately stiff — can handle ornaments, but not heavy ones

Fraser fir

Fragrance: Pleasant scent

Form: Can be perfect cone shape, or steep and narrow

Needle length: 1 inch

Color: Dark green needles with silvery underside

Branch stiffness: Stiff — good for ornaments

Canaan fir

Fragrance: Traditional fir smell

Form: Can be perfect cone shape, or steep and narrow

Needle length: 1 inch

Color: Dark green needles

Branch stiffness: Moderately stiff — can handle ornaments, but not heavy ones

White fir

Fragrance: Citrus

Form: Round

Needle length: 2 inches

Color: Silverish green

Branch stiffness: Stiff — good for ornaments

Blue spruce

Fragrance: Pungent

Form: Pyramid shaped, often stocky and heavy

Needle length: 1.5 inches

Color: Distinctive blue-green

Branch stiffness: Stiff — good for ornaments

Norway spruce

Fragrance: Pungent

Form: Pyramid shaped

Needle length: 1.5 inches

Color: Light green

Branch stiffness: Stiff — good for ornaments

SOURCE: Purdue University Department of Forestry and Natural Resources

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  • Display trees in water in a traditional reservoir type stand to maintain freshness and minimize needle loss.
  • Make a fresh straight cut to remove about a ½-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand.
  • Place the tree in water as soon as possible. Most species can go six to eight hours after cutting the trunk and still take up water.
  • If needed, trees can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location. Place the freshly cut trunk in a bucket that is kept full of water.
  • Use a stand with an adequate water holding capacity for the tree. Stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter.
  • Use a stand that fits your tree. Avoid whittling the sides of the trunk down to fit a stand.
  • Keep trees away from major sources of heat — fireplaces, heaters, heat vents and direct sunlight. Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption each day.
  • Check the stand daily to make sure that the level of water does not go below the base of the tree.
  • Drilling a hole in the base of the trunk does not improve water uptake.
  • Use of lights that produce low heat, such as miniature lights, will reduce drying of the tree.
  • Always inspect light sets prior to placing them on the tree. If worn, replace with a new set.
  • Do not overload electrical circuits.
  • Always turn off the tree lights when leaving the house or when going to bed.
  • Monitor the tree for freshness. After Christmas or if the tree is dry, remove it from the house.

SOURCE: National Christmas Tree Association