To learn how to grow trees, Don Duling joined the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, and took classes about trees, and visited other tree farms. (Putnam Sentinel /Josh Ellerbrock)
By: Josh Ellerbrock
Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without it - a great evergreen shrouded in silver, gold and precious memories standing precariously in the living room. And Don Duling, Putnam County's only Christmas tree farmer, is making sure residents don't have to drive too far to grab one.The original idea to start his Christmas tree farm came from a family experience at another Christmas tree farm in Ohio. With his own kids laughing and smiling when choosing the family tree, Duling decided he could grow his own trees in his own backyard.
"I throught it was a neat experience and that I could do it," Duling said. "So, I did it."
To learn how to grow Christmas trees, Duling joined the Ohio Christmas Tree Association (OCTA). He took a few classes and went to a few seminars. OCTA also sponsored tours of other Christmas tree farms around the state, which Duling took advantage of.
By 1992, he had sold his first tree, which took a few years to grow, and since then, the business has improved. Today, his farm covers four acres which includes an old hog barn that now serves as a holiday centerpiece to his operation.
Like any crop, Duling takes care of it throughout the year after planting the trees in April. He waters them when dry and drains them when too wet. Some species need extra fertilizer to grow more efficiently, which he doles out when needed. To make sure the trees maintain their cone-like shape, he shears bottom branches to encourage growth.
Even with his years of experience, Duling has ran into major kinks while trying to grow the trees in a Ohio's climate. Only two to three years back, Duling had to install ditches and a much-improved irrigation system after losing a large part of his crop due to a wetter than average season.
"I've learned everything the hard way," Duling said.
But the true draw of owning a Christmas tree farm isn't making sure the trees grow, he said. It's watching the families enjoy being together and choosing a tree.
"It's really a people business," Duling said. "I do enjoy it. It's really something to see when families come out here."
After two decades of business, Duling is now starting to see the children that used to pick trees in the 90's returning as adults with their own families.
To encourage the holiday spirit, Duling drives what he dubs the "Polaris Express" - a four-wheeler outfitted with a wooden train body that he created himself. He uses the machine to haul Christmas trees to customer's vehicles while his wife treats the customers to popcorn and cider in his converted hog barn.
"A lot of cider has been spilled in here," he said. His old barn that works as his business's Christmas centerpiece is hardly recognizable as such. Duling installed a fireplace and windows along the entire outside of the building. Both projects he did himself while gleaning useful how-to information from the Internet. The building now serves as a festive hangout for his Christmas tree patrons.
As for future endeavors with the farm, Duling hopes increase the number of trees by planting on some unused land. Since he's now retired from General Motors, he has more time to spend on the farm.
Duling currently sells four kinds of trees: blue spruce, white pine, scotch pine and the more popular soft-needled canaan firs.
The Duling Christmas tree farm is open for the next three weekends. Anyone who hasn't already tagged a tree can still pick one up by visiting the farm at 135 German St., Ottawa.