Picture the classic Victorian Christmas: a stately evergreen in the grandest room of the family home, with thick boughs reaching up to almost touch the ceiling. It’s a pretty vision, but these days the trend sees more consumers downsizing, even opting for tiny, potted trees that can be replanted.
In a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie Brown goes shopping for a tree for the neighborhood Christmas play. He passes by a lot filled with big, flashy trees and chooses a scrawny sapling, which draws withering scorn from his friends.
But maybe Charlie Brown was ahead of his time.
“Our business is leaning more toward shorter trees than it used to. We used to sell a lot of eight, nine, 10-foot trees,” says Dana Graves, who has been growing Christmas trees for more than 40 years with G&S Christmas Tree Farm.
Recently, he showed off a row of neat, bushy little balsam firs for sale, none higher than 4 feet, at Sprague’s Nursery in Bangor.
“That little one on the end? Yeah, that’s a tabletop tree. Somebody will put it in their house or a small apartment, on a table,” he says.
The farm still produces plenty of taller trees, too, but Graves says it’s pretty rare these days to get orders for anything higher than 7 feet.
Several miles away at Carpenter Tree Farm in Old Town, Jeff and Jillian Woodbury are complete newbies in the Christmas tree business, having entered just their second season. But they, too, say they’re finding brisk trade in catering to customers who want something other than a giant centerpiece tree.
“We get a lot of college kids, or small apartments, so they’re looking for something smaller, more manageable to get in and out of their apartment, maybe up some stairs,” Jillian Woodbury says. “There was one couple with six flights of stairs I believe, so that was a long haul with a big tree. They were looking for something more four foot or smaller.”
All this is part of a trend, says Marsha Gray with the National Christmas Tree Association. She says older Americans, who have no kids at home, have always been more likely to demand a small tree, but they didn’t have many options.
“In the past, small trees — what we call a tabletop — a lot of times it was the top of a bad tree, or one that got a ding at the bottom or something. Now we have growers specifically culturing trees to be a tabletop,” she says.
That entails special trimming so the miniature tree bushes out into a full shape. Another factor that helped develop a little-tree market was an interior decorating trend that started about 10 years ago as homeowners started putting up multiple trees — in dining rooms, living rooms, porches and windows instead of just the one big central tree.
“We saw a lot of parents buying small trees for their children’s bedrooms. They each got their own little tree,” Gray says.
All of this contributed to the emergence of a burgeoning little-tree industry, which is just now coming into full flower. A healthy market for little trees could also be good news for a farmer’s bottom line, as they take less time to grow.
It takes a full decade to grow a six-foot tree, while small trees can be turned over in about half the time. And that, in turn, has another benefit, Gray says: Keeping large tracts of land in constant production helps offset greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, something she says is important to many consumers who seek a natural Christmas tree.
“Younger trees are much more efficient at taking in the carbon dioxide and outputting the oxygen. The older a tree gets, the slower that process,” she says. “By keeping these young trees planted, harvested, replanted — that whole cycle — we’re really ensuring some very productive trees as far as oxygen production.”
Along the same lines, some growers are offering tiny, potted trees that can be set out after the season. But Gray says that effort has met with limited success, simply because not everyone has a green thumb.
Americans will buy about 40 million trees of all sizes this year, and spend an estimated $2 billion in the process. Gray says there will always be a market for a big, impressive tree that skims the cathedral ceiling — but there’s no longer a Charlie Brown stigma to having a little one.