Spools of red and burgundy velvet ribbon on Frank Quinlan's dining room table are evidence of his Yuletide enterprise. The 68-year-old Williston Christmas tree farmer also uses shiny glass ornaments, real pinecones and fake huckleberries in this wreath-making sideline. Outside, on 100 acres of hilly land stretching west from Old Stage Road, the Vermont native cultivates 10,000 evergreens for his cut-your-own business. He typically parts with about 600 trees between Thanksgiving and December 25.
Quinlan, who grew up on a now-defunct dairy farm in the same neighborhood, has an avuncular look, a laconic demeanor and a wry Yankee wit. In their raised ranch, his wife Sue "does the brain work" -- she keeps the books -- for the seasonal cottage industry that he calls "a family hobby." He is responsible for the physical labor, along with their two grown children, Jay and Kathy.
Whoever's on duty can access a small trailer near the main grove to stay warm, and there's a rack of handsaws for people who forget to bring their own. On weekends, the Quinlans' daughter-in-law dresses up like Mrs. Claus to hand out candy canes and hot chocolate to customers. As the patriarch explains, "We like to make it festive."
SEVEN DAYS: What attracted you to this work?
FRANK QUINLAN: When I was a kid, we always went out into the woods and cut our own Christmas tree -- usually, a white pine. I like to plant things and watch them grow. It turned into something bigger than I ever imagined, though.
SD: What do you mean?
FQ: When I began, in '85 or '86, I planted a couple thousand trees with no idea we'd continue. I tend to start something without a plan. But they're not ready to sell for about nine years, so it's slow going. It's one of the things that stops people from going into this business.
SD: Was it a career you had envisioned when you were young?
FQ: No. I couldn't farm because of back problems. I went from job to job, things like construction, until about 1980. That's when I was hired at IBM, for line work. After 15 years, I took one of their buy-outs and retired.
SD: Where do you get your saplings?
FQ: Seedlings. I used to get them from the country foresters in Essex, but they stopped [the program] in the early 1990s. Now I buy from a commercial supplier in Maine. They cost about 95 cents each.
SD: How big are they?
FQ: At 2 years old, they're 5 or 6 inches. The 4-year-olds are about 10 inches.
SD: What types of trees do you have?
FQ: Mostly we've been planting Balsams. About three or four years ago, we added Frasers. Also some Douglas firs, to give people more variety. But 95 percent of them want Balsams.
SD: When do you put seedlings in the ground?
FQ: In the spring, as early as the weather permits.
SD: What conditions are best?
FQ: Trees are reasonably hardy. But it's better to have relatively cool summers. The past one was ideal, kind of wet. In the mid-1990s, we had a summer that was very dry. I had planted 1000, like I do every year, and all but two of them died. We lost between 3000 and 4000 trees all together.
SD: Did that discourage you?
FQ: It certainly did, but I went right back to planting. Luckily, 2004 has been a good year. We didn't hardly lose any.
SD: How much care do they need?
FQ: I buy them with bare roots and plant by hand. I walk through a lot to make sure the shoot at the top hasn't grown too much. We've got to prune the trees for fullness. And we have to make sure there are buds, which produce the branches. I also keep checking for aphids. We have to mow in between the rows. Otherwise the grass and weeds would choke the tree. Sometimes, I throw a handful of fertilizer around when we're about to harvest. That gives them better color.
SD: When do you begin selling them?
FQ: Thanksgiving weekend. People want their trees earlier and earlier. I'd rather just be open for two weeks.
SD: Do you plow when it snows so customers can walk around up there?
FQ: Can't. The trees are too close together. We got 18 inches last December and people just trudged through.
SD: Do entire families choose a tree?
FQ: Yup. But everybody sees a tree differently. What's nice for one person wouldn't be for another. When I see two or three people together, it seems to take them longer to decide than when it's just one.
SD: What do your trees cost?
FQ: It was $25. We went up to $27 this year. Some planted in another spot are on sale for $22. The pre-cuts come in two sizes, $20 or $27. We put about 30 or 35 of them out at a time. Wreaths are $13 plain and $16 all decorated. My son helps me make them. They cleaned us out last weekend.
SD: What's the advantage of buying here?
FQ: The freshness and the old tradition of cutting your own.
SD: What size tree do you prefer for your home?
FQ: We like them between 7 and 8 feet high.
SD: Do you get into the spirit
by trimming them?
FQ: I don't mind putting it up, but I don't enjoy the decorating. My wife does that.
SD: At family gatherings here, does everyone praise your tree?
FQ: Probably not.
SD: But you must take a lot of pride in them, no?
FQ: We get a lot of compliments. We have some of the better-looking trees you can find in the area. And I'm not bragging.
SD: Of course not. Do you ever commune with your trees? They are living things.
FQ: I talk to them. I'll say, "Good morning!" Guess I'm really talking to myself, but the trees are a good excuse.