MALTA — A lifetime of wishful thinking and a decade of growing are coming to market this week, as a Malta Ridge tree farm opens for its first Christmas season.
Peter Brooks’ Boulder Brook Farm will open to the public for the first time the day after Thanksgiving. The first of the fir seedlings he transplanted onto his farm are now taller than he is, and ready to be decked out with lights and ornaments.
“People always ask how or why I got into this,” Brooks said. “Not sure I have a very precise answer, other than I just know I’ve wanted to grow Christmas trees for a very long time.”
It’s a goal attained later in life than most: Brooks is 70, and retired from a varied career in forestry and personal finance.
Brooks worked a summer on a Christmas tree plantation when he was 18 and planted some trees in his mid-20s, but the idea of operating his own tree farm was unattainable for years.
“I guess it really had to wait until later in life, when I had the time and resources,” he said. “So if anything, this is kind of like a dream come true for me.”
Brooks was a teaching naturalist at educational nature centers in Connecticut and New Jersey, then a forest resources planner for New York state. His career took an abrupt turn when he became a financial adviser with Merrill Lynch. But he retained his interest in the outdoors through more than three decades in finance.
He has been involved in Saratoga PLAN since it was founded in the early 2000s and he settled down on his 28-acre farm.
Brooks’ future Christmas trees spend the first three years of their life in a nursery before they are transported to his farm. He transplanted the first batch in 2012 and learned through trial and error which varieties worked best with the moisture level and chemistry in his soil. Most of his trees are Canaan firs, the rest are almost all Fraser firs.
His 10-acre tree lot is divided into 10 sections, and he plants one section each year.
“That way you’ll always have a rotation of ages and sizes and growing,” Brooks said.
About a third of the trees die a year or two after transplant. Those that survive their third year in the ground begin a growth spurt, at which point the science of cultivating Christmas trees is supplemented with a little artistry in shaping them.
“Everybody wants that very dense, fairly pyramidal shape,” Brooks said. “The problem is, once the trees really get the root system established, once you start fertilizing, they really take off.”
He explained that the fir’s genetic blueprint calls for a single top stem to stand above all other limbs, so the tree grows rapidly there. Left unchecked, it would be a gangly tree with gaps in the classic pyramidal shape.
Brooks prunes back the top stem and blossom to stunt upward growth and encourage horizontal growth of the branches. Then he trims the branches to keep an even diameter.
It typically takes eight to 10 years to grow a marketable tree, Brooks said. But his trees took only seven years.
“I was originally planning to open next year for the first [time] but when I was going through and doing my pruning, last fall, I realized we have a whole bunch of trees that are ready to go now,” he said. “I don’t want to have 9- and 10- and 12-foot trees to prune. Then you have to get a whole new set of tools, you have to get ladders.”
His trees will cost $65 apiece. Other farms price by the foot and/or by the species, which Brooks said is justified because of the varying amounts of time and labor growing them, but he wanted to keep it simple. The price includes bailing the tree and securing it to the buyer’s vehicle, as well as a glass of hot cider. The restored 200-year-old barn on site will contain pieces of rural history on display and Christmas tree accessories for sale.
State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball will perform a ceremonial first tree cutting in a ceremony Monday morning.
Four days later, on Black Friday, the farm at 5186 Nelson Ave. Extension will open to the public for the first time.