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Preston - The Hollands don't always have time to get together and cut down their own Christmas tree. They still joke about the year Mike Holland, a Navy submarine officer, didn't get one until Christmas Eve. At Walmart.
"It was not in the best of shape," he recalled.
But this year the family made the trip from Gales Ferry to Maple Lane Farms in Preston on a quiet weekday afternoon.
"It's good to get out with the family," Holland said, trekking through the fields with his wife and three daughters, reviewing the trees with a critical eye.
Some were too skinny. Others, too sparse. But the family quickly settled on a nicely shaped fir, taking turns with the saw before hauling it home.
"A lot of it's tradition, the family tradition of coming out to cut your own," said farm owner Allyn Brown III. "We have the same families ... we've seen the kids grow up from infants. Now they're bringing their kids."
On the weekends at the farm, tree-hunters eat cookies, sip hot chocolate or cider and warm up by a wood stove.
But Brown said customers also come to the farm to get a tree that's as fresh as possible, as opposed to those sold at stores, which may have been cut down a month earlier.
Brown has been growing and selling Christmas trees since the mid-1970s. It was his first crop, ideal for the rocky land and fairly easy to maintain.
"You plant it once and it's set for eight years," he said.
Brown now grows strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples and pumpkins in addition to raising oyster-shell mushrooms and black currants to make juice.
But the tree-growing business hasn't changed much. Despite a dry summer, Brown said, the wet spring made this year a good growing season. The trees have good color.
The farm now grows only fir trees - Fraser, balsam, Canaan and concolor - because they have the best needle retention, Brown said.
"We got away from the spruces, which tend to not hold their needles well," he said.
The balsams are known for their traditional Christmas tree scent, while the Fraser has less of a scent but good needle retention and firmer branches. The concolor has a citrus odor, while the Canaan has a little longer needle than a balsam and stiffer branches.
Brown said there are "a lot of myths out there" about how to make a tree last, but he recommends sticking to the basics.
"Basically it's very simple:…Keep it watered," he said.
If the water runs out, the tree will seal up and won't take up water again. Adding warm water can help, but "we don't advocate anything like adding aspirin or sugar."
"Nothing," Brown said, "has ever been proven to really help."