Half decent Christmas trees cost $5
RALPH Hunt's Christmas Trees? Anybody here will tell you where that is. You take the road out from Camden toward Hope, turn off past the church camp ('cross from where that woman sells jam in her driveway every summer), and go on past Orville Young's place. Then you cross the creek and turn up toward Moody Mountain, where Ralph used to have his chicken farm. You'll see his house sitting up top the rise -- kind of low and modern for these parts -- and you'll see his yard littered with trees and his wreaths hanging up all over the place. That's Ralph's.Skip to next paragraph
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Chances are, Ralph will be in his garage making a wreath -- tying sprays of balsam onto a frame with a spool of wire, then trimming it into shape with hedge clippers. At another table, his wife, Gerene, will be decorating the wreaths and tying on the red bows (velvet or plastic, whichever you wish).
But Ralph, who retired from the poultry business in 1969, will hear you coming. After years of having to keep one eye out the window, this spry, garrulous Yankee trader has gone modern. This winter, he put a rubber hose across his driveway hooked up to a bell in his garage. It rings with a loud double gong. ``Best thing since the self-starter,'' says Ralph, slipping his red wool jacket over his bib overalls and heading for the door. He pronounces it ``stah-ta.''
Ralph's been growing his own trees in an eight-acre field behind his house since 1958, when he started planting 5,000 seedlings a year for five years. He says he spends just about the entire month of June trimming them -- cutting off the tops to make them fuller, and snipping off the sides to coax them into shape.
He's got Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, white fir, and Douglas fir -- and plenty of balsam fir, the runaway favorite. With tree costs in Boston climbing this season to $50 or $60 for a large tree, Ralph's Down East prices are hard to beat. His three categories of trees sell for $5, $8, and $10 -- marked by handwritten signs stuck in the lawn, each surrounded by trees of all sizes.
``Size,'' says Ralph, ``is not a factor.'' He recalls that in the late 1960s, when his first trees were ready to sell, ``I couldn't find anyone to buy them.'' A few years later, when he began to find buyers, ``I had more big trees than I did little trees.
``What I wanted to move was big trees,'' he explains, ``so I don't want to discourage anybody from buying a big tree by putting the price too high.''
In fact, he finds that ``a surprising lot of people want a tree that I believe is far too big for their house.'' He reminds them, dryly, that when you approach a doorway with a Christmas tree it mysteriously doubles in size.
But if size doesn't matter, why does he have three different prices? Because of quality, he answers. He brings the trees in on a jerry-rigged wooden contraption mounted on the front of his old red International tractor. When he gets to the driveway, Gerene stands inside the garage behind the window (where it's warm) and inspects each tree as he stands it up. Then she holds up a placard with the price on it. ``I call her `The Oracle,' '' says Ralph, pointing out a hardly noticeable place where a branc h was missing at the base of a perfectly shaped balsam that drew from her an ``$8'' instead of a ``$10'' rating.
Then what makes a good tree?
``People say, `I want a full tree.' Don't talk about a `full tree' to me,'' he snorts. ``Are you talking about density or are you talking about width? I think [a good tree] should be quite dense,'' he continues, noting that ``you don't want branches far apart.''
Whenever he cuts a tree, he tries to leave a good-sized stump with several lower limbs on it. That way, he says, it will produce new shoots and, ultimately, new trees -- sometimes two or three per stump.