David Engle

David Engle, owner of Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm in Gambier, planted his first trees in 2013. 

GAMBIER -- David Engle devised a retirement plan while working as a lawyer in Cleveland in the early 2000s. He would run a Christmas tree farm on his family’s land in Gambier, with no prior tree farming knowledge.

In 2013, Engle planted his first crop of trees while still practicing law, anticipating the trees would be ready to go by the time he retired. But, the plan did not go exactly as he anticipated. 

“The first-year crop was a total disaster,” Engle said, “but it was a great learning experience.” 

Engle opened the farm — Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm — for sales last winter.

The lead-up was nearly a decade in the making, which involved a lot of reading and learning through trial and error, he said. 

How do Christmas trees become Christmas trees?

It takes approximately eight years for the trees Engle grows, Canaan firs, to reach eight feet — the size Engle said is most popular among his customers. 

A key part of ensuring proper growth is what Engle nicknamed “tree deodorant.”

“There’s a thing called anti-transpirant, which is a product that seals up the stoma on the leaves that prevents them from losing water,” he said. 

How do trees absorb water? Their roots are covered with fungi that draw water in. Engle has learned to inoculate seedlings with bacteria to improve performance. 

“Each plant has its own microorganisms, so the corn or grass won’t help a tree,” Engle said. “(Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm) had been a cow pasture for years, so once I started getting more trees in there and getting more inoculate into the ground they started growing much much better.”

As time went on, Engle also came to solidify his seasonal schedule. 

“The first year I fertilized in August not realizing that the trees had already stopped growing,” he said with a laugh. 

Now, Engle prepares for the next planting in the fall, plants in March, fertilizes in April and sheers —or shapes — in July. 

“Then it’s pretty much fighting the weeds until December,” he said. 

 Aside from learning the logistics of tree growing, Engle also learned how to fight off threats from wildlife. 

“The trees only have one natural enemy and it’s the deer,” he said. 

Male deer clean their antlers of summer velvet, typically from September through November, using tree branches. 

“You would not believe how much damage a deer can do to a tree,” Engle said. 

After facing years of damage from deer, Engle now has his two tree plots, one with tall trees and the other with short trees, each surrounded by fences. 

Engle says changing weather patterns, particularly rising temperatures in the fall, have made it more difficult to get consistent results, although experience has taught him how to improve his yield each year.

“You just gotta keep your nose to the grindstone,” Engle said when asked what he has learned through his trials and tribulations. “The first meeting, I’ll never forget, I went to this big meeting with farmers and the first guy got up and he goes ‘how many of you have lost a 1,000 trees in one year?’ 

“And everybody — I was shocked — raised their hands. And he laughed and he goes, ‘well they say you’re not a tree farmer until you kill 1,000 in a year.’ And he was right.”

Christmas on the farm

When customers arrive at Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm, they are driven to the tree plots by tractor. They can have as much time as they want to peruse the trees, Engle said. 

Customers are encouraged to cut down trees on their own. 

“Some guys show up with chainsaws,” he said. “But, we do have handsaws."

Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm

Wreaths are made from leftover branches and sold at Arbutus Glen Christmas Tree Farm. 

Engle receives support for the farm from his daughter Emily and the family of his mother’s long-time health aide.

Engle sold more than 100 trees in 2020, and he hopes to sell double that this year. In early December, Engle had already said he was running low. In addition to trees, wreaths made from leftover branches are also sold at the farm. 

Engle’s favorite moments have been seeing the awe in children’s eyes when they ride on the tractor and look up at the towering firs.

“The very first year this little boy, his dad was carrying him and he asks, ‘Can he look at the tractor?’" Engle explained. "And this little kid, he just stood there mesmerized, holding his hands."

As customers pull up to the farm this year, Engle’s mother looks on from the large window in the farm house, in mutual awe of the joyous children and constant flow of people. 

Tree sales have also served as a reunion of sorts, where Engle's old and new friends bring their families and share in a holiday tradition. 

"The little kids are just so excited about getting a tree, running around jumping totally out of control," he said. "That's the best part about it."

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Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.

Emma Davis is a 2021 graduate of the University of Richmond, from which she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and leadership studies. Emma reports for Knox Pages and Ashland Source through Report for America.