What started out as small business operating out of a two-car garage is now a 120-acre Christmas Tree farm.
Guse Christmas Trees in Wanatah, 16 miles east of Valparaiso, is a family owned and operated business. In 1967 founder Howard Guse planted five acres of Scotch pine. These days the farm has 12 varieties of trees including Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Scotch pine, white pine and Colorado Blue spruce.
Cliff Guse, Howard’s oldest son, took over running the business almost 20 years ago.
“Things are more exotic now. We used to just have Scotch pine and white pine but customers like the more exotic trees such as the fir trees,” said Cliff Guse. “They smell much better. Fir trees grow differently, they tend to be a cleaner tree. Frasers grow straight so it’s easy to get it into the stand and the space in between the branches are open enough to get ornaments in.”
According to the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association, growing Christmas trees is very labor intensive and on average it takes about seven years to grow one tree. The trees are shaped by annual pruning every year. This process is called shearing and usually happens throughout June and July.
Scotch pine historically had been the most popular Christmas tree in the U.S. as it was strong enough to hold heavy ornaments. It grew best on farms utilizing soil that didn’t support other crops; however, this isn’t the case for fir and spruce trees.
“In the beginning the trees didn’t require fertilizer but now that we grow spruces and firs, they require more plant food,” said Cliff.
This summer the farm invested into an irrigation system for the Fraser firs.
“Fraser firs need a cool, moist climate. It’s more dry here between July and October so they need moisture,” said Cliff. “We are tricking them into growing here. A lot of frasers grow in Michigan or Canada because it’s cooler there.”
A lot may have changed over the years for this tree farm but some things don’t. For instance, the farm still serves homemade hot cocoa, a secret family recipe, free to customers on weekends.
Carrie Cusick, Cliff’s oldest daughter, grew up working on the farm.
“Grandma made the hot chocolate for a lot of years, but I finally squeaked the recipe out of her last year,” laughs Cusick. “This is the first year grandma didn’t make it herself. But she would if she could.”
Cusick said when a customer arrives, a staff member will help them decide which tree variety they prefer and point them in the right direction. The farm provides a saw, and after the tree has been cut down, the customer brings the tree back to the shop. There, the tree is shaken to remove any old, loose needles, then baled. Rope service is provided if needed.
“Before putting your tree in the stand, give it a fresh cut and plenty of water. A tree can drink several quarts a day. We’ve heard different stories of adding aspirin or sugar to your water. Your tree doesn’t have a headache or a sweet tooth,” said Cusick.
A fresh cut tree will absorb about a gallon of water within the first 24 hours. If the water level drops below the fresh cut on the base of the tree a new sap seal will form and the tree will not take up any more water.
For the last five years Amanda and Kraig Bailey of Crown Point have made it a family tradition to chop down their own tree for the holidays.
“Last year was our first year at Guse’s, and we are going back again this year. We bought a Fraser fir and it was by far my favorite kind of tree,” said Amanda.
“We love seeing families come year after year. Many families have been coming for so many years they really feel like a part of our family. It's fun watching their families grow. We say ‘our family grows your family traditions’, and I think that really is the case,” said Cusick.
The first three weekends the farm offers complementary Belgian horse-drawn wagon rides through the fields. There is a kiddie train as well as Santa between 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.