On a raw December day in northern Vermont, with a nor’easter bearing down on New England, the kitchen in Sarah Taparauskas’s circa 1850s farmhouse is a warm, inviting place to spend an afternoon. A fire blazes in the woodstove, and the scent of freshly cut balsam fills the space.
Dressed in a grey woolen hat and worn Carhartt pants, her hands stained black with balsam pitch, Taparauskas is the perfect picture of a Vermont-born and -raised craftsman. She began making wreaths 13 winters ago, as a side job in college, under the tutelage of Steve Chamberlain of Castleton, Vermont.
Chamberlain decided to bow out of the wreath-making business in 2001 and sold his supplies to Taparauskas after her three years of apprenticeship. Since then, she has made 150 to 200 per season – more than 1,200 wreaths.
For complete wreath making instructions, please see the photo gallery at the end of this article posting. A hard copy of the Winter 2009 Northern Woodlands magazine with this article feature may be purchased for $6 by ordering online or by contacting the office at 800-290-5232.
PRUNING BALSAMS FOR ANNUAL WREATHS
Balsam fir is ubiquitous throughout the northern New England landscape; in fact, there are more than 5.3 million acres of spruce-fir timberland in Maine alone. There, you could make a hundred wreaths a year for the next thousand years and you’ll not put a dent in the supply.
It’s a different story in more southern areas, however, where balsam fir is sparse. To maximize the natural resource upon which the trade depends, a wreath maker may need to think ahead. With some planning and a modest investment, small groups of trees can be managed for a continuous supply of balsam tips.
Find the right spot
When searching for the perfect wreath-production area, you’ll want to find a healthy stand of balsam firs that are all about 10 to 15 feet tall. The fewer “intruders” (other tree species), the better.
Weed the area
Just as you would weed a vegetable or flower garden, you need to weed your fir stand to ensure that each tree gets plenty of sunlight. Remove any trees of other species that are growing between the balsams or are covering up any portion of the balsams’ branches.
A healthy tree produces healthy tips, so thin the remaining firs so that they are spaced 8 to 10 feet apart, ensuring that they receive adequate sunlight on all sides. When trying to decide which trees to thin, look for some telltale signs that a tree is no longer thriving, including muted color, insect damage, or disease.
When managing for balsam tips, it’s often a good idea to lop the top of the tree off and trim the new leaders each year. Not only will the branches of a shorter tree be easier to harvest, but they’ll also be thicker, as the tree devotes energy to its branches, not its height. Also, the middle branches of a tree provide fuller, more rounded tips than do the top and bottom sections of a tree.
The needles of the balsam fir produce the food that the tree needs to survive. In order for the tree to fully recover before the next harvest, gather needles from only one-third of the tree. It’s also a good idea to set up a three-year harvest cycle, which gives a tree two years off before you prune it again.
Harvest at the right time
If you harvest balsam branches too early in the autumn, you’ll run the risk of your wreath shedding its needles before the holidays. Only harvest balsam branches after the needles have hardened, or “set.” This typically happens when the temperature has been below 40°F for at least 20 days in a row, or after three or more consecutive 20°F nights, typically sometime in November. —Amanda Kuhnert
Illustrations by Mark A. McCullough and reproduced with permission from “Growing a Continuous Supply of Balsam Fir Wreath Brush,” bulletin #7089, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Orono, Maine. http://www.umext.maine.edu