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HOLIDAY HARVEST : Choose and Cut : Rangers are watching for illegal woodcutters, so do-it-yourselfers are advised to visit Christmas tree farms.


"Timberrrr!" is a familiar sound this time of year as Christmas tree hunters descend on choose-and-cut farms. If you're in the lumberjack mood, Ventura County offers upwards of 16 farms from which to choose your holiday tree.

Although most Christmas tree farms opened the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest time of the holidays is now upon us.

"The middle weekend in December is when we're most swamped," J. J. Birkenshaw said. She and her husband, Jim, own and operate Holiday Forest Ranch in Moorpark.

The family tradition of choosing a tree--ultimately strung with colorful lights and trimmed with decorations--is a painstaking decision for most. And more often than not, the children are calling all the shots.

"They're wonderful," Birkenshaw said. "The kids come in squealing and are most definitely the boss; the parents follow them."

Native to the Northern California coast, the Monterey pine is the most widely grown variety of Christmas tree at choose-and-cut farms. "Virtually all farms grow this variety," J. J. Birkenshaw said. "They adapt well to the Southern California climate and grow year-round, as opposed to some varieties that are dormant during the winter."

Unlike other crops, which need meticulous attention and care during the growing stage, Monterey pines make for easy farming.

"Weed control and pruning are really the only things we do during off-season," Birkenshaw said. "Basically, we go in and prune two to four times a year to retain the shape of the tree. Not much is done because the customers like them fat and fluffy."

Holiday Forest Ranch customers have 60 acres of Christmas conifers to choose from.

"The farm has been in business 23 years," Birkenshaw said, "and it's the oldest and largest in Ventura County."

Planted from 12-inch seedlings, the trees will reach a height of about six feet in four years.

"We offer trees from about four on up to 12 feet," she said. And after locating the chosen one, felling the tree may not prove to be as daunting as one might expect--or will it?

"The stumps are pretty soft so it's easy to cut," Birkenshaw said. However, that's for an average six- or seven-foot tree. "The larger trees take a lot more work," she said.

Thinking about venturing into the forest to cut your own conifer? Don't bother. According to the U. S. Forest Service, poachers can be slapped with a stiff fine. "Depending on how many trees have been cut and the person's attitude, the fine can be as much as $5,000," information assistant Jamie Moore said.

The Forest Service does offer the public a chance to harvest trees each year at a designated location on top of Frazier Mountain. However, the time is past--tree cutting, for a nominal fee, was offered the first and second weekends of December. Rangers will be on the lookout from now on.

If the whole idea of bending, kneeling and chopping your own tree brings visions of lumbago, you can purchase a tree from a pre-cut lot. But Birkenshaw warned: "You can't get any fresher than a choose-and-cut tree."

"Most pre-cut trees are harvested in Washington and Oregon, so there is a travel period before it reaches the lot," she said. "The tree has already started to dry because the sap runs out."

Birkenshaw has this suggestion to keep your choose-and-cut tree as fresh as possible through the holidays:

"When you get home, recut the stump one-quarter of an inch up from the bottom because the sap will run on the way home and seal the stump," preventing it from absorbing water, she said.

"After cutting, place the tree in a bucket of water overnight." Birkenshaw said a six-foot tree will absorb one to two quarts of water overnight after the initial cutting.

"Hose it off and let it drink the water all night; next morning, bring it in and put the tree in a water stand," she said.

What about dispensing an aspirin in the water stand to help keep the tree fresh?

"I'm asked that a lot from customers and my reply is, 'Only if it has a headache,' " Birkenshaw said. "The aspirin thing is just an old wive's tale."

Holiday Forest Ranch is at 4645 Hitch Blvd., four miles west of Moorpark along California 118. Hours: daily 9 a.m. to dusk through Dec. 24.

The cost is $3.50 a foot; "that's the same price since 1987," Birkenshaw said. There's a four-foot minimum so "if you choose a three-footer, you still pay for four," she said.

Customers are supplied hand saws--"sharpened every year"--and to assist in transporting the tree, wheel barrows and helpers are available. Call 523-7313.

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