Most live Christmas trees purchased in Johnston County arrive here via flatbed trailers from farms in Western North Carolina. But some come from a farm much closer to home.
Johnstonians looking for the freshest Christmas tree – one they can cut themselves – need look no further than Northlake Christmas Trees and Nursery near Benson, where the air is full of the scent of evergreens.
As they search for the perfect tree, visitors are welcome to bring their children to walk around the fields of trees and around the lake, rimmed by maple trees with brilliant yellow, orange and red leaves.
Visitors can choose from a variety of trees, including white pine, Norway spruce, Scotch Pine, Leyland cypress, blue ice cypress and Concolor, Canaan and Douglas firs up to 15 feet. The farm also has smaller container trees for indoor decoration or to plant as landscaping, including Norway spruce, Canadian hemlock and dwarf Alberta spruce.
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Owner and operator Tommy Naylor also makes wreaths, and that skill has won him a state prize and been on display at the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh.
The now one-man Christmas tree farm and nursery began in 1981, when Tommy Naylor’s father decided to start planting conifers on the family’s 40 acres on Meadowbrook Road near Interstate 40. The economy was in recession in the 1980s, Naylor said, and he’d lost his job in textiles, so he joined his father in learning which trees Johnston’s sun and soil would grow.
“My second love was always horticulture,” said Naylor, 61.
Naylor eventually went back to work, but the trees remained a hobby after his father’s death.
“This is what dad told me to do and to keep doing,” he said.
Naylor figures Johnston might have one other Christmas tree farm, in the Cleveland community, though Bryant Spivey, head of the county’s Cooperative Extension Service, was aware of only Naylor’s farm.
“There used to be a lot more,” Naylor said of tree farms. “Decades ago, the state and Cooperative Extension promoted specialty crops, and there were tree farms from the mountains to the coast. There used to be at least one in a lot of the counties. Now there are almost none east of here.”
Naylor said Onslow County has a tree farm, but the rest of Eastern North Carolina is a Christmas tree desert.
“Most of them went out of business, or the owners have aged out or died,” he said. “And the younger generation isn’t interested because it’s hard work.”
Naylor’s farm is not far from Interstate 95, meaning his market stretches far beyond the borders of Johnston County.
“I’ve had people come 150 miles,” he said. “I had someone show up with a list of farms they had marked off except mine. … They were all closed. In maybe five, 10 years, there probably will be few, if any, left. It’s a sign of the times.”
Climate also has played havoc on tree growing across the country, Naylor said, as winters get wetter and warmer and disease and pests kill or damage trees.
“It’s a natural phenomena,” he said. “But it will get cold again someday.”
Even Naylor is thinking ahead to the time he’ll give up his farm; it’s a lot of work for one man who has another job as a landscape contractor for the Town of Four Oaks. But Naylor’s not ready to hang up his saw and shears just yet.
Wearing a Virginia Tech hat, padded work gloves and a green sweatshirt that matches many of his trees, Naylor walks through his fields to assess the height, density and shape of each tree.
His fields are an experiment in conifer growth; he’ll try most any variety to see which ones he can get to flourish in Johnston County’s soil and climate.
“I wanted to sort of pioneer what can be grown out here,” he said, describing his fields as a collection of successes and failures.
Naylor has carefully planted shade-loving trees under larger trees on his farm. Others can handle more sun, so they sit in neat row after row in wide-open spaces near the lake.
“It’s something you have to be doing every month, every season of the year,” Naylor said of caring for the trees.
All trees need shearing at least once a year. Some require two shearings to ensure ample density for ornaments and to keep that classic Christmas-tree shape.
Through Dec. 18, Naylor will sell his trees before closing up shop for the season. Some will travel to Florida as people stop by on their way home after visiting family up North.
And Naylor will be on hand to educate his visitors on the right tree for them. He knows which ones will travel well and keep their needles longest. He knows how to best care for them once cut. He knows which ones like shade or sun, warmth or frost.
And he hopes people will continue coming to his farm to make memories.
“I’ve always wanted to create a beautiful place where people can come and enjoy themselves and create a tradition,” he said. “I love it, and I want other people to love it and see the beauty in it too.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett
Want to go?
Northlake Christmas Tree Farm and Nursery, 7326 Meadowbrook Road, Benson.
919-894-3524 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Open for Christmas trees Nov. 25-Dec. 18; 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 1-6 p.m. Sunday.
Saws, restrooms, wrapping and cutting service available.