With the sun high and the heat scorching, John Gregory prepares for Christmas in September.
It can be tiring to prune 3,000 trees, so Gregory starts early. Three months early. The trees cover six acres of Unicorn Hill Christmas Tree Farm.
“We don’t really sell Christmas trees. We sell an experience,” Gregory said. “It’s kind of like up North, you bring your family to go and pick out a Christmas tree. That’s exactly what we’re trying to have here.”
In January, Gregory planted new trees to replace the hundreds sold during the last holiday season. He trims and tops them in May, and perfects them in September and October.
It takes about five years to grow a tree to six feet tall, Gregory said, so many of the trees have been growing on the farm for a while.
Back in 1972, after their plan to start a blueberry farm fell through, Gregory and his wife, Cathryn, took the advice of a friend to grow Christmas trees instead.
Opened in 1982, Unicorn Hill is the oldest Christmas tree farm in the Gainesville area, Gregory said.
Now the farm has seven varieties of trees, including Red Cedar, Carolina Sapphire, Blue Ice, Sand Pine, Spruce Pine, Virginia Pine and Burkii Cedar, Gregory said.
Before retiring from teaching at the University of Florida in 2007, he only worked on the farm during weekends. Today, he snips and shapes the trees in the mornings to beat the heat.
After much preparation, Gregory sells 400 to 500 trees every season.
“We always open on Dec. 1,” Gregory said. “If it’s a Saturday or Sunday, we usually sell out in five days.”
A six-foot tree usually sells for $30 to $35, and a 10-foot tree sells for about $50, Gregory said.
Gregory said about half of the customers are families that come every year. Now, even third generation families are starting to visit the farm.
Gregory lets families cut the trees down themselves, providing them with a saw.
Pat Lopez has been a loyal customer of tree farm since 1988. She said there’s just something about cutting down your own tree.
“It’s sort of an old-fashioned Christmas that they afford us,” Lopez said. “It’s become our holiday tradition.”
Starting Dec. 1, the farm, at 3605 NW 69th Street, will be open weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m. until all trees are sold.