From pruning to grasslands

Cranbrook tree farmer's techniques subject of silvopasture tour

The new pruning techniques of a local Christmas tree farmer are the subject of a “pilot project” and tour sponsored by the BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative.

The Kootenay Silvopasture Tour takes place Sept. 20, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., on Charlie Willis’s tree farm, a few miles east of Cranbrook.

Willis, of Kootenay Tree Farms, has found his new tree-pruning techniques have led to healthier, more disease resistant trees. As well, native grasses suitable for forage have been growing in and around his tree farm.

Willis said the inspiration for his new way of pruning came during a trip through the Okanagan, and observations of fruit trees and the way they were pruned.

“The way I prune a Christmas tree is the way I would prune a fruit tree,” he said. “I’ve been pruning a little higher from the ground up, allowing for more air space between the tree and the ground.” This technique makes the trees less susceptible to ground-borne diseases, Willis said.

He also has a specific method of “stump culture” pruning — after the tree is cut, the way the limbs are left on the stump from the initial pruning means when the tree regenerates it requires less pruning, with less stress on the new tree. Willis leaves the emerging limbs only on the north and south sides of the new tree, with the topmost limb on the north side of the stump.

“In the process of doing this, we’ve opened up the ground that we grow trees on,” Willis said. “There has been a subsequent increase in forage and native grasses.”

Willis said that rough fescue grasses that grow up in the more open understory are the main grasses that elk and other ungulate wildlife feed on, all year round. “In its dry form, these grasses have as many nutrients (for the elk) as green grasses.”

Thus, Willis said, by tending to the growing Christmas trees in this way, not only are the health and disease resistance of the trees improved, but local grasslands native to the East Kootenay are enhanced, and forage areas for wildlife and cattle are increased.

The BC Agroforestry Industry Development Initiative is funding the Kootenay Silviculture Tour and others like it, Willis said, to help with studies on forage availability and plant identification. In this way, Willis’s farm is serving as a sort of pilot project, as part of what will be an ongoing study on the economics of opening up forage availability on Christmas tree farms.

The Kootenay Silvoculture Tour will take place Sept. 20, starting at 9 a.m. It starts from the junction of Pritchard Road and Highway 3/93, about eight miles east of Cranbrook. Car-pooling is available if there is sufficient demand. The tour will include a discussion of Christmas tree diseases and control, a demonstration of pruning techniques, a comparision of disease incidence in pruned and unpruned plots, a forage identification demonstration, a look at how silvopasture methods can enhance forage and tree growth, and more.

If you would like to attend, call Charlie Willis at 250-489-4877, or email