Keeper of the trees

Published 11:32 pm Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Suffolk couple’s nursery stocks Christmas cheer

Mike Helvestine loves to see his artwork gracing the living rooms and dens of Suffolk residents.

The only thing is, they usually keep it only about two months before throwing it away.

Helvestine and his wife, Sveta, run Santa’s Forest and Nursery on Carolina Road. They spend most of their free time throughout the year caring for thousands of pine, spruce, fir and cypress trees that will eventually be chopped down, loaded onto vehicles, carried into homes around the area, mounted on stands, strung with lights, hung with ornaments and surrounded by presents.

Email newsletter signup

But Helvestine doesn’t mind that his life’s work eventually gets un-decorated and tossed to the curb.

“It’s a labor of love,” he said. “I want everybody to enjoy it. I enjoy seeing people happy.”

The business, which he and his late wife Kathy started in 1999, began as a way to do something unique and fun with his 12 acres of land.

“I wanted to find something to do that nobody else was doing,” he said. “I decided, I’ve got all this land, let me do something with it besides cut the grass.”

Not knowing what he was getting into, Mike sowed the seeds of what is now the only Christmas tree farm in Suffolk. Allowing for growing time, both for the trees and his tree-raising knowledge, it was six years before he could gather his first harvest.

“Everything is trial and error — more error than anything,” he said. “I will do something, and then I figure out what I did wrong.”

The trees cost about a dollar to get started. They are grown in the on-site greenhouse from seeds. Tiny seedlings are transferred to larger pots, and those in the larger pots go out into the field in the spring, about a year after first sprouting.

From there, it’s all a waiting game. But there’s plenty to do in the meantime.

Mike figures he spends about 30 hours a week on the farm, not to mention the hours Sveta works in the greenhouse. There’s grass to cut, trees to shape, ground to fertilize, bad bugs to kill, good bugs to encourage and all manner of other chores — and they never end.

“You cut the grass and look behind you and the grass is already grown,” he said.

Many insects can be detrimental to the trees, but Mike does his best to encourage their natural deterrents — ladybugs and praying mantises. If he spots a praying mantis nest in a tree he’s about to sell, he carefully picks it off and attaches it to a younger tree still in the field.

“All the praying mantises I can get, I’ll take them in a minute.”

As with any type of agriculture, the weather is always an issue for Christmas tree farms. It’s either too hot, too wet or too dry.

“It seems like maybe one out of every six years cooperates,” Mike said.

But it’s all worth it when Black Friday rolls around every year. That’s when the ordinary tree farm turns into Santa’s Forest, where magical things happen.

Mike recalled one time when a boy insisted on cutting down his own tree with a toy saw. His parents chose one that was already cut, and Mike slowly let the tree down by its string as the boy sawed away.

The farm is open Black Friday and every Saturday and Sunday after that until Christmas. The farm is packed every day it’s open, Mike said, even the weekend before Christmas.

“People want to get back in tradition,” he said. “They want to get out with the family and have family time. That’s what they enjoy.”

All the hard work, lost trees and disappointing weather melt away when Mike sees a family having a good time, he said. That’s why he gives out free hot chocolate, candy canes and coloring books to tree shoppers.

“To see somebody smiling and having a really good time here, that’s why I do it,” he said.