This year is a milestone at Shady Pond. It is the 40th year for the tree farm. During these four decades many thousands of you have taken the time to have a unique experience; Christmas at Shady Pond.
And to commemorate this anniversary, we prepared a series of five short stories that describe pivotal events that have shaped the farm into what it is today. In some cases the word ’shaped’ is too weak; very wimpy. A more masculine word is needed. One that connotes unyielding determination. A word like ‘forged’; with fire, red hot and pounding. Nonetheless, there are lots of wonderful memories. And we hope you enjoy sharing them.
So, it is Christmas time once again. And, we hope to see each of you at this most magical time of year.
Christmas Tree Varieties:
It all began as a childhood dream that came into existence very shortly after our arrival here in 1955.
Since the yard had to be moved ahead of household furnishings (you had to know Daddy), the departure from the City was a lengthy process. It took a month or more to ball and burlap the camellias and azaleas growing on our lot on Flamingo Street. But the final move of the house contents finally came in early October that year. And as our first Christmas at Shady Pond approached, we were shocked to learn that the cut trees readily available in the City were nowhere to be found in the nearby small towns of Pearl River or Slidell.
For we Gernons to abandon our traditions was unthinkable, so I headed to the woods beyond the cottage with an axe and cut a 30-foot Loblolly Pine. The top of the big Pine became the center piece of our Christmas that year. It was the ugliest tree I had ever seen but we all loved it. And from that time forward I was permanently assigned the job of finding the tree. Not a bad assignment for an 11-year-old. It was not until many years later that I learned that my annual trek to the woods was preserving a tradition begun by the Celtic Druids 2300-years earlier. Little wonder that I found this primal human link to evergreens so compelling, so natural. The dream was born.
The dream laid dormant for decades but it never vanished. Then in 1978 a news report aired on Baton Rouge TV discussing work at the LSU AgCenter relating to a Christmas tree variety that could be grown in the deep South. I was in action instantly. Very intense forces were at work; some from within, others from the outside. But all were driving things in the same direction. AgCenter foresters advised that the variety was Virginia Pine. Seedlings were ordered and by early ‘79 Shady Pond Tree Farm was a reality. It should be no surprise that from the very beginning Shady Pond Tree Farm was built to be the place where things botanical meet things mechanical.
Sales in the early years were excellent. But as the seasons came and went they diminished. The ‘shine’ was wearing off quickly. The Virginia Pines that started it all could not compete with the northern cut trees on many street corners. The pines were being viewed as just another commodity tree and not a very good one.
It was a late December evening at dinner in the mid 80's when the weak season that had just ended became an unpleasant reality. I gobbled down my meal quickly, left the table and headed for my study and its files. Even at that time I had done lots of things in life and had never failed. I was not about to accept failure at that point and definitely not at Shady Pond.
I gathered every scrap of reference material I could find and went to work. Before bed time that night the initial list of new varieties was complete and none were ‘commodity’ trees. The list included trees from Australia, New Zealand, the Himalayas, the United States, Wales, Japan, and Brazil. By lunch the following day, the plants were on order. And Shady Pond Tree Farm had become Louisiana’s Exotic Christmas Tree Plantation. As the young plants matued, Shady Pond was transformed into a stunning botanical display with visitors in person and via the internet from around the world. With help from Daddy (Edward J. Gernon, Sr,) and Samuel Boss, my childhood mentor, both of whom had long since passed; the exotic trees flourished.
The forces at play at dinner that cold Decenber evening guided me to a very unlikely path. The ghosts were at work for sure.
With Shady Pond Tree Farm’s new persona firmly in place, Dr Pam Hodson, LSU AgCenter’s media liaison, persuaded WDSU-TV to do a live remote spot from the farm. Steve Bellas was the on-camera personality that day at Christmas time 1993. Neither he nor I had any inkling as to how their visit would go except for Steve doing his regular weather segments. So, we ‘winged it’ and had lots of fun discussing the uniquely beautiful trees with their special characteristics. Shortly after we broke the remote feed to the station, Steve announced that the control room had called and asked him to ask me if they could stay and do the mid-day weather from the farm. I agreed of course and that was the beginning of six years of programming.
The following year, Steve and I were joined by Juli Miller. Her enthusiasm for the farm was so intense that we originated the entire show from Shady Pond by satellite up-link on the first Friday in December each year. We flew hot air balloons, had choirs, discussed holiday fire safety, did trimmer demonstrations and featured trees decorated by Urban Earth Studios. Even Chef Mike Roussel from Brennan’s joined one of our broadcasts and prepared Bananas Foster among the trees; flambe and all. But my favorite was the year when we witnessed sublimation of frost from the tree tops. This is a rarely seen natural phenomena during which ice becomes water vapor without becoming a liquid. There were tiny spirals of vapor coming from each top on thousands of trees in the calm of sunrise; how beautiful. But the viewers’ favorite scenes were not the elaborate displays or demonstrations. What they enjoyed the most was really quite simple. For the viewers “walkin’-talkin’” was the best. Juli and I would walk through the trees and discuss the unique qualities of each, and the magic of Christmas.
The WDSU Morning Show provided a valuable opportunity to hone my on-camera skill and coupled with unwavering support from Juli ultimately lead to appearances on NBC’s Today Show in Rockefeller Plaza, Nrw York to discuss Christmas trees from across the Nation.In my final appearance on the Today Show, I was interviewed by David Bloom. We ran about 6-minutes and closed the show that day. In high level programming the rule is to ‘back load’ meaning that the best block is scheduled last. So, closing the show was a lofty honor for the Christmas tree presehtation.
Unfortunately, David died from a major cardiovascular problem while on assignment in Iraq the following April; sad.
I waited until the latest possible time to prepare for the monster. I wanted to have a clear understanding of its forecasted track. As I boarded windows and moved the equipment into open fields (a standard hurricane precaution here for the last half-century), the heat was extreme. It foretold the intensity of what was to come. I had fueled my diesel truck the night before. I gathered food and clothes, and headed to Clarke Jr.’s house in Baton Rouge. To avoid the risk of getting stuck in traffic on the interstate, I had mapped a route that would take me through the ‘woods’. I was in BR’s Garden District in record time, only 2 ½ -hours. Once in the vicinity of Horace Street, I immediately refueled.
That night was rough with little sleep. . The power-lines were whipping in the wind and the high voltage fuses sounded like canons when they blew. But the real wind was still 12-hours away. And we had to evacuate Clarke Jr.’s house due to large tree sections going down in the high speed wind. Since we were nearly 100-miles from the eye of the storm it was hard to imagine what was happening at Shady Pond.
The following day, I purchased a generator and gathered fuel and other supplies. My plan was to attempt the return trip early the following day to the maximum extent possible. The cell signal was lost at about Hammond so I was traveling without backup. The roads were heavily littered with trees and other debris but were passable for skilled drivers. I maneuvered around State Police road blocks and finally arrived at I-59 Exit #3. From that point going was really rough. I was driving under downed trees that barely cleared the cab of my truck.
When I arrived at Shady Pond, the main entrance was inaccessible but I was able to enter the property through the tree farm entrance. I parked in the field and surveyed the damage on foot with camera in hand. It was impossible to describe. But there was surprisingly little building damage. Obviously the huge population of native trees had forced the wind to an altitude well above the ground. This spared the buildings. I moved the equipment back under cover and reconfigured the John Deere to function as a skidder.
The cleanup began almost immediately. My plan was to do enough to gain access to the Christmas trees so they could be straightened to the maximum extent possible. There were 270 native trees down. Most were Water Oaks (There’s a message here). They produced 15 burn piles. The area wide cleanup crews lusted for the piles. But my rule was that the nutrient contained in that wood came from Shady Pond and it would remain at Shady Pond being released in the fires soon to come. The small piles were about the size of a house and the big ones were the size of a small church. The fires were so dramatic that Times Picayune would send their photographer Scott Threldkel to capture them on film.
Once I gained working access to the fields, two friends, Harry Yates and Cline Church, came from Boone, North Carolina with 13 Mexican workers. They straightened 14,000 trees in a single day. And the very first telephone call I received after the huge storm was from Southern Living magazine. They asked if I was OK and if I was going to be able to open for Christmas, I said yes. And they replied, “Good, because we intend to use the power and influence of Southern Living to ‘kick start’ the economy”. And they did; for free. These two acts of compassion were the beginning of an intensely emotional and very wrenching Christmas in 2005. I was very pleased that the farm could help heal at least some of the wounds. In a television interview shortly after the storm, I showed the viewers the giant Live Oak near the big barn. I told them, “Look how beautiful it is. It had gone down in the hurricane of 1947 and never stopped growing. So, today it shows us the future.”
In the interim between Katrina and Christmas, most of the tree farm customers had begun to seriously analyze the consequences of the horrific weather event. With rare exceptions they concluded that human tradition is our anchor. It ensures that we maintain the proper equilibrium. Catastrophic events can occur for many reasons. They can take our homes, our possessions, our livelihoods, or even the lives of friends and family members but they can not take our traditions. Preserving and protecting our traditions is really quite easy. It is a simple personal choice.
It was the fall of 2013 when I discovered a tree growing in Field E that was completely devoid of any disease induced defects. The tree was a Leyland Cypress-Leighton Green and fairly large, about 15-feet. The discovery was a real jolt and really quite embarrassing. I must have passed that tree hundreds of times spraying it, trimming it, cutting the grass around it, and never once did I notice it. So its discovery immediately fell into the ‘highly unlikely’ category. Clearly, the ghosts were at work once again, and one of them must have slapped me and whispered quietly in my ear, “Look at the damn tree. You’ve been going up and down this row for years. Geez, what does it take for you to pay attention.” The other Leighton Greens surrounding the special tree showed varying degrees of disease damage and were even touching the special tree yet it was ‘clean as a whistle’. The found tree was protected with ribbon and signs indicating that it was not to be cut and would be cloned. Interestimgly, the original Leyland Cypress was also a 'found' tree. It was discovered growing on the Leighton Hall Estate in the South of Wales by John Leyland 125-years ago.
Cloning proceeded later that winter and produced about 300-duplicates. These rooted cuttings were planted in Field E once again in early 2015 and became part of a comparative test between the found tree and common Leighton Greens. Neither group was treated for any disease. I allowed nature to take its course without intervening. By the end of the second growing season most of the common Leylands were dead while the clones of the special tree were growing intensely reaching heights of 3 to 4-feet. This project had become my opportunity to watch Darwin’s Law unfold before my very eyes; a true honor.
I had written a very brief synopsis of my project in Shady Pond News shortly after setting up the field trials and received an immediate response from Dr. John Frampton at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. His comment was brief, “Can I join you?” My answer was’ yes’ but little did I know what I had gotten myself into. John Frampton is a world renowned geneticist and he fully intended on dragging his mechanical engineering buddy in to the mysterious world of genomes, RNA, DNA, RNA sequencing, expressive genes, and mutations; all to explain the origins of the special tree. He insisted that I participate in a genetics webinar that spanned 9-time zones; more than a third of the distance around Planet Earth. Then John and I did our own presentation via videoconference explaining the special tree and additional field trials he had established in North Carolina to other Christmas tree producers.
The most fascinating fact I learned on my journey into the world of genetics is that the genome (complete genetic profile) for a Leyland Cypress is 7-times bigger than the genome for a human. Now the self-image we humans hold is that we are superior to virtually every other living thing and in most cases it is true. But when it comes to genetic resources, we find ourselves a bit short; actually 18-billion short. The genome for a human has 3-billion data points but the Leyland’s genome has 21-billion, a stunning deficit. So apparently we humans did some gene culling along the way and just kept the really good ones.
As time passed, I notified the conifer registrar of the Royal Horticultural Society in England regarding the testing in progress on the found tree. The intensity of her enthusiasm was a total surprise. The Royal Horticultural Society is the designated global authority for the assignment of conifer names. The Society registered Shady Pond’s special tree on January 9, 2018. It is now internationally known as x Cuprocyparis leylandii ‘Leighton Green-Gernon’.
This ends our walk down memory lane. I hope you enjoyed our interlude in the past. And to think all this and much more began in the woods beyond the cottage while cutting down Loblolly Pines for Christmas. It’s been quite a journey that still continues. I am blessed.
And to the young among us I say, know who you are. Accurately build your self-definition. Embrace your uniqueness. Be bold. Confront your fears and control them. Live your dreams. But remember you have to have a dream to live a dream.
The timber harvest in what is now the Bald Cypress area adjacent to the tree farm entrance occurred nearly two decades ago. That area had been populated with old growth pines that had become much taller than the surrounding trees. As tall as they were, they became a frequent target for lightning strikes. The decision to harvest was ultimately based on ‘use it or loose it’. Respect for Mother Nature requires us to allow the big trees to continue to exist albeit in a different form.
Following the timber harvest, the sunlight striking the ground spawned the growth of naturally occurring grasses just as you would expect. But one of the volunteer grasses was really robust. It first emerged on the far end of the Bald Cypress area nearest the main gate. It was extremely difficult to cut and continued to spread until it covered half the area. As it advanced it overtook and killed all other grass and weed varieties. It quickly became the definition of ‘invasive’.
Then this past summer during a visit by two buddies from Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, Brent Cutrer and Blake Phillips identified it as the dreaded Cogongrass, Imperata cylindrica. The Cogongrass was probably carried here by the equipment used in the timber harvest.
Cogongrass is believe to have accidentally arrived in the US through the port of Mobile around 1912. And it is believe to have been used as a cushion filler in shipping crates. Then it was intentionally introduced in other parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida circa 1920. Since that time it has spread naturally to distant locations up the east coast. Cogongrass can be identified by several fairly intricate methods but the simplest way is to clasp a single blade between the thumb and forefinger and slide your fingers up the blade. If you feel the serrated (teeth-like) structures on the edge of the blade, it is a blade of Cogongrass. Be gentle, in some cases the serrations may draw blood. A blade of Cogongrass is similar to a blade of Pampas grass but not quite as dangerous.
Cogongrass is prevalent in undisturbed locations that are rarely, if ever cultivated. As such, it can be controlled by cultivation, or by the application of herbicide. There is almost nothing good about Cogongrass. It is a fire hazard, has no natural predators probably due to the edge serrations, has a low nutrient value and the teeth-like structures irritate the mouths of livestock. it is classified at the Federal level as a Noxious Weed, and it is regulated or quarantine by numerous states. LDAF is attempting to eradicate Cogongrass using Federal grant funds.
If you think you have a Cogongrass infestation in Louisiana, contact:
Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry
or in Mississippi, contact:
Forest Health Specialist
Cell: (601) 344-8599
So, when you arrive at Shady Pond this year, the brown areas you see are all that is left of the Cogongrass. Nonetheless, two more treatments are scheduled just to be sure.