Dennis Duke had always had an interest in planting trees. Ever since he was 12 years old, when he first planted his first pine tree seed through his school's 4-H Club, the 73-year-old enthusiast has been poking seeds into the ground and watching his hard work flourish.

When he got the opportunity to plant them full time, he took it and started the Hilltop Tree Farm.

The Hilltop Tree Farm, at 8023 Mt. Zion Church Road in Philpot, has been most notable for selling live pine trees every year during the Christmas season. Duke said the farm first started in the early 1980s when he and his son, Kevin Duke, started planting scotch pine and white pine Christmas trees. He'd also hand dig a small number of burlap bottom trees for Christmas.

Duke said the scotch pines were notorious for needing to be watered frequently, growing crooked and they wouldn't hold well in the tree stands during the Christmas season. For these reasons, his customers moved away from that variety and so did he. Through the years, he's transitioned from the scotch pines to the fraser firs, which can be found at his farm today because they're good for landscaping and make for a well-cut Christmas tree, he said.

When it comes to planting the trees, Duke said to get a 6- or 7-foot sellable white pine will take six to seven years--about a foot a year. And Kevin Duke said with the firs, it will take nine to 10 years to get that same 6- to 7-foot height.

Typically, Kevin and Dennis Duke will plant 200 to 300 trees a year in different fields around the farm, so each field will yield a different growth of maturity. This is how they're able to replenish their stock every year. But a successful harvest depends on the weather.

The firs typically grow in North Carolina because of the climate of the state.

"(They're) real picky because they like moisture and cooler temperatures. That's why they grow in the mountains in North Carolina," Dennis Duke said.

And that moisture from this year's spring rains helped his grove of trees. However, the August drought hurt them.

"We had 40 days of dry weather, we started to lose a lot of stuff. If you can't irrigate it, you're not going to keep them. Some of them survived it, but we're going to try to do a little more irrigation this year," he said.

"We had a bunch of 3- to 4-foot firs up on the back hill here, and it's on a hill, which they need to be on a slope (to drain well), better than flat ground," Dennis Duke said. "But out in the middle with the hill, it's sort of a swag out there, and we had so much rain, that killed some of them. It just stayed too wet all spring, and then the dryer weather, the ones out along the edges still survived."

Tree care is as important in the ground as it is in the home. To maintain a healthy-looking fir after it's purchased, Kevin Duke said to keep the tree cool and mist it regularly, even if it's decorated.

"Most of your lights, most of your ornaments that you buy at Walmart or wherever, are rated for outdoors. A mist of water will not hurt while your lights are turned on, but if you mist your tree once to twice a day, and (mist) it religiously while you have it in the house...you will be surprised how less (the needles) will drop when you take it out of the house," he said.

When Hilltop Tree Farm opened this year on Nov. 29, a flock of customers was already on its grounds walking through the tent to check out the newly cut trees and in the shop to grab free popcorn while glancing at the wreaths and Christmas tree stands that were for sale. And while some of these customers were new, others have been long-term buyers.

"We've got one lady, she's already called this year. She wants a flocked tree, 7-foot tall fir, (and is) from Hopkinsville. She calls every year and orders it, and she comes up the first weekend in December and picks it up," Dennis Duke said.

And Kevin Duke said that families have stuck with buying from the farm ever since he was a kid.

"I've grown up with a lot of kids when I was little that now have families--literally-- that are still coming here," he said. "We've got a lot of people that's been with us for 30 to 40 years."

What keeps Hilltop Tree Farm's customers coming back every year is that it offers more service than other tree lots, Dennis Duke said.

"You go to a place with tree lots set up on blacktop, no matter who it is or where it is, and that's pretty much it. We shake the trees, clean them, we bail them, we flock them, we'll do anything you want. We give the customers a lot of service.

That seems to be why our customers come back every year," Dennis Duke said.

And two such customers that have been shopping at the farm for the past five years are Greg Hocker of Philpot and his daughter, Megan Riley of Owensboro. Together, they took Riley's son, 5-year-old Grayson Riley, with them to shop for a new tree as a family.

Hocker said he buys a traditional pine instead of an artificial Christmas tree because of the tradition that's been a part of his family.

"When I was growing up, we would go to tree farms to look, for just the experience for Christmas," he said.

And it brings back a lot of memories of him cutting the Christmas tree as a kid, bringing it home and decorating it while sipping on hot cocoa.

Riley said she and her father have been going to tree farms ever since she was a child.

"So, now that I'm older, and we have our own family, we come to do that with our family, too," Riley said.

By bringing her son along, she and Hocker hope to pass the tradition on to him, making it a third generation that would enjoy and appreciate the fresh pine smell and togetherness that a traditional Christmas tree can offer during the holidays.

Devinn Winkleman, 270-691-7291, dwinkleman@messenger-inquirer.com

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