The land of Kansas is not particularly hospitable to those who want to grow trees of any kind, let alone the fast-growing evergreens that populate the Christmas tree industry.
That makes the 34 growers of the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association a group anxious to help each other thrive and promote their industry’s mission: providing fresh, homegrown, renewable holiday memories to families all across the state.
Windy Knoll Farm at Derby stands out for one niche they offer: grave “blankets” for families who wish to have a Christmas decoration for the graves of their loved ones.
“These are popular in cemeteries where you don’t have to pick up decorations in a limited time,” says Susan Grelinger, who operates Windy Knoll with her husband, Bob. “When it is cold, the greens will last for several weeks and keep a grave beautifully decorated. These used to be really popular several years ago, but they aren’t so much anymore. But we still have our regular customers who want them every year.”
Bob builds each grave blanket on a wire frame that he perfected several years ago that provides a system of wires and clamps to secure the greens in place. A wreath is added to the center of the blanket with a big red velvet ribbon and streamers. Large sugar pine cones are added for corner décor. He said it takes him about two hours to assemble one of the blankets, which sell for $109 each.
Susan said Windy Knoll, the only Christmas tree farm in the state to offer fresh grave blankets, provides blankets to a few customers every year who have grown accustomed to being able to get them. Florists and other Christmas décor providers have gotten out of the business of providing grave blankets.
SPECIAL PRODUCT: Bob Grelinger shows uses specially positioned holders to build Windy Knoll’s grave blankets. The 4.5-by-2.5-foot grave ornaments sell for about $110 during the holiday season.
Bob said his frame provides a grave blanket about 4.5 feet long and 2.5 feet wide. He said he has perfected a method of adding greenery and anchoring it with ties and clamps, which make it secure against heavy Kansas winds.
“We make them really sturdy so they hold up to the wind,” he says. “Every year we have our repeat customers who are used to getting their blankets here.”
Windy Knoll also sells Christmas trees — Scotch, Virginia and white pine — along with wreaths, garlands, swags and other décor. During the tree-cutting season, they also offer free hot cider, barrel train rides through the tree farm and photo opportunities in a genuine horse-drawn sleigh.
“We have some photographers who want to use the farm as a background and we do rent it for a small fee to let them do pictures,” Susan says. “We use the money to help us offset the cost of keeping the farm up.”
In recent years, Windy Knoll has added sales of deciduous shade trees to its inventory, and Bob invested in a tree spade to facilitate transplant of trees.
Susan says that is way to help diversify the operation and provide a bigger window of business opportunity for the approximately 10-acre farm.
“People can add trees to their landscape in the spring or the fall,” she says. “Christmas tree season is just a few weeks a year. Adding the shade trees adds a dimension to the business that gives it a longer window of time for sales operations.”
Windy Knoll Farm is also among the Kansas Christmas Tree Growers Association members that annually donate 100 trees to the “Trees for Troops” program that offers Christmas trees to military bases around the U.S. and even overseas.
Susan says she doesn’t know if there will be a “next generation” on Windy Knoll Farm.
“Our son lives in Indiana now, and he says that he would like to move back and take it over some day when we want to retire,” she said. “Our daughter has said she is not interested in taking it over. I like the thought that it might stay in the family.”