For seven years, they've grown tall and strong, reaching up, pushing out, and all for what?

To be bundled up and shoved into someone's trunk, then dragged into a living room and poked with all sorts of glass, wood and plastic.

Of course, they're also admired and photographed for several weeks and the really tall, straight ones often become legendary.

Many will be topped with cherished family keepsakes, like the tree Cathy Geldmacher, her mother and sister cut down at a South Carroll farm last week.

"It's this horrid angel thing that blinks," the 15-year-old said, as she held onto a tree while her mother, Monica, lay on the ground sawing away at the trunk.

"My husband hates it, but I bought it in a five and 10 store the first year we were married," said Monica Geldmacher of Taylorsville.

Last weekend, the push to buy Christmas trees began in the county, with many families traveling here from other counties to choose just the right tree. On the highways, car after car whizzed by with green branches waving in the wind.

Almost 500,000 Christmas trees were growing in the county as of August, the 1990 Preseason Maryland Christmas Tree Survey done by the Department of Agriculture showed.

About 20,000 of those will be sold this year, said Carville M. Akehurst, executive director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association.

Statewide, 3 million trees are in production this year, and 150,000 will be cut, he said.

The 1990 Maryland Christmas Tree Directory lists nine cut-your-own tree farms in the county, but more exist, said Roger Wolfe, owner of Pine Valley Farms near Woodbine and president of the association.

Late one afternoon last week, Catherine and Alexander Koch, neither tall enough to see over a 3-foot tree, commanded their father to cut down a 6-foot white pine.

"I want a big one," said Alexander, 2, as he and his 4-year-old sister, both wearing knee-high rubber boots, tromped with their parents through the rows of trees at Wolfe's farm.

"There's a law that you have to walk a certain distance till you start seriously looking," Ann Koch said.

When the family, who drove from Ellicott City, Howard County, decided on a tree, it took just a few minutes for Donald Koch to cut it down. His wife barely had any time to snap a picture.

"I brought a sharp saw this year," he said.

Wolfe plants about 60 acres in trees, 1,700 trees per acre.

He said people's preferences for types of Christmas trees often depend on where they grew up. People from this area, Pennsylvania and the Midwest often choose Scotch and white pines. People from the Northeast like blue spruce or balsam firs, and those from the West like Douglas and other firs, he said.

Prices for trees at farms in the county range from $15 to $30. Prices for pre-cut trees at roadside stands range from about $20 to $35.

Nancy Belt, who helps run the Feldhof Farm outside Westminster, said she sees a lot of customers from the Washington area who make a day of driving out here to choose a tree and save money; trees in the Washington or Baltimore areas can be double the Carroll price.

Groups will arrive in caravans with video cameras and footballs in hand and romp and play at the farm, enjoying the space and air of the country, she said.

Although real trees were selling well in the county, a survey by the National Christmas Tree Association last year found 50 percent of respondents used artificial trees.

Akehurst said although artificial trees have taken their toll on growers' profits, he believes their use has peaked. People get tired of the same tree year after year, he said.

Growers push real trees by saying, "It's fresh, it has fragrance and it's something different every year," he said.

Copies of the Maryland Christmas Tree Directory are available at county libraries and the County Extension Service.

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