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FACES AND PLACES: Tis the season

No matter the season, Tim Shea's Nursery remains close to its roots. Trees are an important part of the business even during December when the ground is frozen and covered by snow, Tim Shea, who owns Shea's with his wife, Darlene, got started in ...

The Sheas
Darlene and Tim Shea, owners of Tim Shea's Nursery on South Washington Street in Grand Forks, sell live Christmas trees along with other holiday decorations like wreaths. (Herald photo by Jackie Lorentz)

No matter the season, Tim Shea's Nursery remains close to its roots.

Trees are an important part of the business even during December when the ground is frozen and covered by snow, Tim Shea, who owns Shea's with his wife, Darlene, got started in the tree business in the late 1960s in Bismarck when he sold trees part-time for Cashman Nursery and Landscaping in Bismarck.

Shea, then a social worker who had a job as a state vocational rehabilitation counselor, continued to sell trees for Cashman when he moved to Grand Forks in 1976.

"I'd work the state job during the day and sell trees at night," Shea said. His social work background was helpful when it came to making sales.

"I could use my people skills selling trees."

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In 1976, Shea decided he liked working in the tree business better than being a social worker so he quit his job working for the state and sold live trees for Cashman during the growing season. During the holidays, Shea also sold Christmas trees.

Getting started

In 1979, the Sheas opened their own year-round business in East Grand Forks, selling trees, flowers and other nursery stock. Five years later they built a garden center on the west side of the Red River and moved the business to South Washington Street.

Tim, who didn't have a degree in horticulture or landscaping design, took some classes after he bought the garden center and honed his skills with on-the-job training.

"I really learned by doing," he said. He and Darlene built their business up over the years, expanding the garden center's inventory and further developing the landscaping side of the business. Seven full-time employees and from 20 to 30 seasonal employees now work for Tim Shea's Nursery.

During the holiday season, hot coffee, cider and cookies welcome customers shopping for greenery, Christmas decorations and real trees. The trees are in a greenhouse connected to the center and are kept at a temperature that's between 35 and 40 degrees.

In the early years selling Christmas trees was a much colder job, the Sheas say.

"If you had it where you could stay warm, you were winning," Darlene said, recalling that one year she and Tim set up an ice house in a parking lot for shelter.

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The cold didn't deter customers, though.

"The first year, I sold 700 trees on a lot," Tim said.

Christmas tree

Christmas trees sales have been steady during the past five years, but not as brisk as the early days, Tim said. Fire codes, losing a few customers after the 1997 flood and the increased popularity of artificial Christmas trees has reduced sales of real trees, he said.

But the Sheas haven't let that dissuade that from continuing to sell real ones.

"It's our history and we enjoy doing it," Tim said.

Each year customers, many of them long-time, come to the nursery to pick out Scotch pine, balsam fir, Frazier fir and white pine trees. Balsam fir and Frazier fir, the most aromatic evergreens, are the most popular sellers, Tim said.

This weekend, the second in December, is the busiest of the holiday season for Christmas tree sales at Shea's. About 70 percent of their customers buy trees that are between 6- and 8-feet tall, Tim said.

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While many of Shea's customers come to the nursery year after year to buy trees, some of them don't set foot in the nursery.

"People call and order and we deliver them to their house," Darlene said. Shea's will even put the tree in the customer's stand if he or she requests it, she said.

The real thing

The only kind of tree that will end up in the stand of the Shea's Grand Forks home is one that once grew in the ground. For them, artificial trees can't compare to the real thing.

"It's the fragrance of the tree, it's the old-fashioned way of doing the Christmas tree. It's real," said Tim, ticking off the reasons he prefers live trees over artificial ones.

"Every tree needs a home, every home needs a tree," said Darlene, citing Tim Shea's Nursery's motto.

Bailey writes for special features sections. Reach her at (701) 787-6753; (800) 477-6572, ext. 753; or send e-mail to abailey@gfherald.com .

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