By Sue Moore
“It’s all about the Christmas experience,” claims Mardee Mott as she gathers up greens, bows, holly, and boxes of decorations to display in the Mott Farm Christmas Barn.
For 24 years, thousands of family outings at Christmas have included a trip to Mott’s Farm south of Vicksburg on Y Ave. They come to purchase fresh pre-cut trees, or take a ride into the fields to select a U-cut family tree. Inside the cavernous barn it’s time to warm up, sip hot mulled cider, dazzle the eyes with freshly made arrangements and tickle the nostrils with the scents of Christmas in the country, much like an old Currier & Ives picture. They are open six days a week from noon to 7 p.m., and closed on Mondays through December 22.
The story of Mott farms actually goes back 50 years or more when Phil Mott’s grandfather was a wholesale florist in Cass County. Mott remembers scouring swamps to find the elusive wild bushes that bear the bright red-orange berries that are Michigan holly, known to horticulturists as Ilex verticillata.
His grandfather had a permit to cut the wild berries which he shipped out of state, otherwise it is illegal to cut the holly, even today. In 1970, Mott started clearing the land on Y Ave. and 21nd Street just north of the St. Joe County line, to grow the holly commercially. It took many years to start the plants from cuttings and some more years to figure out how to protect the crop from the deer that roam freely in that part of Kalamazoo County. Wholesale is still their biggest market with the harvest taking place in late October. They sell holly at the Christmas barn too but the real attraction is the Christmas trees that were planted with 220,000 seedlings in late 1980s on the farm that they bought from Maurice (Pete) Miller. It took more than seven years of trimming, fertilizing and irrigating the selection of Douglas fir, Fraser fir and lately Concolor fir, that have become the biggest selling varieties these days, according to Mott.
They closed the business for two years when the trees withered from a drought suffered in 2007 and 2008 They were begged by the public to keep going as so many people missed coming to the farm. The decision was made to install irrigation on a big section of the farm, which has been costly, but allowed them to reopen to the public with a newly-sided barn (green and white) and even greater selection of trees and trim.
Originally from Zeeland, Mardee Mott had little experience in decorating, having graduated from Western Michigan University in 1965 to become a teacher. She met this Phil guy, walking to her student teaching assignment at University High, at his gas station on Oakland Drive. He took notice of her daily commute and introduced himself, asked her out, and the rest is history. They lived in Kalamazoo when she first tried her hand at designing Christmas baskets with greens from their arborvitae tree in the back yard. “You just learn the best design as you keep trying things,” Mott explains. Her first hire to help with the decorations was showing her how to arrange things with a glue gun, and Mott had to tell her that was a no-no as she prefers all natural. They offer custom wreaths, handmade centerpieces, roping and boughs, and all kinds of tree ornaments. She has learned to do the ordering, stock the shelves with new and different items each year and stay out of the way as the staff of ten helpers is inundated with customers. “We try to sell items at the best price we can offer from high-end décor to just a dollar, so everyone can come away with something,” she says.
“The neatest thing for us has been seeing the grandparents returning each year with the kids and grandkids to experience the magic of Christmas, and the traditions they have established for their family experiences,” Mott concludes.