On a chilly December morning at Patchen California Christmas Tree Farm, Marina Johnson leans over the wreath she’s working on. She trims the olive branches, clamps the arrangement into place, and holds up her work.
“This is bay leaf, and olive branches with rosemary and lavender,” she says, adding, “Usually people buy this and use the herbs for cooking.”
The herb wreath is one of several that Johnson makes at the farm. She uses plants from around the area, along with a few pinecones she gets near Lake Tahoe. At Patchen, there’s a lavender garden, holly plants, and a Mondale pine for pinecones. Johnson lives on the farm with her fiancé, Jim Beck, next to Old Santa Cruz Highway.
Beck, the owner of the Patchen tree farm, is an inventor, originally from Michigan, who decided that the rural life suited him. The couple give a tour of the farm, and halfway through, Johnson stops in front of a short, prickly, pale green plant.
“I just saw a beautiful tree for my wreath. Look at that,” she says, staring at the plant. Then, looking at Beck, “What kind of tree is that?”
“Cedar Deodara,” he says. “If you touch it once you might change your mind about making wreaths from it.”
“No,” Johnson says, undeterred. “That will look gorgeous in a wreath.”
Johnson came to California from Sweden, in the ‘60s. She worked as an au pair in Atherton.
Marina Johnson holds up a finished wreath at Patchen California Christmas Tree Farm.
She’s been making wreaths ever since she met Beck at a Los Gatos dinner party, in 2005. She made 25 the first year, and twice that many the second year. This year, she and an assistant have put together more than 400 wreaths. Each one takes about 30 minutes to assemble.
“I have cut so many of these this Christmas season, so my elbow is hurting,” Johnson says.
Wreaths are becoming a bigger part of business at the farm. Patchen still sells more trees than it does wreaths. But Beck believes that will change in the next few years. He says that empty nesters are ditching their Christmas trees in favor of wreaths. At the same time, young people in the city want to decorate for the holidays.
Erica Delgado drove down from San Francisco to buy a wreath with pine cones, holly and a red bow. “I live in a really small apartment,” she explains, “so I wanted to get something that felt Christmas-y without taking up too much space.”
The farm is quiet during Delgado’s visit. It’s more than 1600 feet up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Christmas trees dot the bright green hillside, and the occasional car passes by on the mountain roads.
This area was once the town of Patchen. A road from San Jose to Santa Cruz passed through here, and a town grew up around it. “There were several houses, a hotel, and a store and a post office,” Beck says. “There was quite a thriving little community at one time, about 150 years ago.”
Marina Johnson and her fiance Jim Beck, on Patchen California Christmas Tree Farm.
Beck is the unofficial historian of this ghost town. He thinks it would have been fun out here for the homesteaders, grizzly bears aside. He tells a story about Mountain Charlie, who built the road through these mountains and — allegedly — got in a fight with a grizzly. He lost a “chunk” of his skull in the process.
Patchen died out when Highway 17 came through the area, bypassing the mountain road. Beck now owns most of the land where the town once stood.
That’s where Patchen California Christmas Tree Farm stands today, home to the shack where Marina Johnson makes her wreaths. Beck says that the atmosphere up here is part of the appeal.
“People, for whatever reason, like to have a plastic tree. It’s very convenient. But they don’t want to miss out entirely on the smell that comes, the forest aroma that comes with the foliage. And so a wreath is a good way to substitute."