For the media

Sharp employee brings cheer through holiday trees

By The Health News Team | December 15, 2023
Denise Kelly of Sharp HealthCare and the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch

Denise Kelly works for Sharp HospiceCare, but she also owns and operates the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch, her family’s Christmas tree farm.

Denise Kelly has been the program coordinator of volunteer services for Sharp HospiceCare for about 13 years. Every holiday season, however, you might find Denise in her other “office” — the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch, high up in the northeastern mountains of San Diego County

Though hospice care and conifer tree husbandry may seem unrelated at first glance, both of Kelly’s occupations are defined by careful compassion and the preservation of memories.

A family tradition

The Julian Christmas Tree Ranch has been in Kelly’s family since 1947. It all began on her grandparents’ land, then known as a guest ranch, when her father wanted to earn money to buy his own tractor. He reached a deal with another landowner to cut the trees on his property to sell as Christmas trees, using a special method to preserve the plants. His trees soon became highly coveted — businesses and families came year after year from near and far to get their own Julian Christmas Tree Ranch white fir.

Growing up, it was a cherished family tradition for Kelly to help out on the ranch each winter. As business for her father’s construction company wound down for the year, she and her siblings would join his employees in staffing the tree operation.

“It has become tradition for generations of my family and many others,” Kelly says. “People come for the full experience. It’s so picturesque, like a real-life Christmas card, especially when we get snow in the mountains. We have hot cocoa, coffee and farm animals, and you can purchase wreaths, ‘critter cones’ — cute treats to leave out for birds and squirrels — and other holiday decor made from our trees.”

That something special

There are two main distinctions between the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch and your average tree lot. Kelly says their trees aren’t your typical noble or Douglas fir. They have a unique, almost old-fashioned look — each tree, she says, has its own personality.

“We offer fresh-cut white firs, using a process called ‘stump culturing,’ which means a tree is never killed,” says Kelly. “But we also carry noble firs, some up to 9-feet tall, as well as custom, hand-wrapped wreaths and tabletop trees. We even have garlands available, if ordered in advance.”

The other major difference between the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch and other tree lots is that Kelly’s is full service. Skilled workers, including Kelly’s own sons, shimmy high up each tree to make the cut, while crew members below — affectionately known as “ground squirrels” — ensure the tree never crashes to the ground. They also make sure the tree is safely and securely loaded in a customer’s vehicle before it’s taken home.

This is more than just top-notch service; it is also a practice in sustainability. That’s because they don’t cut down the whole tree to sell it. Instead, trees grow for at least 10 years before the top portion is harvested.

The lower ring of branches then compete to become the new top. Three to five branches are removed, with the strongest ones left to become the site for two or more Christmas trees to grow from a single trunk, all with the same roots.

While the employees carefully preserve and cultivate future trees, the families who come to the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch are also preserving the past and forming new memories. And this year, anyone who visits Julian during the holidays will see one of Kelly’s family’s trees featured as the town’s centerpiece Christmas tree.

“We are honored that one of our Christmas trees was selected,” Kelly says. “And it’s already lit up and on display on the bustling Main Street in Julian.”

From rancher to hospice care

While busy, due to her two very important roles, Kelly wouldn’t change anything. Over the years, she and her husband, Ed, happily assumed the role of running the family business with the help of their sons as her father grew older. Then, Kelly’s father passed away in hospice care in 2001.

Denise Kelly of Sharp HealthCare with her family at the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch

Denise, her husband, Ed, and their sons run the ranch, which has been in business since 1947, creating a holiday tradition for generations of families.

“We were all so impressed and grateful for the care and support services we received that after my grieving period, I knew I wanted to give back,” Kelly says. “A friend who worked for Sharp suggested that I look into volunteering with the hospice team.”

Kelly immediately fell in love with the work and several years later, a full-time position became available. Her passion and experience as a volunteer made her a natural fit for the role of manager of volunteer services.

Kelly says she cannot think of two more rewarding jobs. She feels that the joy and liveliness found at the Julian Christmas Tree Ranch are a good balance to the loss and grief of working with those at the end of their lives.

More than a decade later, Kelly is still driven by the same devotion.

“I am honored to be in an environment filled with so much love and compassion,” Kelly says. “As hospice employees, we walk beside our families and serve as companions in hard times.”

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