World War II was winding down when Burney McDowell was a young boy following his uncle through the thousands of perfectly-lined trees on his nursery’s farm. “I was just really fascinated by all the trees – the hemlocks and dogwoods and other shade trees that he grew,” Burney remembers. And while life led Burney to a career as an electrician, he never lost his passion for growing.
“My wife and I had a little bit of property, so we started producing small plants. Then we grew to be a little larger. Now we’ve grown our farm to about 200 acres,” he says. Owners of McDowell’s Big Fork Nursery on Suck Creek Mountain, Burney and his wife, Portia, have spent decades nurturing plants – from flowers to shrubs to trees – and making them available to the Chattanooga area. During the years Burney was at work during the day, Portia oversaw the acres of growing greenery and the nearly 15 laborers they employed. In addition to growing plants, they also focused on landscaping and irrigation work, making them a full-fledged nursery destination.
Today, Burney is retired from his career as an electrician, but he stays busy on the farm from sunup to sundown. “We probably get up at about 6 a.m. in the morning and we’re at the nursery by 8 a.m.. If anybody tells you they have a nursery and don’t have anything to do, they’re not telling you the facts,” he jokes. Burney tends to his more than 100,000 trees until around 5 p.m. before calling it a night.
This time of year, the focus is on pruning and preening every row of trees to perfection so that it’s easy to walk through, pick out, and cut down the chosen Christmas tree. Offerings range from Hemlocks and White Pines to Norway Spruces and Leyland Cypresses. Each tree is truly a labor of love – the trees that will be strung with lights and adorned with ornaments in homes around the valley this year have been growing on Burney’s farm for eight to ten years. “There might be a few that get ready quicker and a few later, but that’s about average,” he says.
Making the tree-picking process a memorable experience is crucial to Burney and his wife, and as customer visits start ramping up around three weeks before Thanksgiving, they start getting festive. “We have a daily hay ride for kids and a bonfire where people roast marshmallows and hot dogs. That’s pretty much every day,” Burney says. Hot chocolate and hot apple cider are frequently sipped by customers as they walk through the farm, scanning the acreage for their perfect Christmas tree.
As for Burney, he says running the nursery has been a lifelong passion for him. “I just love being outside in the fresh air. I’m a natural outsider. Every year, it’s a thrill for me to see people come out and to get to enjoy the outdoors right along with them.”