How do you choose a fresh Christmas tree?

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After years and years of hauling the artificial Christmas tree out of the garage and putting it together, I’ve decided I finally want to get a real tree this Christmas. How do I pick out a good Christmas tree that will last through the holiday?

  1. Choosing a real Christmas tree


    Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby

    So you’ve decided that pulling that old artificial tree out of the box, putting it together, and tossing some tinsel on it just doesn’t have the same feeling to it as getting a real tree. Unfortunately, the last time you went shopping for a real Christmas tree was 1985 and you were six, so you’re not really clear on how to pick one other than “I wanna big one.”

    Then how do you find something that fits in the house without having to cut two feet off of the top or end up with a tree that looks like the one from A Charlie Brown Christmas? We can help.

    Très bonne tree

    Depending on whether you’re buying a pre-cut Christmas tree or going to a cut your own farm, some different tips may apply. Some, like measuring the tree, are more universal.

    Let’s start by looking at the more common option these days: pre-cut trees from a neighborhood lot.

    • Decide where you are going to put the tree. You’ll want to keep the tree away from fireplaces, heating ducts, TVs — basically anything that generates heat. If you have to place it near a doorway, make sure the door will clear the tree easily.
    • Measure the space. Measure — don’t eyeball — both the height and width of the space you have available, and even if the tree is otherwise perfect, don’t buy a tree that’s taller or wider than will fit. Write down the measurements, and of course, be sure to to bring the tape measure with you when you go to get the tree. Jeff Owen of North Carolina State University reminds you to also take into account the height of the Christmas tree stand and any ornaments to be displayed on top of the tree when deciding the desired tree height. (Bonus: Smaller trees generally cost less.)
    • Look for a lot that keeps trees in a shaded area. Sun and wind will dry out a pre-cut tree quickly, even in winter.
    • Buy your tree early. No, that doesn’t mean get it in October, but many lots only get one delivery of trees per Christmas season. The longer they sit there, the more dried out they’re going to be. (It doesn’t hurt to ask if they get more than one delivery per season — if you don’t see any you like, you can stop back later.)
    • Check the needles. Lightly close your hand over a branch, then run your fingers down it — the needles (especially along the outside) should not come off easily. Lift the tree a few inches off the ground and let it fall on the butt of the trunk, very few green needles should fall off — it’s okay for some brown ones to fall. Very fresh Christmas tree needles will snap when bent like a fresh carrot.
    • Check the rest of the tree for freshness. Take a look at the body of the tree: Gently bend the tree’s outer branches, they should be soft and pliable — if they crack or snap easily, the tree is too dry. The pros at the University of Illinois Extension say that if the cut stump at the bottom is sticky with sap, that’s a good sign that the tree is still fresh. Fresh trees will also be heavy because they’re full of water. If the tree you’re looking at doesn’t meet these criteria, pick a new one. If none of them do, shop elsewhere.
    • Consider where the Christmas tree is going to be placed. “Perfect” trees cost more than ones with areas of thin branches or small “holes” in them. Can you live with one non-perfect side up against the corner where no one will see it? Then save a few bucks.
    • Make sure the base is long enough (6 to 8 inches), wide enough for your tree stand, and is straight. ‘Nuff said.
    • Bring supplies. Stuff you’ll want to have include rope or bungee cords or something useful to tie the tree to the car; an old blanket to protect the roof; some gloves to wear while you manhandle the thing into the living room. If you’ve got a long drive home, wrap the tree in some plastic to keep it from drying out on the way.

    DIY Christmas tree tips

    If you’re planning on going to a cut-your-own Christmas tree location, here are a few additional tips you may find helpful:

    • Dress for the occasion. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. Definitely bring some work gloves — the person doing the cutting and the people loading the tree will appreciate it.
    • Plan ahead. Most farms provide saws, some don’t. Call ahead. Some farms measure and price each tree individually, some just price by the foot. Again — call ahead so you’re not surprised at the register.
    • Realize that cutting down the tree is a two person job. This works best if one person lies at the base of the tree and works the saw, while another person supports the tree, gently pulling it away from the direction of the cut to keep the saw from binding. (It also keeps the tree from landing on the cutter’s head.)

    By following these simple steps, you will be able to select a beautiful tree that every member of the family will appreciate and enjoy throughout the holiday season.

    Photo: Subalpine Fir in the Dixie National Forest, Utah (USDA Forest Service)

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