Choosing Your Christmas Tree

Choosing a Christmas Tree
Photo: Cultura/Erin Lester /gettyimages

Choosing the family Christmas tree can be a season highlight or headache. Everyone has an opinion and generally, bigger and fuller is seen as better. Before you go looking for this year's Christmas tree, here are some tips to help you zero in on the perfect tree for you and your home.

Types of Trees

The first decision is what type of tree to go for. There are basically four choices:

  1. Pre-Cut trees


  2. Cut Your Own trees


  1. Live, Potted or Balled & Burlaped trees


  2. Artificial - These definitely have their advantages, but they will not be discussed here.

Pre-Cut Trees The obvious advantage of a pre-cut tree is convenience. There are always hundreds to choose from. The retailer will make a clean cut on the trunk for you and they will usually wrap the tree in plastic mesh, making it easier to get into the house and to set up in the stand.

The down side to pre-cut trees is that they were probably cut weeks before they appear at nurseries in your area, which is often weeks before Christmas. You are also usually limited as to variety of tree, the bulk of pre-cut trees being some type of balsam. If you are set on a particular variety of evergreen, such as a Douglas Fir, you may have to pay top dollar.

Finally, the drawback to both pre-cut and cut your own trees is that they are dead and so they are slowing drying out and dropping needles all over your floor and your presents.

And the drier they get, the more of a fire hazard they are.

Cutting Your Own Christmas tree means your tree will be fresh. It should retain its needles longer than a pre-cut tree and will probably even add more evergreen scent to your home. Most tree farm specialize in tree varieties that grow well in their area and can be sheared into the classic Christmas tree conical shape.

This means you might not have a vast choice of tree types, but your tree should be healthy and well cared for.

The looming drawback to cut your own trees is that you have to cut your own tree. Bring a sharp saw. Once its cut, you generally have to drag it back to your car, so keep that in mind when looking for the largest, fullest tree. Thankfully, many tree farms have begun realizing that most of us are not as rugged as we are sentimental, and they make the cut your own experience a little easier by assisting with the cutting and having sleighs or wagons available to cart the tree to your car.

Live Trees The final Christmas tree choice is a live tree. If you live in an area with mild winters, there are probably potted or balled and burlaped (B and B) trees available all year. If your local garden centers ship off their nursery stock before the holidays, you may need to pre-order a live tree or even buy it during the growing season.

Live trees will, of course, be the freshest choice. If your tree is potted and small enough to move, you can re-use it for several years. But if your objective is to use the tree for the holidays and then plant it in your landscape, there are several more factors to consider, like mature height and width and when are you going to get it into the ground.

If this is the direction your aiming, Keeping Your Live Christmas Tree Alive will give you some tips.

What to Look For When Choosing

Needles - Basically there are short-needled spruces and firs and long-needled pines. Of greater concern than needle length is their needle-holding ability. Something like a hemlock is totally unsuitable because the needles start dropping as soon as the tree is cut. Spruces will lose their needles more readily than pines, when drying out.

Freshness - A fresh tree will look healthy and green, with few browning needles. The needles will feel pliable and when broken and squeezed, they will exude pitch. A simple test for freshness is rubbing your hand along a branch to see if needles fall off.

Shape - Most evergreens don’t grow into perfect conical Christmas trees. Growers shear the trees each year to maintain a nice shape and to encourage the branches to fill out.

A full tree is beautiful on its own, but if you have a lot of ornaments, a tree with shorter branches might be a better fit. Ornaments get lost in lush trees, like the firs.

Also keep in mind the sturdiness of the branches. Many pines make tempting choices because of their long needles, but the branches will bend under the weight of even smaller ornaments.

  • Which Tree Suits Your Needs? Comparing Evergreen Varieties for Christmas Trees


  • Christmas Tree Shopping Tips & Safeguards


  • Taking Care of a Live Christmas Tree

Our first consideration when selecting a tree for Christmas is usually aesthetics. However, some evergreens hold up throughout the season better than others. Look a little more closely at your choice of trees before necessarily choosing the fattest or most fragrant.

Here's a breakdown of popular evergreens suitable for use as cut Christmas trees:

  • Balsam Fir or Canaan Fir - It is usually the most reasonably priced and abundant cut tree. Dark green with a slight silvery cast, Balsams have short, flat, needles that are long lasting. Very fragrant when first cut.
  • Colorado Blue Spruce - They range in color from dark green to powdery blue, with stiff 1 to 3 inch needles. The needles can be so stiff they scratch, so be careful when handling. Good needle retention, but they will drop in a warm room.
  • Douglas Fir - A beautiful, full dark green to blue variety. It holds its needles well and is very fragrant.
  • Norway Spruce - Pretty tree with poor needle retention.
  • Scotch Pine - This is one of the most popular Christmas trees. The branches are stiff with ridged, dark green needles that hold for four weeks and don't drop when dry. As a bonus, Scotch Pine has a nice, lasting aroma.
  • White Fir or Concolor Fir - This Fir is relatively new as a Christmas tree and becoming increasingly popular. The blue-green needles are 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches long with both a nice aroma and good needle retention. A very attractive tree.
  • White Pine - White Pines are having a difficult time right now. When healthy, they will retain their blue green needles throughout the holiday season. They make a very full Christmas tree. Because they have little to no fragrance they are a good choice for people who have allergic reaction to the spicier trees.
  • White Spruce - Similar to the Colorado Blue Spruce, this pretty, bluish green native of the Northern U.S. holds it's needles well, but they have an unpleasant odor when crushed.


    • Choosing Your Christmas Tree


    • Christmas Tree Shopping Tips & Safeguards


    • Taking Care of a Live Christmas Tree

Shopping Tips

Whatever type of tree you choose, here are some tips to make selecting it easier:

  • Know how tall your ceiling is before you set off shopping.


  • Determine where the tree will be displayed. If it will be on view from all sides, you'll want a symmetrical trees. If it's going up against a wall, you can get by with a less than perfect side on your tree.


  • Don't be embarrassed to take a tape measure or a pole with you as a gauge. It's much more embarrassing to have a lopped off Christmas tree. A 6-10' plant stake marked at 1' intervals makes an excellent light-weight gauge.


  • If you are going to be walking through a tree farm to cut your own, bring some pieces of bright ribbon or string to mark possible choices as you look around. Remember to remove them when you've made your selection.


  • Look for a tree with a straight base, about 6-8 inches long so you can make a fresh cut and still have room to fit it into your stand.


  • Bring your own saw or shovel and a cord or rope to tie the tree to your vehicle.


Christmas Tree Safeguards

Keep the Tree as Fresh as You Can.

  • The most important thing you can do is keep the tree watered. Cool temperatures will also help cut back on needle loss. If you are not bringing your tree in right away, let it sit in a bucket of water outdoors or in a cool place inside.


  • Try to keep it away from direct sunlight, winds and sources of heat like heaters, stoves or appliances.


  • If your tree has been sitting for more than a day, make a fresh cut at the bottom at least 1 inch above the original cut. A smooth, clean cut will help the tree absorb water more readily. Then fill the reservoir with lukewarm water.


  • Your tree begins losing water as soon as it is cut. In a heated room, a tree can absorb up to a quart of water a day, so check and fill the reservoir often. Once a tree is allowed to lose 20 percent of its moisture content, it will not be able to recover.


  • While any tree will burn if it comes in direct contact with flames, Christmas trees become a fire hazard when their moisture content falls below 50 percent, able to ignite from contact with hot lights.


    Follow some common sense rules to insure your safety during the holiday season.

    • Keep the tree away from open flames and other sources of heat. Even some appliances, like your TV, can heat up sufficiently to be hazard.


    • Keep tinsel away from the light sockets.


    • Only purchase light sets that are approved by Underwriters' Laboratories and that are wired in parallel. Always check your lights before you put them on the tree. Replace tree lights with loose connections or exposed, brittle or cracked wires. Never leave the lights on unattended.


    • Do not overload electrical circuits. If a fuse blows when you turn on your lights, it means that the line is overloaded or something is defective. Do not try to correct by replacing with a larger fuse. A typical string of lights with 36 bulbs adds 250 watts to the circuit. A 15-amp fuse handles a total of 1,500 watts.


    And for Your Peace of Mind

    To prevent staining, don't allow fallen needles, pitch or water from the reservoir to remain on carpets or upholstery.

    Don't forget to recycle your cut tree. You could have it collected and hopefully turned into mulch. Or you could use it yourself as a temporary bird refuge and feeder in the yard. You could also cut the branches off and use them to cover and protect perennials in your garden.

    • Choosing Your Christmas Tree


    • Which Tree Suits Your Needs? Comparing Evergreen Varieties for Christmas Trees


    • Taking Care of a Live Christmas Tree

    An increasingly popular option for Christmas trees is purchasing a live tree, to be planted on your property after the holidays. With a live tree, you have to consider more than what type of tree appeals to you.


    Points to Consider

    • What type of tree do you want planted on your property? A dwarf evergreen may be a better choice for a small yard or maybe a yew, juniper, arborvitae or even a holly.


    • Mature Size Along with color and texture you'll need to consider the tree’s growth rate and what its height and width will be at maturity. Fir is excellent as a cut tree, but it might not find ideal growing conditions in your yard. Pines make very good Christmas trees, but they will get very tall and as they grow, the distance from ground to the first branches increases.


    • What grows well in your area? White and Scotch pine are popularly grown, but White pines currently are suffering from decline. Norway spruce is used as a cut Christmas tree, but it's needles don't retain water well and you could have problems with a live specimen drying out while it is in your home.


    • Survival Rate. Don't select the largest tree. Smaller trees may be in better proportion to the size of the root ball and stand a better chance of survival. Whatever variety you choose, only consider trees that have been recently dug or were container-grown and that look healthy. Many times the bargain trees are leftovers from the growing season. They may be in a stressed condition and might not recover.


    • Remember, most digging stops when the ground freezes, so you may have to pre-order a tree in the fall. Container grown trees circumvent this problem.


    Caring for a Live Tree

    • Store the tree in a cool area, protected from winds, freezing temperatures and direct sunlight.


    • Check often to be sure the root ball does not dry out.


    • Once inside, keep the tree away from sources of heat such as radiators, vents or fireplaces. It will still do best in cool temperatures around 60 to 65 degrees F.


    • It's best to keep the tree indoors for as brief a time as possible, not more than two weeks.


      Planting Your Tree Outside

      • To plant your tree after Christmas you will need to dig the hole earlier, before the ground freezes. The depth of the hole should be the measurement from the bottom of the root ball to the soil level. The width should be twice the width of the root ball.


      • Place the soil you remove in a container or tarp and store until you need it to cover the planted tree. It's a good idea to keep the hole mulched and covered so it doesn't fill in or freeze. You might want to mark its location, too.


      • Do not add amendments only within the hole, as this will discourage the roots from reaching out. If the soil in the area is not fertile and well-drained, an area about 3 times the root ball should be amended in advance.


      • Plant the tree at the same depth it was grown at the nursery or in the container.


      • Once the tree is placed in the hole, remove any plastic or burlap wrapping.


      • Try to loosen the outside roots and direct them outward.


      • Refill the hole with the soil you saved and gently heel it in.


      • Water the soil thoroughly after planting and every month or so if temperatures remain mild and precipitation is light and especially if there is a thaw.


      • Once the ground around the tree has frozen, apply about 3-6 inches of mulch.


        Miss Anything?

        • Choosing Your Christmas Tree


        • Which Tree Suits Your Needs? Comparing Evergreen Varieties for Christmas Trees


        • Christmas Tree Shopping Tips & Safeguards