‘Tis Christmas tree season! — How to choose, put up, and maintain your Christmas tree to keep it green throughout the season

I’m not terribly picky about choosing the perfect Christmas tree at the tree farm each year. As long as it’s healthy and the right size (as big as we can fit in our living room!), I love them all. But I am a bit fanatical about taking care of the tree once we get it home. A brown or balding tree yells “neglect”—which isn’t an especially festive message. So I treat it like a prized houseplant. Happily, taking good care of your Christmas tree is pretty easy and not very time consuming, even in the busiest of seasons.

Here’s how to pick your tree, set it up, and keep it fresh until you ring in the new year (at least)!

At the tree farm or tree vendor

Each year, our family (grown kids and grandkids) kick off the Christmas season with an expedition to a local tree farm, where we cut our own trees. An extra perk—besides the added fun—is that you get the freshest tree this way. (When you buy a pre-cut tree, you don’t know how long it’s been sitting out of soil/water.) 

But whether you cut your own or buy a pre-cut tree, you can use these tips to choose a jolly good one:

• Peer into the middle of the tree. Make sure there aren’t too many dry, brown, or falling needles. For ease of putting up later, also make sure the trunk isn’t too large for your stand (lesson learned some years ago!).

• Hold a branch and gently pull towards you. You shouldn’t wind up with a handful of needles.

• If you’re choosing a potted tree to plant later or to keep as an indoor plant, make sure it’s a suitable variety. Norfolk pines are often good choices.

• If you like a natural look and want to avoid adding chemicals to the environment, avoid trees that have been sprayed. (Some farms spray their trees to make them appear greener/bluer than they are). Also look for trees that haven’t been rigidly pruned into a pyramid shape.

• It’s a good idea to have the tree wrapped. This will keep the branches from being dried out or damaged from blowing in the (60 mph) wind on the way home. Most tree farms will wrap the tree for you. Otherwise, you could throw a tarp over it for protection.

If you do cut your own tree, please keep things merry and bright for everyone in the future by taking care at the tree farm. Don’t damage new saplings by accidentally stepping on them or dragging your tree over them.

At home

• If you’re not decorating your tree right away, stand it in a bucket of water in an unheated garage or shed or outdoors until you’re ready.

• Right before you bring your tree indoors, give it a fresh cut. This will allow it to drink up more water in the warmer indoor environment (much like flowers do when you give them a fresh cut before placing them in a vase of water). No fancy cuts are needed; simply cut straight across, about a couple of inches up the trunk. 

• As soon as you put your tree in the stand, give it a good drink of water. Plain water. No need for additions such as aspirin, bleach, sugar, or corn syrup (all of which I’ve heard recommended). Plain water is your tree’s beverage of choice.

• Check the water. Often. I check ours twice a day. Tree stands don’t typically hold a lot of water, and a Christmas tree can drink a gallon a day. Once the bottom of the tree dries, the tree will form resin on the cut, which will keep it from absorbing water. When it stops drinking, it starts drying rapidly. The only way to get your tree more water at that point is to give it a fresh cut. (Yup, that’s right, take down the tree, give it a fresh cut, and put it back up again in a stand full of water. This is the impractical scenario that keeps me checking the water level!)

• Avoid placing your tree near a heat source, such as a heat vent or (danger!) fireplace—however cozy that looks.

• Add a humidifier if the room is very dry, to help keep the needles from drying out.

• If you’re okay with lowering the room temp just a bit, your tree might not need to drink so much, and the needles might stay nicer longer.

When the season is over

Some people are a little sad when it’s time to take down their Christmas tree. I kinda enjoy it, and I always take it down (along with the rest of our holiday decorations) before January 1 so I can ring in a fresh and tidy new year.

Here are some ideas for what to do with your tree once it’s unadorned:

• Recycle it. Some towns will pick up trees for recycling.

• Shred it for mulch, if you have access to a chipper.

• Put the tree in your backyard for wildlife. In the cold winter months, the bunnies, squirrels, birds, and field mice will appreciate it!

• Cut up the trunk, dry it, and use it in your fireplace in future months.

• Use the branches as ground cover in the garden or landscape beds.

What do you do with your Christmas tree when the holidays are over?

Do you have any tips for making Christmas trees last?

You might also like: Poinsettia plants and Recycling during the holidays.

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