Choosing and Caring for Real Christmas Trees

A real Christmas tree brings a fragrance to a home that makes it really feel like the holidays. If you've never tried one, you may believe that they're messy and hard to care for, or you may just be stymied by the selection of trees out there. Are the more expensive ones really the best? Which ones have less needle drop? How do you care for it once you have it, and how long will it last? This guide to real Christmas trees will help you out.

Choosing a Real Tree

Here in Michigan, there are generally four kinds of real trees that are readily available. A lot of your choice will depend on what kind of look you want and how much you want to spend. A higher cost does not mean a better tree. Cost is dependent on how long it took the grower to grow the tree to the size it is. The more expensive the tree, the longer it took.

Scotch Pine

If you buy a Scotch Pine, most likely you are buying a tree grown right here in Michigan. Scotch Pines have a wonderful conical shape, a very nice pine aroma, and hold their needles very well for up to four weeks or more. Their needles are longer than the other trees, and fairly soft. Scotch Pines have a nice dark bluish green color-mostly from being sprayed. Almost all Scotch Pines are sprayed by the growers for improved color (they tend to have a yellowish tint to the needles if left natural) and to apply fire retardant. This spray is perfectly safe, and the most trouble it will cause you is that you may get some green on your fingers while you decorate. These are also the least expensive trees, since they don't take very long to get to a good Christmas tree height. The only complaint I have about them is that their branches may not be strong enough to hold heavier ornaments, and their branches tend to be spaced very close together, so it is difficult to hang ornaments deeper into the tree. Most of your ornaments will have to hang on the outer tips, but you can put your lights deeper into the tree.

Blue Spruce

These have a beautiful light bluish gray color. They have nicely spaced branches with medium length needles. Of all the varieties listed, this one has the shortest needle retention time. After about two weeks it will start dropping needles and you'll need to move it out. It is easy to decorate, not too hard on the hands, and has a pleasant aroma. These tend to be a little more expensive.

Fraser Fir

These are typically the most expensive of the four varieties, because it takes fifteen years or longer for a grower to be able to harvest them. They may be very well worth the money, though, because their branches seem to have been custom-made for decorating. The branches are strong, nicely spaced, and there are a lot of them. If you have a lot of heavy, or large ornaments, this is the tree for you. The Fraser fir has short needles and is a nice green color.

Douglas Fir

The Douglas fir falls just about in the middle of all the varieties price-wise, and is a wonderful tree. The first year my husband and I spent in our house, we chose a Douglas fir for our Christmas tree. They are a greenish-gray color, with fairly strong, well-spaced branches and medium length needles. They retain their needles very well, and don't droop as much as the Scotch pine once they start drying out.

Once you know which kind you want, inspect your tree carefully before you buy it. Give it a shake. If a ton of needles fall off, it is already dried out and won't last long in your home. Feel the needles. They should be flexible, but snap when you bend them in half. If the needles are stiff and pickery, it is a sure sign that the tree is dry. By doing these two simple checks, you will be sure to get a tree that will last in your home and not make a mess.

Caring for Your Tree

Once you get your tree home, you have a couple of options. If you are not ready to put it up yet, you'll need to store it in a garage or other protected area. A covered porch would work well, too. The first thing to do is make a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree. You want to do this because the old cut has most likely dried up and calloused over a bit, and the tree won't take up enough water if left like that. With a saw, cut about an inch off of the bottom of the tree trunk. If you are storing it until you're ready to decorate, put it in a bucket of warm water, and change the water daily until you can take it inside and decorate it.

If you are ready to put it up, the best idea is to put it in the stand while you are still outside. This will help control some of the mess of needles dropping while you maneuver the tree into the stand, and you have more room to get all the way around the tree and make sure it's straight. Once it's in the stand, take it inside, and fill the stand with water immediately. Go ahead and decorate it. A little word of advice here: if you chose a slightly pickery tree, like a Fraser fir, you might want to wear some gloves while you decorate. Some people, especially if you have sensitive skin, are irritated by the constant poking from the needles.

All you have to do to take care of the tree is check the water every day and keep the stand full of water. The first day or two, you should check it a couple times, as the tree will suck up more water at first.

If you do all of these things, you will be able to enjoy your real tree for up to a month. After you're done with your tree, you have several options. Many cities will take the tree off your curb with your regular trash pickup. Others will collect them and grind them to make mulch. You can also hang on to your tree and use it in your landscape. One option is to cut all of the branches off of the trunk and lay them over tender perennials to protect them from the coldest part of winter. Another is to simply lean the tree intact against your garage or fence (or stick it into a hole in the ground if you thought of it before the ground froze) and let it stand there. The birds will use it as a cover from harsh weather, and, if you're lucky, you may get a little family building a nest in it. There is no problem with leaving it standing well into the spring after the hatchlings leave the nest. Talk about using a tree up before you throw it out!

So, there you have it. Don't be afraid of real trees. Choose the right tree for you, follow my care instructions, and you will have a Christmas tree you can be proud of. ITGO