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How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh and Green

Sales of real trees are booming, but there are good fake alternatives, too

Christmas trees in a lot

courtesy Davey Tree Company

En español | No one wants a dry Christmas tree, with needles that drop off at the slightest touch. But if you've invested in a fresh tree, what's the best way to keep it green and healthy longer?

It's an important question, since many revelers are beating back the pandemic doldrums by getting Christmas trees and decorations in place a bit earlier this year.

In 2019 Americans purchased more than 26 million Christmas trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), based in Littleton, Colorado. This year Christmas tree farms and retailers across the country have seen high demand early, even though the median price for a live tree has risen 7 percent, to $81, according to the association.

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"It began the weekend before Thanksgiving, and sales were very high,” says NCTA spokesperson Doug Hundley, 70. “Retailers report consumers were lined up to get real trees, garlands and wreaths in a hurry, and buyers told retailers they were anxious to get over the COVID blues with their Christmas spirit."

Hundley, who stresses that there are plenty of Christmas trees available, says that the NCTA has introduced new COVID-19 best practices to make Christmas tree shopping safer, including selling trees outdoors and encouraging families to cut down their own tree. This interactive Christmas tree finder can help you locate options in your ZIP code.

Whether you prefer a Douglas fir, pine or cypress tree, here's how to care for your conifer throughout the holiday season.

Select your tree carefully

 Ceramic Christmas tree

Getty Images

Alternatives to a Real Tree

Live trees aren't for everyone, especially if you live in a small space or you don't want the hassle of hauling a tree home and watering it. Here are some other options for bringing festive cheer to your home.

Artificial trees have come a long way, and many have lush branches or come pre-decorated or pre-lit with LED lights. Look for one with a hinged design that sets up with one snap.

Ceramic and porcelain Christmas trees are making a huge comeback. These vintage tabletop decorations — often featuring built-in lights and a star on top — were holiday staples back in the 1970s. There are currently close to 12,000 Instagram posts tagged with #ceramicchristmastree, and miniature versions of these decorations are also gaining popularity.

Pick up a previously loved fake tree at a thrift shop. Lots of people donate their artificial trees to places like Goodwill, where you can pick up a tabletop version for as little as $5.

If you're purchasing a pre-cut tree from a seasonal tree lot or other retailer, touch the needles — they should be soft and pliable, says Hundley.

"Needles should not fall off in any significant way,” he says. “If they're dry, coarse or release in your hand, that's telling you there is a problem.”

Don't worry if you see brown needles deep inside the tree, he adds. All trees, including conifers, shed some of their foliage in the fall, and those needles may still be hanging inside the tree.

For pre-cut trees, ask which batch was delivered most recently and choose from those trees if possible. Then ask the vendor to cut a half-inch disk from the bottom of the trunk — or cut it yourself at home, says Chelsi Abbott, a Chicago-based technical adviser at the Davey Institute, part of the Davey Tree Expert Company.

"With an old cut tree, even if it's alive, the resin will leak down and clog the vascular system that takes up water,” Abbott says. “A fresh cut will prime it to take up more water.”

In addition, don't drill any holes in the trunk thinking that will help the tree absorb water. Doing this could invite rot by allowing water to get into areas it normally wouldn't, she says.

If you really want the freshest tree options, cut one yourself, says Alice Knisley Matthias, 52, a Staten Island, New York–based writer who covers gardening. Matthias typically gets a pine tree, and recommends choosing a tree with rich, overall green color and a fresh smell.

Safe Transport 

Hundley says most retailers and vendors will strap your tree to the top of your car with twine so you can safely transport it home. If you're tying it down yourself, bring a tarp to protect your car's roof, lots of twine or bungee cords, and some scissors.

Two people should lift it onto the middle of the roof with the trunk facing forward. Tie long pieces of twine onto the inside safety handles in your car, and loop them over the tree so you can tie it down securely.

This step-by-step video on the NCTA website can help, too.

Put your tree in water right away

Whether you plan to store your tree outside for a few days or bring it straight into the living room, it needs water immediately, and lots of it. Christmas trees will soak up several gallons the first day.

"Think of it like a bouquet of flowers: You wouldn't leave it sitting on your counter for a day before putting it into a vase. Same thing with your Christmas tree,” says Abbott. “It's pretty desperate for water, since it's had its root system removed."

Ignore online tips about adding orange juice, vodka, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide or aspirin to the water, or spritzing branches with hairspray, to extend the life of your tree. There's no evidence that any of these strategies work, says Abbott.

Just make sure the tree has fresh water every day so the water level stays above the base of the tree. Consider investing in a watering funnel to reduce spills and strain on your back.

If the tree dries out and the needles fall off, it could become so dry it poses a fire hazard.

Use the right stand

Your tree should sit comfortably inside its stand. Never shave the trunk to fit the stand, which encourages the tree to dry out faster. The NCTA recommends using a stand that holds one quart of water per inch of the stem's diameter. Fill the stand's reservoir completely.

Sandra Beckwith, 66, of Fairport, New York, plans to buy her tree early this year to get the best choice. She usually buys a balsam or a Douglas fir at the lot in her village run by the local Boy Scout troop. Beckwith says she pays special attention to the water level in her stand.

"We set it up in the evening, and by the next morning, the stand is almost completely dry. So it's important to check the water level frequently,” she says.

Keep your tree cool

Avoid positioning your tree near heat sources like fireplaces or heating vents, or even in direct sunlight. To slow the drying process, decorate the tree with mini-lights that don't produce a lot of heat, and keep the room at a lower temperature.

And always turn off the tree lights if you're not going to be in the room.

Give it a second life

When the holidays are over, don't just drag your tree to the curb so it ends up in a landfill. Instead, prop it up against other trees in your backyard and add some bird seed, raisins or nuts to create a little welcoming bird habitat.

You can also saw off the tree's branches and use them to protect your garden beds, or get the tree chipped into mulch. “Pine trees and conifers like spruce make excellent mulch that's very beneficial to the soil,” says tree expert Abbott.

"Or you can take cuttings of your Christmas tree and plant them as little baby trees,” she says. Soak the cut ends of branches in pots of water Once they start developing roots, plant them into small pots, upgrading them into bigger pots as they grow. When the ground thaws, plant them outside.

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