The perfect Christmas tree

  Simple tips for selecting and caring for your choice



November 27, 2003

By Janet Russell

Victoria County Master Gardener


For many families, selecting a Christmas tree is an annual tradition. Bringing home the tree signals the official start of the holiday season. Proper selection of a tree will help make the season even more enjoyable. In today's market, healthy, fresh, fragrant and affordable Christmas trees are abundant and available to anyone who wishes to have a real tree. A few simple care tips will help you select and then keep your cut Christmas tree fresh and fragrant throughout the holiday season.


When buying a pre-cut tree, buy early for the best selection and to ensure your tree receives proper care. Ask the retailer whether his trees are delivered once at the beginning of the season or at different times during the selling season. I checked with the owner of a local nursery, and his trees are received in three separate shipments. The Christmas trees come from Oregon in a transport truck packed in snow. He receives a shipment a week before Thanksgiving, the week of Thanksgiving and the week after Thanksgiving. He found the best way to keep trees green is to immediately cut the trunks and place them in water. This nursery constructs tree stands, and the customer takes the tree stand home on the tree. So, when you are on the Christmas tree lot, check to see if the trees are in water.


The freshest trees should have a healthy deep green color. To test for freshness gently grasp a branch between your forefingers and pull it toward you. Very few needles should come off in your hand. Shake or bounce the tree on its stump. You should not see an excessive amount of green needles fall to the ground. Some loss of interior brown needles is normal. The base of the tree should be straight and 6-8 inches long so it will fit easily into the stand. Remember, when you bring the tree home you will need to cut 1 or 2 inches off the base of the trunk. Stand the tree in a pail of water and keep it out of the sun and wind until you are ready to decorate.


Water is the most important ingredient for keeping your tree green. Remember, trees are very thirsty. Many people have concocted mixtures for watering their Christmas trees. The National Christmas Tree Association reports that Dr. Gary Chastagner, a researcher at Washington State University, has been working with Christmas trees. His findings suggest your best bet is plain old tap water. It doesn't have to be distilled water or mineral water or anything like that. Don't believe it the next time someone tells you to add ketchup, sugar, 7-Up or even something more bizarre to your tree's stand.


When you bring the tree home, put tap water in your stand and check it twice a day. Your stand should hold at least 1 quart of water - and a 1-gallon stand is even better. If the stand goes dry, the tree trunk will seal and will not be able to soak up water. If this happens, take a screwdriver and hammer and make a cut in the trunk down to the cambium so it can begin to soak water again.


I have always found it such a nuisance to water a Christmas tree once it's decorated with a tree skirt and surrounded by presents. Gene and Marine Anderson of Guse Hardware came up with a suggestion found in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They suggested buying a funnel and a 3 to 4 foot length of vinyl tubing to slip over the funnel outlet. Fasten the funnel/tube with a twist-tie or twine in an out-of-the-way but reachable part of the tree. Extend the tubing down the tree trunk and into the reservoir. Now you can water the tree through the funnel without bending over or disturbing the tree skirt or its ornament. I am going to try this clever idea.


Heat can cause premature drying of your fresh Christmas tree. You need to locate your tree away from any heat source. Decorate with small lights, which give off little heat, or use a spotlight to showcase your collection of beautiful decorations. This will help your tree stay pretty and green. A local nurseryman suggested spraying the tree with a polymer coating that holds moisture in the needles. It is used on shrubs when transplanting. It comes in a spray bottle and does not leave a sticky residue. It is also good to use on fresh cut garland. Fresh cut trees, if properly cared for, will last at least five weeks before drying out.


If you have a desire to go out and cut down your own tree, go to the Web site and you can find Christmas tree farms in Texas. I found locations listed near Houston, San Antonio or Austin. It would be a fun day trip to go and cut down a tree for Christmas.


You may also consider a living Christmas tree. A good tree for this is a Leyland cypress. There are many varieties of Leyland cypress. I found an Irish mint variety in a local nursery. It is a fast growing evergreen tree with a pyramidal form (natural Christmas tree shape). It requires full sun, and will grow 12 to 17 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet tall. It has feathery foliage and will grow in almost any soil. The living tree will require care while decorated in your home. The cypress should be placed away from heat sources, sprayed with the polymer coating to reduce stress, and watered. The advantage of a living tree is it will stay fresh all the Christmas season, and after the holidays you will have a beautiful tree to plant in your yard.


To have a real Christmas tree is to "Buy American." The National Christmas Tree Association reports that more than 32 million Christmas trees are sold each year. Nearly all of these trees are grown on tree farms across the country. The total area of tree farms in the United States has been estimated at more than 1 million acres, and about 100,000 Americans are employed in some role in the live Christmas tree industry.


With the proper selection and care, you can enjoy a fresh tree throughout the holiday season. I wish for you the perfect tree - and a very merry Christmas!