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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Christmas Tree Selection and Care

Posted by John Fulton -

With Thanksgiving bearing down upon us, it will soon be time for the Christmas Tree lots. For many families, the Christmas Tree is the main symbol of the holidays. Several have gone to the artificial trees for convenience, allergies, or other reasons, but many still prefer to get a cut or live tree for their symbol. Here are some helpful hints to make your purchase a cut tree and then keep your tree safely through the holiday season.

Freshness is the key to having an enduring symbol of the holidays. Freshness is directly related to the moisture content in the needles. Once the tree is cut, its life functions quit. However, it will continue to function much like a wick as it absorbs moisture through the stem if placed in water. If adequate water is not available for the tree, the moisture content of the needles (moisture is lost by transpiration in your house) drops by about 35 – 50%. Trees that drop below 85% moisture will not regain their freshness.

When identifying a fresh tree, one obvious way is to cut your own (or observe it being cut). Many families make a ritual out of selecting their own tree, and you know that it is fresh that way. If you buy from a "lot" you need to buy from a reliable dealer that can give information on how long the trees have been cut. You then need to determine freshness for yourself.

Fresh trees have needles that are needles that are relatively supple and firmly attached to the twigs. All trees will have brown needles that will fall, but the green ones are the ones that count! If the green needles tend to snap when bent between your fingers the tree is probably quite dry. If temperatures are low (around zero), then all needles will snap since they are brittle. Fresh trees will have a fragrance to them. They also will have a waxy, natural green appearance, but some trees are sprayed with a needle colorant to make them greener.

When caring for your freshly cut tree, start with trying to avoid hauling the tree over a long distance where it will be exposed to the wind. Air moving across the needles is what actually dries them out. If you purchase your tree from a sales lot, buying the tree early will help insure better freshness and selection. You can then take the tree home and give it the proper attention.

Once you get the tree home, you should make a fresh cut on the trunk of the tree, place it immediately in water, and store it in a cool place (like your garage). Avoid putting the tree on the ground since it could freeze in place and be difficult to move. The cut you make at home is important. You should make a straight cut to make it easier on you and the tree will take up just as much water as if you made an angled cut.

Water is then the rule! Make sure your stand will hold enough water for your tree. A fresh tree may use up to two quarts of water the first 24 hours, and up to a quart a day for the first week. You also have to have the water level above the cut surface of the trunk to keep your tree fresh. Live trees also have critical water needs, especially since you want to plant them after the holidays.

When you locate your tree, make sure it is not by a fireplace, furnace outlet, or other heat source as they will dry it out. Closing a heat register in the area of your tree will help keep warm drafts from drying out one side of the tree.

A properly cared for cut tree, that was fresh to start with, can safely be displayed in the home for at least two weeks. The tree is actually your best indicator. If needles start dropping, and water use stops, there could be problems developing.

Hopefully these tips will help you enjoy your holiday season. This will be the last column of the season, and hopefully you've enjoyed them. For off-season horticulture information, you can check out the "In the Backyard" blog on our website at

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