Caring for a natural Christmas tree

While some families enjoy the ease of setting up an artificial Christmas tree each year, other families make the hunt for a perfect natural tree part of the holiday. The trip to a Christmas tree farm or lot becomes a tradition, as the family enjoys some hot cocoa and hunts for the perfect tree.

Once a natural Christmas tree is set up in your home, you'll want to take steps to keep it healthy. With adequate care, it can easily stay lush and green throughout the 12 days of Christmas.

Choosing a tree

Your choice of tree can be an important factor in keeping it fresh. The University of Illinois Extension says you might want to research the different types of Christmas tree available to see how long they will typically last. For example, Eastern red cedar and spruce trees may only last a few weeks, even with good care.

One advantage of Christmas tree farms is that you are often able to cut down the tree on site, leaving it as fresh as possible before you display it. If you buy a tree from a lot, ask when the trees were cut. John Ball and Davis Graper, writing for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, say trees sold on lots may have been shipped in from other markets, and may be several weeks old. They may also have been tinted to give them a greener appearance.

You can test the freshness of a tree on a lot or farm by giving it a gentle shake. It's normal for some older brown needles to fall off, but few green needles should be dislodged. You can also break off a needle near the tip of a branch and bend it; if it breaks easily, the tree has dried out.

Your tree stand should be able to easily hold the tree. The University of Illinois Extension says the trunk should be straight and measure about six to eight inches to fit in a typical stand. The National Christmas Tree Association, a trade association for the natural Christmas tree industry, says you should avoid whittling away the outer layers of the trunk to fit the stand, since these layers are the most efficient in absorbing water.

Water

The single most important factor for keeping your Christmas tree healthy is adequate hydration. Your stand should have a sizable reservoir, capable of providing at least one quart of water for every inch of stem diameter. A tree can easily take in a gallon of water within a few hours.

Provide the tree with a water source as quickly as possible. If you are planning to store the tree before displaying it, keep it in a cool, sheltered place with the trunk in a bucket of water.

When the base of the trunk is kept out of the water for too long, resin can form over the end. The University of Illinois Extension says this will keep the tree from absorbing water, making it dry out more quickly. If you are buying the tree from a lot or otherwise can't get it into water quickly, cut an inch or two from the bottom of the trunk to open new pores and restore its water absorption capabilities.

Check the water level in the stand every day and refresh it as necessary. The Old Farmer's Almanac says you should make sure that the water level never goes below the bottom of the trunk.

The National Christmas Tree Association says drilling a hole in the trunk will not improve its uptake of water. Ball and Graper say temperature of the water also won't affect absorption, and home additives—from aspirin to sugar—won't help preserve freshness.

Heat

Keeping the tree away from sources of heat will keep the needles from drying out. This will also reduce the trees fire risk, since a dry tree is more combustible.

Keep the room where the tree is displayed as cool as possible. Therese Ciesinki, writing for the real estate site Houzz, recommends putting the tree in a shady area and keeping it a safe distance from air vents and baseboard heaters. It is also helpful to keep the tree away from windows and fireplaces.

Decorative lights can dry out the tree if they are too hot. The National Christmas Tree Association says miniature lights will produce less heat, thus slowing the drying process. You should also turn the lights off overnight and when you aren't at home.

After the holidays

A Christmas tree can look good for several weeks if properly cared for. However, it will eventually need to be disposed of.

Ciesinki says it is time to remove the tree when the needles start to fall off at your touch. The branches might begin to droop low enough that the ornaments touch the ground.

Some communities will have special waste pickup days to remove and mulch old Christmas trees. Alternatively, you can mulch the tree on your own using a wood chipper. Christmas trees can also be set up in your yard to help attract birds or even submerged in a lake as a fish habitat.

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