Christmas Tree Selection

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

Itís time to buy a Christmas tree! What kind of tree will you buy? What is best for your home and family schedule?

Selection of a Christmas tree is an annual tradition for some families. Many families, like mine, like the experience of going to a tree farm, tromping around in the cold Ė and if itís snowy, thatís even better. We usually bring some kind of ribbon with us so we can go back to a tree and re-evaluate the shape and size before making the final decision. Before you know it, an hour or so has passed, weíve jumped through snow, or trampled through water puddles (you can never pick out a tree on a warm, dry afternoon) and agreed on the perfect tree to cut and drag home. These cut your own trees will be the freshest you can get!

However, this is not always the best way for you to choose a Christmas tree. The length of time you wish your tree to be in the house will determine what kind of tree you will buy. If, for instance, you keep your tree up for more than three weeks, an artificial tree is for you! Many sizes, shapes and varieties are available at your local retail stores or garden centers.

If you keep your tree in your house for less than three weeks, a fresh cut tree may be your choice. Many times, especially during the holiday season, time is limited. Taking a day to cut your own tree may not be the way you wish to spend valuable time. However a cut, fresh tree purchased from a tree lot may be the way to go. Many garden and retail centers sell cut trees. Boy Scouts, civic clubs or school/church groups often sell trees as fundraisers for their organizations. This is a great way to support these groups.

Remember when choosing from a retail lot to check the tree for freshness. Smell the tree for its fragrance, as the fresher the tree, the more fragrant it is. Also shake the tree to determine how many needles have dropped. If the weather is warm, and the tree has been cut for some time, many, many needles will drop - a good indication of a not-so-fresh tree.

Tree selection becomes a bit easier if you know the difference between the tree types. Christmas trees can be broken down into three basic groupings: firs, spruce and pines. Firs and spruce needles are attached to twigs individually, while the pines have clusters of needles attached to the twigs. The following are some of the most commonly grown Christmas trees in our area.

The Frasier Fir is native to the high elevations of the southern Appalachian Mountains. It has easily adapted to our climate, if youíre considering a living tree. It has excellent needle retention with wonderful fragrance. It has dark green foliage with silver on the underside of the needles, and the twigs are relatively firm for an easy to decorate tree.

Douglas Fir is a very popular Christmas tree. This tree is native to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and has also adapted well to our weather conditions. It has a natural pyramidal shape, fragrant, with somewhat drooping branches. The needles are a medium green color about 1 Ė 1 Ĺ" long. This tree has good needle retention and relatively easy to decorate. In the landscape, it serves as a great screen planting when mixed with other evergreen trees.

Balsam Fir is a long lasting, fragrant fir. This evergreen is native to northeastern US and Canada. It likes cold winter temperatures and cool summer temperatures. It has nice, dark green foliage and one of the common Christmas trees in the US. It has good needle retention and strong twigs for an easy to decorate tree. This tree resembles the Frasier fir in looks and endurance, but may not be the best choice for a live tree as our summers are too hot.

Concolor Fir has longer needles than the other common fir trees, getting up to 1 Ĺ" in length. It has a good fragrance and needle retention. The blue-green foliage makes it an interesting and attractive color for a Christmas tree. It is native to the west coast, but has adapted to our environment quite well.

Colorado Blue Spruce is a nicely shaped tree with silvery-blue color. The needles are pointy, making it rather prickly to decorate, but it does have good needle retention if kept watered. These trees are symmetrical by nature, and have strong limbs for heavy ornaments. The blue spruce works well in the landscape as a screen planting.

White Spruce has short, stiff needles with a blunt tip, making them less prickly than the blue spruce. The branches are stiff as well, making it a good choice for heavy ornaments. Needle retention is good, probably better than other spruce trees. However, when the needles are crushed, they have an unpleasant odor.

Norway Spruce has a nice dark green color but poor needle retention. It is conical by nature, and open in appearance if not sheared heavily. It has good stiff branches, making it easy to decorate. If choosing this variety, be sure to keep it well watered in a cool room and do not keep it in the house for more than two weeks.

Scotch Pine is a common Christmas tree in the US. It was imported from Europe by the early European settlers. It has longer needles, about 1"-3" in length. The needles are in clusters and a medium green color. It has fairly good needle retention when it is kept watered. It also is a very easy tree to transplant if you are considering a living tree.

White Pine is a native evergreen. It has long, clustered needles and good needle retention. It is very soft to the touch and has flexible branches, making it a tree that cannot handle heavy ornaments. It has little fragrance, but nice blue green color.

After getting your cut tree home, proper care should be taken for a safe holiday. Make a fresh cut about one inch above the already cut base. Put your tree in water right away, even if you will not be bringing it into the house immediately. Donít let the tree dry out. You donít want it to turn into a fire hazard. Treat it as you would a fresh bouquet of flowers.

Locate the tree by a wall or corner where itís not going to be knocked over. Keep the tree away from heat sources, such as fireplaces, wood stoves and heat ducts.

Another option is a live tree. A living Christmas tree should be in the house for no more than 10 days. Before entering the house, it should be conditioned first. Keep the tree in an unheated, protected location for a few days before bringing it inside. During this conditioning period, be sure the root ball is watered. If the ball dries out, roots will die, lessening the survival rate of that tree.

When bringing your tree inside, place it in a large bucket or pan to prevent the soil and water from staining the floor. Again, keep the root ball moistened at all times. Locate the tree in the coolest room of your home, away from any heat sources, just as you would a cut tree. You donít want the tree to break its dormancy, which will cause tips to grow, and then die when exposed to the cold weather again.

After you are finished with the tree indoors - and remember, no more than 10 days so it does not break dormancy Ė youíll need to re-condition it to the outdoors. Place the tree in an unheated, protected location for a few days, and then it should be ready to plant.

Hopefully, the ground wonít be frozen when youíre ready to plant the tree. You can prepare for this possibility ahead of time by digging the hole before the holidays and storing the soil in an unheated garage or storage shed. That way, when youíre ready to plant, the hole is already there, and you wonít have frozen ground to use as backfill. If, however, the hole is not dug, and the ground is frozen, place your tree in a sheltered area and mulch the root ball heavily. Keep the soil ball moist until the ground is workable.

After planting the tree, water it well and mulch it. This will protect the root ball through the rest of the winter months. The tree should remain dormant until the spring when it will start growing with all other vegetation.

Just purchasing a Christmas tree if full of decisions! Kids and adults can share in the fun of tree shopping! Donít stress, make educated decisions, and enjoy the holidays!

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