If you’re one of the nearly 30 million households who will be getting a live Christmas tree this year, it’s important to keep the tree fresh throughout the entire holiday season. A fresh tree not only smells nicer than a dry, brittle tree, but it’ll also drop fewer needles, remain greener longer, and pose much less of a fire hazard.
Here are some simple steps to ensure your tannenbaum doesn't become a tannen-bummer. (A tannenbaum, by the way, is a fir tree.)
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1. Pick the freshest tree possible.
This is the most important step. Many Christmas trees are harvested weeks in advance and shipped great distances to local markets. If you’re buying a pre-cut tree from a nursery, retail store, church group, or scout troop, ask how recently the trees were harvested and where they came from.
If the trees were cut more than three or four weeks ago, shop elsewhere. Be sure to inspect the tree by feeling its needles, which should be flexible and firmly attached. Avoid any tree with dry and brittle needles.
Here’s another good indicator of freshness: Lift the tree several inches off the ground and firmly bang it on the ground. If a shower of needles drops off, keep looking.
Of course, the very best way to ensure your tree is fresh is to cut your own from a local tree farm.
“A cut-your-own tree guarantees freshness, and by going to a local farm, you know it’s going to be sustainable, so trees will be replanted, and it’ll be a selective harvest,” says Mark Derowitsch, a spokesman for the Arbor Day Foundation.
If you buy from a local farm, you’ll also preserve local jobs and open space, and cut down on shipping costs—not to mention the carbon emissions of long-distance truck transport. And if you have a choice of Christmas tree farms, choose an organic farm, which doesn’t use harmful pesticides or chemicals.
2. Show your tree some TLC immediately.
Once you’ve selected your live tree, you’ll need to take care of it immediately. Tchukki Andersen, a staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association, suggests wrapping it in a plastic tarp to protect it on the journey home. If you bought a pre-cut tree, use a handsaw or chainsaw to make a fresh cut across the bottom of the trunk, removing about an inch or so of wood.
That’s important, because once a tree is cut, sap leaks out, dries, and seals the wood’s pores, greatly hindering its ability to absorb water. According to Andersen, it takes less than three hours for sap to seal the pores. You can trim the tree’s trunk as soon as you get home or, if you live reasonably close to where you purchased the tree, you can ask the dealer to cut it for you.
To further enhance the tree’s ability to soak up water, drill a ¼-inch-diameter hole straight up the center of the fresh-cut end.
3. Water your tree the right way.
Immediately upon bringing the tree home, be sure to put it in water. Either set the tree into its stand or place it in a bucket of water if you’re not going to decorate it right away. The base of the cut tree should never dry out, in order to keep the needles fresh, so be sure to check the water level every day. In fact, a recent University of Wisconsin study confirms that watering works.
A Christmas tree typically absorbs about one quart of water for each inch of its diameter. So, a tree with a 4-inch-diameter trunk will soak up a gallon of water every day.
4. Feed the tree.
Andersen points out that some people swear by commercial Christmas tree preservatives, which can be mixed into the water in the stand. Others have said that they’ve had success by mixing a tablespoon of corn syrup or sugar into the water as a food source for the tree. Some people even add aspirin to the water.
However, the jury is still out on additives with some experts arguing that such substances are unnecessary.
5. Choose the right location for the tree.
When setting up a Christmas tree in your home, remember to keep it well away from heat sources, including heat registers, fireplaces, wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and south-facing windows, as these will speed up the drying process.
Use a digital hygrometer to check relative humidity in the room with the tree. The ideal wintertime humidity should be around 40 percent. If the room is too dry, use a room humidifier to add a little moisture to the air. That’ll keep the tree fresher longer.
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Be sure any lights you put on the tree are in good working order and are specifically designed for decorating Christmas trees. New LED (light-emitting diode) holiday lights are very affordable, long-lasting, highly energy-efficient, and they stay cool, so they reduce the risk of fire.
And this may seem obvious, but never place an open flame anywhere near the tree. According to the National Fire Protection Association, Christmas tree fires cause four deaths, 15 injuries, and over $12 million worth of property damage each year.
6. Say goodbye to your tree—the right way.
Once the holiday season is over and you’re done with your tree, don't just drag it to the curb where it’ll end up in some landfill. Instead, recycle it!
Most cities now have programs that collect Christmas trees and grind them into mulch, which is then available for free to homeowners. Or, rent a chipper/shredder and grind your tree into mulch, which you can then spread over flowerbeds, gardens, and around trees.
A chipper/shredder rents for about $80 to $100 per day, but you can offset that cost by splitting it with several neighbors.
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