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Christmas Tree 101

Roger Cook's tips on how to buy the perfect tree, and what to do with it when you get home

Photo by Jason White

Christmas comes but once a year, and picking out the perfect tree to jolly up the living room is a family ritual full of fun and promise. But with all the different types of trees out there, it's hard to know which one is right for your holiday display. And knowing how to keep it green and fragrant once you deck it out is a talent that eludes many a yuletide reveler. "When a tree goes south," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, "ninety-nine percent of the time it's human error." So before you turn your tannenbaum into the Charlie Brown special, take a few tips from our experts on how to pick one, measure for it, and make sure it lasts through December 25 and maybe into the New Year.

Measure twice, buy once

Before you head out to the farm or tree lot, make sure you know just what size tree you can fit in your house. Measure the height of your ceiling, but remember to subtract the height of your stand and the tree topper you want to use to get the maximum tree height you can fit. Also clear the space where you'll put the tree and see how deep it is. Different species are different girths, so you want to be sure you won't be squishing the branches against the wall. And keep an eye on the size of your stand. You want to be sure the trunk of your tree will fit in it, and that it's big enough to keep your tree upright. If you're upgrading to a larger tree this year, you may need to invest in a bigger stand. Failure to measure accurately and you could have a tell-tail sign of the mistake: "If you go to someone's house and there is a big, brown streak across the ceiling," says Roger. "That's usually where they stood up a Christmas tree that was too tall."

Shop local

For the freshest and healthiest tree, you should patronize an established tree farm or a lot that brings in trees from local farms. The ones that the farms sell are grown specifically to retain their needles. Most Christmas trees are cut about 3 to 4 weeks before they arrive on the lot—usually the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to Clarke Gernon, chairman of the National Christmas Tree Association.

<p><strong>Balsam Fir</strong><br><em>Abies balsamea</em></p> <p>Northeast classic, the Balsam Fir's has dark green needles, needles that stay put, and is very fragrant.</p> <p>Other Northeast firs: <br><strong>Fraser fir</strong> (<em>Abies fraseri</em> (Pursh) Poir.)</p>

Balsam Fir
Abies balsamea

Northeast classic, the Balsam Fir's has dark green needles, needles that stay put, and is very fragrant.

Other Northeast firs:
Fraser fir (Abies fraseri (Pursh) Poir.)

Photo by <a href="http://www.realchristmastrees.org" target="_blank">The National Christmas Tree Association</a>

Know your species

The variety and popularity of Christmas trees varies geographically. There are about 16 species of Christmas trees around the United States.

The classic tree (and the least expensive) in the Northeast is a balsam fir (slide 2). It has a deep green color, excellent needle retention, and is one of the most aromatic of all the Christmas trees.

But the up and comer all along the east coast is the Fraser fir (slide 3). "It's sort of a cousin to the balsam fir—very, very attractive needles," says Roger, referring to the bluish silver underside found on the branches of this species. Frasers also have good needle retention.

The more expensive choice for the Northeast—but the popular and budget/local choice in the Northwest—is the Douglas fir (slide 4). It's more portly in shape, with a paler green color, and soft needles—which make it child friendly. However, the limbs are a bit dainty and will bend under heavy ornamentation.

From North Carolina to Texas, the Arizona cypress (slide 5) is a hit. It has a steel blue color with soft needles and a lemony mint aroma.

But the biggest seller—and low-budget choice—in the South is pine, particularly Virginia pine (slide 6), with its straight trunk and a classic pine scent. However, Virginia pine, has a lot of pitch, the natural resin that makes the branches and trunk sticky.

If you're allergic to pitch you might consider the Leyland cypress (slide 7); which has very little scent or pitch and a deep green color.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, the eastern white pine (slide 8) shows up in most tree lots. It's a basic, inexpensive pine that grows well at low altitudes.

In the colder parts of the Midwest, the hardy Scotch pine (slide 9), which grows well near the Canadian border, gets glowing recommendations for its soft, hairlike, striped needles and its ability to stand up well to transportation.

Tree lovers in the Southwest usually go for the Monterey pine (slide 10), which is deep green in color and has medium length needles and a bushy overall appearance.

In the West, especially around the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado blue spruce (slide 11) is a local favorite. It has a rounded pyramid shape, which gives it a very full appearance. It has fragrant but sharp needles, and a silvery or bluish color.

For more tree species, check out the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Identify Your Christmas Tree section.

<p><strong>Fraser Fir</strong><br><em>Abies fraseri</em></p> <p>A Fraser's needles are typically 3/4 of an inch long with a shiny dark green top and silvery bottom. </p> <p>Other region for fraser fir: Northeast</p>

Fraser Fir
Abies fraseri

A Fraser's needles are typically 3/4 of an inch long with a shiny dark green top and silvery bottom.

Other region for fraser fir: Northeast

Photo by <a href="http://www.realchristmastrees.org" target="_blank">The National Christmas Tree Association</a><br />

Get a live one (or at least a not-so-dead one)

Once you're perusing the lot, picking the right tree is like picking ripe mango: you should smell and touch.

1. Test the branches. Grab any branch on the tree between your thumb and forefinger, gently clamp down and pull towards yourself. If you end up with a handful of needles, the tree is already past its prime.

2. Crush the needles in your hand and then check the scent. "If the tree doesn't smell enough, don't buy it," says Roger.

3. Bounce the tree by holding it a few inches above the ground and dropping it. If the exterior needles fall off, it's sure sign of a bad apple. Needles that fall off from the interior of the tree are normal.

4. Make absolutely sure the tree's trunk fits your stand. Trimming the diameter of the tree by cutting away the bark will strip the tree of its cambium layer, which absorbs water. If this happens your tree is a goner.

Wrap it up

Before you tie up the tree, have the lot attendant put it through a shaker (if they have one—some farms use a blower, though a vigorous bounce will do as well). This will shake off any dead, interior needles. Don't worry—it's perfectly natural for an evergreen to have some dead needles on it from fall. Then have the tree sent through the baling machine to wrap it in netting for easy transport.

Make a fresh cut

Cutting the end off the trunk is critical to opening up the veins that will deliver water to the branches. Use a pruning saw, and take at least an inch off. You can have the lot do it before you leave if you're headed for home, but you should wait if you're going to be out more than four hours. Othewise, the end will glaze over with new pitch, and the tree won't take up water.

<p><strong>Douglas Fir</strong><br><em>Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca</em></p> <p>Needle color are either dark green or blue green and emit a sweet scent when crushed.</p> <p>Other regions for douglas fir: Midwest, West, Pacific Northwest</p>

Douglas Fir
Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca

Needle color are either dark green or blue green and emit a sweet scent when crushed.

Other regions for douglas fir: Midwest, West, Pacific Northwest

Photo by courtesy of Steven E. Clemants, <a href="http://www.bbg.org" target="_blank">Brooklyn Botanic Garden</a>

Up she goes

Now you'll have to fit the tree into the stand. Most stands have small prongs in the bottom to hold the center of the tree. After the trunk has been cut you may have to remove a few bottom limbs so that you can make contact with those prongs and the bottom of the trunk rests on the bottom of the tree stand—if not, the tree could swing side to side. While the tree is still wrapped in mesh, place it on its side and use a rubber mallet to drive the stand's prongs securely onto the trunk before tightening up the thumbscrews that hold the tree in the stand. Before tilting the tree vertical, set down some newspaper or an old rug under where the stand will be to catch any spilled water.

Drink up

Once the tree is upright, add clean water—a lot of it—as soon as possible. "People have to understand the first couple of days the tree is going to suck up at least a gallon of water," Cook says. The actual amount a tree can consume varies, so be vigilant the first two days, refilling when the stand gets low until the levels stay steady. Never let the water level drop beyond the cut end or you run the risk of pitch forming, which will seal off the tree's ability to absorb water. Roger also doesn't see the need for any additives, like aspirin or plant food, as long as the water is clean and fresh.

Decorate safely

With the tree upright and hydrated, cut off the mesh and spread out the branches. Most trees will settle and open up over a couple of hours, so you should wait to start hanging lights and ornaments. Then check all your lights for shorts and trouble spots before you string the tree, and never ever put the tree near the fireplace or lighted candles. A Christmas tree is just one flame away from a forest fire. Also, keep glass ornaments higher on the tree, especially in households with small children, who might knock them over an break them. Then enjoy your decorations for the duration, until it's time to take everything down.

Responsible disposal

There are a few ways to recycle your tree when the holidays are over. Chop it into smaller pieces and put it directly right into your compost pile, or put it through the chipper to make mulch. If you need to throw it away, check with your town—most schedule set days for tree pickup, when they come around with a chipper to turn the trees into landscaping materials or haul them off to a landfill. However, beware: Most towns won't take trees that are wrapped in any unorganic material, like the plastic disposal bags. So if you want to be neat about disposal, wrap the tree in craft paper before hauling it out to the curb.