University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Winter (holiday) News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (, 29 million households bought Christmas trees in 2006 compared to just over 9 million households with artificial trees.  Of those with real trees, most (84%) bought them at retail outlets, the others cutting their own.  If you get a tree either way

Before you even leave home, measure the space your tree will occupy—both height and width.  Then take a tape measure with you.           Trees always seem to look smaller in the great outdoors than when we get them into our homes!  This simple step can save money buying a tree too large, and extra cutting once the tree is inside.

Also, before leaving home pack a blanket or tarp to wrap the tree if you can’t fit it inside your vehicle, as well as enough rope to tie securely to your vehicle.  Some tree farms have netting sleeves to slip your trees into, as well as twine.  A pair of work gloves is useful, especially if you’ll be cutting your own, as is a hand saw

Those choosing to “cut their own tree” at a tree plantation may save money, as these growers often ask a fixed price for any tree.  Sometimes a sleigh ride or coffee and doughnuts at a warming hut are included in the price. Some firms allow you to tag your tree early to cut just before the holidays.  Good buys also can be found at retail outlets, though prices are usually higher as someone else has provided the labor and transportation.  Shop early for a wider selection of trees, and for fresh trees that will last longer.

How can you easily check for freshness?  First, pinch the needles.  If they bend rather than break, the tree is fresh.  Run your hand along the branches to see if the needles stay on or many fall off.  Or bounce the stump end of the tree on the ground.  If too many needles fall off, choose another tree.  Another way to check for freshness is to feel the base of the tree.  If it is sticky with resin, the tree was recently cut and should stand up well throughout the holidays.

Many varieties of evergreens are grown for Christmas trees, so you have several choices depending on your own preference.  The spruce has short, sharp, four-sided needles and is usually bushier than pine.  However, it doesn't hold its needles as well as other varieties.  The fir has flat, short needles and smooth bark. The pine has longer needles in clusters of two to five and will keep its needles for several weeks.  Most popular, depending on area, are balsam fir, Douglas-fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine.    

I like to shop early for the freshest trees, even if I wont use them right away.  Precut trees from retailers will last longer in a cool area (such as garage) at your home in a bucket of water than in a sales yard. Upon getting your tree home, especially if you didn’t cut your own, immediately place the base in a large bucket of warm water.  Warm water is absorbed faster than cold. Research has shown that plain tap water is best for trees to last longest.  Home concoctions such as bleach, aspirin, lemon-lime soda, and many preservatives may actually shorten tree life.

It is useful to recut a half inch off to open up the water vessels in the trunk.  One to two inches cut off is not needed as often recommended (unless you need to shorten the tree size), nor is an angled cut. 

When it's time to set up the tree, if you don’t do so just after buying, recut the base.  Get a stand that can hold the trunk. Don’t trim sides off the base of the trunk as that is where the tree takes up its water.

Use a tree stand that holds at least a quart of water for small trees, a gallon for large ones, as a freshly cut evergreen can drink that much water each day.  Generally figure on a quart of water for each inch of trunk diameter at the base.  So a trunk four inches across should have a stand holding four quarts (gallon) of water.        

If your tree doesn’t start “drinking” water right away, and you followed all these tips, it could be because the tree hasn’t adjusted from the outdoors and started to dry out if you cut your own.  Or if precut, and fresh, it may not absorb much water until it begins to dry out.      

Choose a location away from heat sources (heat vents, radiators, wood stoves, sunny windows) and doorways.  Tall trees may need to be secured with wire to walls and ceilings for support.  I have a bookcase affixed securely to the wall that I tie my tall trees to.

Be sure to check trees daily and add water as needed.  Heated rooms, especially with forced air heat, can dry out trees rapidly.  Keep in mind fire hazards of live trees indoors often are overrated by the media.  According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, both live and artificial Christmas trees are ignited in only one tenth of one percent (0.1 percent) of all home fires.  Trees that are kept fresh, using these tips, are very difficult to ignite.  The main problem with dry trees is a shorter life with needles dropping.  Pick a fresh tree, and keep it fresh, and you’ll get the enjoyment you expect over the holidays.

Return to Perry's Perennial Pages, Articles uvmext logo