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O Tannenbaum! How to pick the perfect tree

Heading out to cut down your own tree? Steve Orr, garden editor of House & Garden, offers tips on what to look for when buying.
/ Source: Weekend Today

Unless your tree comes in a cardboard box, you're probably soon about to embark on a hunt for that perfect pine. Steve Orr, garden editor of House & Garden, visited “Weekend Today” to share advice on choosing a splendid tree.  

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the second weekend in December is the busiest weekend for Christmas tree sales nationally. Christmas tree buyers in California and the southwest typically wait until this second weekend to buy their trees. In the northeast, people tend to wait for colder weather and snow before visiting the tree farms and lots, which also tends to happen closer to the holiday. By Dec. 12, an NCTA spokesperson estimates, 70% of the nation's Christmas trees will have been purchased.

The five most important things you should look for when buying a tree:

  • Freshness: It's just like going to the produce section of the supermarket. Look for the freshest trees by feeling the needles. They should feel firm and full of water. Few needles should come off in your hand. On all trees except pines, when you break one of the needles it should snap like a fresh vegetable. Pines will only bend even when fresh. Going to a tree farm is a good idea because the trees have been cut recently or you can cut your own. Trees sold in parking lots may have come a long distance and are already days to weeks old.
  • Needle texture: Each tree species has a different texture to its leaves. Spruces have short needles that give the tree a formal look. Pines have tough, longer needles that can be quite sharp. Firs have soft needles that are easy to touch without getting pricked.
  • Form: Think how you like your ornaments to look on the tree. Pines are more fully packed with less space between the branches. Spruces have more gaps to display ornaments. Firs also have a softer, more open look. Spruces tend to be slimmer, while pines have are more squat.
  • Color: Colors range from the classic green of a pine to the dusky blue of a blue spruce. Firs have a lighter green color. Concolor or white firs have a grayish tint to the needles.
  • Scent: For many people, the scent of a fresh Christmas tree is highly evocative of childhood. One of the most highly scented trees is the balsam fir. It has a highly scented resin in its bark.

What about painting a tree?
I don't think it's good to paint or flock a real tree. There are so many great artificial trees out there if you want to have a more unusual looking tree. I think real trees should be as natural as possible.

What variety lasts longer?
Balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine all make long lasting trees. A lot of it depends on the condition inside your home where it might be hot and dry. Keep trees away from heat sources (fireplaces, heaters, heat vents, direct sunlight) so that they won't dry out.

When you're cutting down a tree should you be looking for something specific?
Just look for a tree with a pleasing shape. One good thing about cutting your own tree is that you can immediately see how it will look. Trees that have been shipped are often tied up or stacked and need as much as a day to spread out fully. Once home, place the tree in water as soon as possible. Most species can go 6-8 hours after cutting the trunk and still take up water

How important is it to feed and water the tree? The most effective way to maintain freshness is to keep your tree in water. The water in the holder may need to be replenished daily. Make a fresh cut to remove a 1/4" to 1" thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Do not use additives in the water, including floral preservatives, commercial tree preservatives, molasses, sugar, bleach, soft drinks, aspirin, honey, etc. Clean water is all that is needed to maintain freshness.

When's the best time to buy a tree?
Anytime you like if you are cutting your own tree. Some families like to have a tree up right after Thanksgiving. Others like to decorate their tree on Christmas Eve. Keep in mind that most trees last longer in outdoor humidity. They will start to dry out after they are brought into the arid conditions of most households.

More tree tips

  • Real trees are a renewable, recyclable resource. Artificial trees contain non-biodegradable plastics.
  • To locate the nearest recycling program, log onto or call 1-877-EARTH911.
  • For every real tree harvested, up to three seedlings are planted in its place the following spring.