Christmas Tree Farm Photo credit: Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program
Helping gardeners and homeowners in choosing the perfect plant for their landscapes is a prime objective for the Master Gardeners. One decision that impacts those beyond avid gardeners and homeowners is the annual choice of a cut Christmas tree. Bringing a freshly cut tree into your home, having it hold irreplaceable ornaments and bear witness to the most loving traditions within your family deserves a bit of research too.
Most commercially available Christmas trees are harvested the first couple weeks of November. If you enjoy decorating your home as early as Thanksgiving or early December, you are challenging a tree to maintain its freshness in the warm, dry environment of our heated homes. To optimize the length of time a tree looks its best, seek out the freshest tree, choose tree varieties which can take indoor conditions, and optimize the environment once the tree is brought into your home.
The freshest trees are farmed locally and harvested closer to Thanksgiving. Some of these farms allow you to cut your own tree or choose a tree they will cut for you. To locate a Christmas tree grower in your area, visit the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association website.
More commonly we head to a nursery or local Christmas tree lot and choose a pre-cut tree. Popular Christmas tree species include: Douglas-fir, fraser and balsam firs, and white and Scotch pines. Canaan fir, which is offered by several local growers, is reputed to be an excellent choice for a Christmas tree. All firs have excellent needle retention, but may have problems holding heavy ornaments. White pine has longer needles and is also long lasting, but it too struggles with heavy ornaments. Scotch pine, whose needles are a less deep green than firs, is often a less expensive option and it will hold heavy ornaments with ease. Spruce species have stiff needles and branches and can handle heavy ornaments. However, their needles are very sharp and if they go dry even once, their needles will quickly fall.
When selecting a tree, look for flexible needles that remain firmly attached when you tug on them. Knock the base of the tree on the ground and check for excessive needle drop- be aware that older needles on the interior of the tree are naturally prone to shed as the tree ages. Tree color should be rich and deep. If the needles pull out easily or if they appear dull looking pass on the tree.
You may have heard of the possibility of finding the invasive pest spotted lanternfly on a Christmas tree. Even if you live in or near southeast Pennsylvania where spotted lanternfly is found, it is extremely unlikely that you will bring this pest into your home on a Christmas tree. However, you can inspect the tree's bark for grey egg masses that look like paint splatters and scrape them off if found. Check out this article for more information.
Once you’ve chosen your tree be sure to have the vendor make a fresh cut at the base of the trunk. It is not necessary to drill a hole through the center of the tree. Get your tree into a water filled stand as quickly as possible. If there is a delay in getting the tree into the stand, keep the tree in a cool location in a bucket of water. Try not to damage the bark of the tree as the vascular system is located beneath the bark, and its integrity maximizes the uptake of water and life of the tree.
Freshly cut trees will absorb water very quickly. Choose a stand with a large water reservoir relative to the diameter of the tree trunk. Initial water intake can be very rapid. Check the reservoir morning and evening if the tree is drinking water quickly, or if the reservoir is on the smaller side. Be certain that the water level is well above the cut at the bottom. If the cut is submerged the entire time your tree is in place your tree will last much longer. Additives are not necessary to keep a tree fresh- constant replenishment of water is key.
Excessive heat and dry air are environmental factors which can hasten the demise of a Christmas tree. Close heat registers near your tree, avoid placement near south and west facing windows or a well-used fireplace. Turn your thermostat down at night if possible.
Newer LED Christmas lights generate less heat than older types of lighting. Always turn the lights off when the tree is unattended.
Once the holidays are over do not allow your tree to end up in a landfill. The boughs of the tree can make a good cover for overwintering perennials. A tree tucked into an area of your yard can provide welcome cover for winter birds and be chopped apart in the spring. Alternatively, many communities offer a recycling option for trees.