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MOST OF US, at one time or another, have had less than a perfect holiday experience with a live Christmas tree. Insects, needles or sap dropping on the floor or on presents are just a few complaints of opting to decorate with a live tree.
But one thing is for certain: Nothing can add to the holiday spirit like the smell of a fresh green tree in the house. With some basic care and caution, a real tree can be as safe as an artificial tree and as easy to care for as a potted plant.
First, get a tree that fits what you want it to do. If you have heavy ornaments, you will not want a white pine or a Douglas or Fraser fir. These varieties have weak limbs and are better suited for smaller ornaments, garlands, small lights and tinsel.
Heavy ornaments are better suited for Virginia pine, Scotch pine and blue spruce. If you desire a very "smelly" tree with a strong pine scent, then you will want a Douglas fir, balsam fir or Virginia pine.
Should your preference be watching your dollars, the Scotch pine is usually the champ of affordability. All in all, the Scotch pine appears to be the best due to its good qualities such as branch strength, needle holding capability and cost. This is probably why most Christmas tree farms raise and sell more Scotch pines than any other.
Before choosing any real tree, inspect it for insects, insect egg masses or cocoons. Often these cocoons can be removed by simply pulling them off before the tree gets close to the house.
Don't purchase a tree that smells musty or has lost a lot of needles. To remove loose needles, shake the tree well or have the seller mechanically shake the tree before wrapping it for the ride home. This wrapping will prevent the loss of needles along the way.
Now that you've gotten the tree home, what do you do with it? For live trees with a root ball attached, move the tree indoors, but avoid a large change in temperature. Do not move a live tree, one that has been cut or still has the root ball attached, from out of the freezing outdoors directly inside where it is very warm. This can cause the tree to go into a kind of "shock" and start dropping its needles. To prevent this, transition the move by letting it spend a day or two in the garage or cool basement before moving it inside.
Get the tree in water as soon as possible, whether the tree is to spend time in the garage or not. This is obvious for live trees with roots. For cut trees, it's recommended to cut the trunk approximately 1-2 inches above the initial cut. This removes any dried sap that may be clogging the xylem tubes that carry water to the limbs. After this, the tree can then be put in its stand and water added.
Keep track of the tree's water supply. Most cut trees can drink up to a gallon of water a day for several days after severing it from its root system. Myths about adding aspirin, sugar or corn syrup to the water in the tree stand are just that--myths. There is no research suggesting that this does anything to prolong the fresh green look of the tree and prevent needle loss. You'll just make a mess.
It's true that many holiday fires are caused by poor placement of the Christmas tree. Do not place a live tree, or any other flammable decorations, near an open flame or heat source. This includes electric baseboard heaters, propane heaters, ductwork, gas logs, kerosene heaters or ovens. Flameless heaters may seem harmless, but can prematurely dry the tree out to the point that it becomes easily ignitable. Also, if lights are used, use cooler burning lights made for live trees.
A live cut tree should never stay in the house more than two weeks. Live trees with live root balls that will be transplanted later in the yard can be kept longer, but keep the soil moist.
When the tree comes down, there are many things you can do with it. Rather than just take it to the landfill, you may learn of a fire department that will chip and grind it for free, encouraging homeowners to use or donate the mulch.
Many fish pond owners will toss old Christmas trees into a pond to give young fish a place to hide from larger fish and a place to wait for bugs to fall in. Sportsmen might place the dead tree around the edge of fields for wild rabbit habitat. Either way, the matter that makes up the tree will eventually be returned to the soil from which it came.
Mike Broaddus is a Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent in the Caroline and King George Office, specializing in agronomy. Reach him at 804/633-6550 (Caroline) or 540/775-3062 (King George); email broad firstname.lastname@example.org.