Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tis the week of Christmas, and all through our town, Lots are filled with Christmas trees, and questions abound.

As a landscape professional, I have learned firsthand about Christmas trees by roaming through hundreds of acres searching for ideal specimens. After years of scrutinizing, tagging, loading, hauling and marketing seasonal conifers to thousands of customers, here are some answers to questions I am most asked about regarding how to select and care for them.

To assure longevity, the fresher the cut tree the better. One reliable way to ascertain that you have a fresh tree is to harvest your own at a tree farm. Christmas tree growers can be found through seasonal ads, by word of mouth or on local Christmas tree lots.

First, check the needles for freshness. They should be pliable and soft. Even stiff needles, like spruce, should be flexible on the stem. You’ll be able to tell with little effort if needles are ready to fall by banging the bottom of the tree onto a solid surface once or twice. If it drops brown and yellow needles, that’s all right; but it should not drop many green ones.

If you find vines growing on a tree, have the seller pull them out. They could be poison ivy, greenbriar or other thorny weeds. On the other hand, finding a bird’s nest in your tree is said to be sign of good luck.

Be suspicious and steer clear of trees with a greenish cast on their trunks and branches. Believe it or not trees are sometimes dyed or painted. Some trees have extremely variable growth traits. An entire field could be perfectly healthy, but have a yellow cast due to a genetic variation. I’ve seen growers artificially color such trees rather than lose them. But a green dye could also be applied to make a tree seem fresher than it is

Daytime provides the best light for picking trees. It’s difficult to appraise trees in artificial light. Take your tree stand with you to make sure the butt of the tree fits into it. Set your tree up at the lot and the stability of the tree becomes less of an issue at home.

When you get the tree home, use a bow saw to cut one to two inches off the bottom of the trunk, or ask the seller to do it. Place the tree in water, and continue checking the water level. Cut trees drink a lot. Keep it outside where it is cold, or in an unheated structure away from drying winds until you are ready to bring it into the house.

It’s best to bring the tree inside one day before decorating it. If the trunk is too large for your stand, use a bucket filled with rocks to stabilize it. You’ll have to prune lower limbs for a balanced presentation, not to mention making room for gifts.

Use a hand pruner or pruning saw. A carpenter’s crosscut saw isn’t very efficient nor is a chain saw. Be careful with any cutting tool. Over the past 40 years in the landscaping field, I’ve seen and had some harrowing and stupid accidents. Be sure to cut away from your body and from other people. AND, know where your hands are at all times. Use both grips provided on tools that require two hands, and hold them firmly.

If you keep your tree away from heat vents and working fireplaces, it may well hold its needles until February. But, according to fire authorities, the sooner you dispose of the tree after Christmas the better.

A Christmas tree is perfectly designed to burn. It is the shape of a flame with lots of needles at the bottom that help it burn intensely and quickly. Fire departments get calls every year. It is a predictable occurrence.

  • Don’t block exit pathways with trees.
  • Keep them in your home as brief a period of time as possible.
  • Cut one to two inches off trunk bottoms, and keep well watered.Only buy electrical fixtures that carry UL stickers.
  • Fireproof trees (optional).
Douglas fir - It’s often more expensive because it grows more slowly than most other trees. But it’s full, tall, easy to handle, and narrow enough to fit most rooms. If fresh, Douglas fir holds its soft needles well.

White fir - This is my favorite. It smells great. The needle holding ability is excellent with a blue color and soft feel. Pinch a needle to smell its wonderful citrus fragrance.

Frazier fir - It’s easy to handle and soft to the touch. The narrow, open branching habit decorates well, and you can trim the tree all the way to the trunk.

Scotch pine - The old standard. It matures fast and shears into shape easily. Beware of crooked trunks, and lower limbs that grow up through the tree. Taking them off can ruin the tree’s shape. Before buying pull branches down to see what it’ll look like pruned. This tree holds its needles relatively well.

White pine - For those who like a lacy look, this is the tree for you. It is often a wide spreading Christmas tree, but lights show through it beautifully. White pine is soft to the touch with long thin needles, and if fresh, the needles will hold through the season.

 Blue spruce - This fragrant tree has a stiff habit that holds decorations beautifully and has a classic “Christmas tree” shape. Its blue needles are exceedingly handsome. You’ll need gloves to handle it because the needles are sharp. And it doesn’t hold them well. Needles are usually dropping by the New Year.

Black or oriental spruce - There are several shorter needled spruces sold under these names. Most have a pyramidal Christmas tree shape, but don’t hold needles well. If you get one that was cut more than two to three weeks before you bought it, you’ll have a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree by New Years. But these species are excellent live trees to buy for transplanting after the holidays.

If you prefer a live tree, go to a year-round garden center that has experience with live nursery stock. Conifers are sold balled and burlapped or in a large basket with handles.

  • Dig a planting hole now. Make sure the area drains, and prepare it with compost.
  • Put freshly dug soil where you can protect it from freezing.
  • Keep root ball moist.
  • Don’t put it inside near heating vents or fireplaces.
  • Leave indoors a maximum of two weeks.
  • Move tree back to an unheated structure to adapt to temperatures.Plant tree a week to ten days after moving it out of the house when temperatures are above freezing, then water it.
Dispose of trees by following county or municipality pickup guidelines.