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Selecting and Caring for Your Christmas Tree

By: Jennifer McDonald, Mobile County Master Gardener |

By now, many of us are already buying gifts and planning holiday meals. It’s almost that wonderful time of year when many families start picking out their Christmas trees!

I love a fragrant fresh tree. Purchasing and decorating our Christmas tree just after Thanksgiving was a longstanding tradition in my childhood, as well as my own children’s early years. Unfortunately, those days are gone for us, since our asthmatic cat Ozzy is severely triggered by fresh trees.

There are plenty of beautiful artificial trees to choose from, but we can’t decorate them with our collection of treasured family ornaments since our other cat, Edgar Allan Paw, enjoys climbing the tree for sport, throwing ornaments to the ground seemingly for spite. So, unbreakable and easily replaceable it is. (Sigh.)

If you’re able to have a fresh tree in your home, plan to shop early since numerous reports have mentioned a major shortage of trees due to supply chain issues. After over sixty years of tradition, the Mobile Optimist Club has canceled their popular tree sale this year due to the shortage. This may be a good year to buy your tree from a local grower. They are easy to find with the internet search: “Christmas tree farms Mobile AL.”

If this will be your first time purchasing a fresh tree, there are a few things to keep in mind. Make sure you pay close attention to the height of your ceiling, being careful to factor in the tree stand and topper when choosing the size of your tree. You’ll also want to make sure your space is wide enough for your tree, assuming an average 2/3 width-to-height taper ratio.

When considering the location of your tree, it is also very important to stay away from direct heat sources like fireplaces or heater vents to prevent premature drying. Aside from aesthetics, a fireplace and a rapidly drying tree is a terrible combination for safety reasons.

When it’s time to select a tree, pine and fir are both fantastic options, depending on your taste. Look for a straight trunk and a full, symmetrical shape. Not too sparse and straggly (unless you like it that way), but enough space between the branches for lights and ornaments.

Most importantly, make sure it’s fresh so that it stays beautiful and fragrant for as long as possible, reducing the risk of fire. It should be shiny and green, and the needles should be flexible and not fall off easily when handled. Give the tree a little shake or gently tap the cut end on the ground. It’s normal if a few needles fall off, but if it makes a big mess, you should keep looking. If it looks good, give it an extra shake to help knock out any bugs or critters that might be hiding inside.

Ask the tree lot to cut about a half-inch from the bottom of the tree or, if possible, do it yourself at home. The fresh cut allows the tree to absorb more water and stay fresh longer.

Getting the tree in the stand is often the most challenging part. It’s easiest to buy from a lot that will install a stand before you take it home. If you’re using a screw-in stand at home, don’t make the mistake of trying to do it alone. The frustration will kill your Christmas spirit faster than you can say “Bah! Humbug!” One person should be on the ground, tightening the screws, while the other adjusts the tree and gets it straight. Keep the baling material on the tree until it’s secured upright in the stand so it’s easier to work with.

Once the tree is set up in the stand and placed in the ideal spot, immediately add water to the pan at the base of the tree. Maintaining the water level is most important to extend the freshness and life of the tree. The pan should always stay full, which may require adding water every day.

For many, the hardest part is taking down the tree, finally acknowledging that the joyous holiday season is over. It can be a messy process if not handled well. After removing lights and ornaments, carefully remove the tree from the stand and lay it on an old bedsheet or tarp, wrapping it to avoid losing needles as you carry it out of the house. Make sure you then take it to one of the numerous Christmas tree recycling spots located around town.

Happy tree-trimming!

Make sure to check for critters hiding inside your tree! Photo by Jennifer McDonald

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