Don't Get Stumped, 10 Things to Know About Real Christmas Trees
Maryland tree specialists share the dos and don'ts of holiday tree buying.
Are you ready to trade in your fake Christmas tree for one that comes from nature? Know what to expect before you scrap your artificial tree for the real thing, because the last thing you want is a tree disaster to sap your holiday cheer.
Whether you're planning to buy a Christmas tree from a roadside vendor or a 200-acre tree farm, a little tree education could spare you from making some common tree buying mistakes.
"Most people don't know anything about trees; they just know they're green and they look pretty," said Chris McGhee, who is selling Christmas trees at Greenway Center in Greenbelt for about $30 ($50 for firs).
Don't know your firs from non-firs? Quick lesson: Pines, the non-firs, sprout their needles near the tips of the branches, while the fancy firs (with their fancy price to match) are green from the branch down to the stalk. Still stumped? Let's just say that the firs are a "hairier" tree, as McGhee put it. The firs also have a citrus aroma, filling the home with a lemony fragrance.
Studying the various tree types — pine, spruce or fir — may not seem important, if you are simply picking a tree based on personal taste. Just keep in mind these helpful tips.
Tree Tip #1: If you have heavy ornaments, consider choosing a tree with strong branches.
Due to its soft needles, the white pine is not a good tree for hanging large ornaments; it is better suited for hanging strings of popcorn and other garland. Still, the white pine has its fans. According to the Maryland Christmas Tree Association (MCTA), the white pine's faint aroma makes it sought after by people who have allergic reactions to more fragrant trees like the balsam. The white pine also is a safe bet with children, as its needles are feather soft.
Firs, such as the Frasier and Douglas, have fine needles that typically can hold all types of ornaments. The blue spruce, with its sharp needles of up to three inches long, might work particularly well for holding glass or wooden ornaments.
Speaking of needles...
Tree Tip #2: Pay attention to the "ouch factor" when Christmas tree shopping. If those pine needles feel more like sewing needles, then the tree is most likely a variety known for its spikes.
Enid Franklin, of Lanham, learned the hard way about dagger-like Christmas tree needles. She suspects that the needles became overly brittle because the tree had dried out on the lot. Perhaps. But there are other possible reasons to explain the dryness that are worth pointing out. But first, let's hear her story.
"It must've been on the lot too long because that joker was super dry, despite me constantly giving it water," she wrote in an e-mail account of her ordeal. "It was so bad that on Christmas Eve, I'd decided not to turn on the tree lights for fear it would start a brush fire in my living room. The day after Christmas, I had to take it down. (I never take my tree down that early.)"
"The pine needles that I had so lovingly placed my handmade ornaments on were now millions of sharp, tiny weapons. I ended up having to take the ornaments off of the tree wearing a trench coat and oven mitts."
Needle-less to say, Franklin has gone back to artificial trees.
Tree Tip #3: Pay the minimal cost (if any) to have about a 1/2-inch thick raw cut at the base of the tree trunk. McGhee, who is selling trees in Greenbelt on behalf of Teresa's Garden Center in Washington, said the fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water, shaving away the gummy coating of water-repelling sap.
Franklin, who grew up celebrating Christmas around an artificial tree because of her mother's allergies, does not recall having the fresh cut on her real trees. But at some nurseries the fresh cut is standard practice and free of charge.
Jay Julieto, who is selling trees on behalf of North Star Christmas Trees at the corner of Cherry Hill and Powder Mill roads in Beltsville, said, "We won't let the tree leave without a fresh cut."
Tree Tip #4: Avoid placing the Christmas tree near sources of heat such as a fireplace, heating vent or direct sunlight, which will increase the tree's thirst for water, according to the MCTA. Lowering the room temperature will slow the drying process, resulting in less water consumption — one of the many helpful tree care tips on the association's website. Place the tree in water as soon as possible and make sure the water in the stand never gets empty to maintain a fresh and fire-resistant tree.
Some people will go to great lengths to get the perfect Christmas tree, traveling to a cut-your-own tree farm. So if you put all that extra effort into your tree purchase, all the more reason to get some tree tips before you go.
Tree Tip #5: Trees play tricks on you in the great wide open. Don't be deceived by their height.
Wayne Thomas, owner of Thomas Tree Farm in Carroll County and a past president of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, said that the trees in the field may appear smaller than they really are. Once inside the house, that's when some customers realize they made a major miscalculation. What looked like a room-size tree in the field, now looks like it belongs somewhere in the tundra.
Thomas recommends that tree buyers look for a tree that is about their height or a little above to ensure that their tree will fit inside a room with about an 8-foot ceiling.
Ever since her recent purchase of an $80 Douglas fir from a cut-your-own farm, Dominique Farrow-Ray, a former New Carrollton resident, has been "sweeping up tons of needles." She thought it would be nice to get a real tree this year for the family's new home in Baltimore. So off they went to a tree farm in Perry Hall, Md., where her husband did the sawing himself as the kids frolicked in the woods. No one was ecstatic about the tree, and the needle droppings didn't help. She said she doesn't think they will do a fresh cut tree again.
If your biggest complaint about real trees is the dropping needles, here's another point to consider.
Tree Tip #6: Some tree types retain their needles better than others. For example, the Scotch pine is known for retaining its needles even when dry.
A certain amount of loose needles is to be expected. During the growing process, "All evergreens shed and reproduce new needles," explained McGhee, who said many of his trees were purchased from a Michigan grower.
Even though tree vendors will bale your tree before you take it home, some loose needles still remain trapped within the branches, leaving you with the job of carpet cleanup later. But McGhee has an effective solution for freeing the trapped needles.
Tree Tip #7: Once the tree is netted and ready to load onto your vehicle, have the tree vendor position it so that the loose needles will blow out during the car ride home.
Maybe you would enjoy the tree more if you didn't have to take out time to purchase and set it up. If you haven't already maxed out your Christmas budget, have the tree come to you.
Tree Tip #8: Consider having personal delivery and set up service for a fee of $50-$75, plus the cost of the tree. Companies like North Star, which provides trees to the Canadian Embassy and ritzy homes in Washington, D.C., specialize in Christmas tree delivery.
Tree Tip #9: Give back what nature gave to you.
Recycled Christmas trees are 100 percent biodegradable and can be used as mulch for parks and landscaping. For tree recycling information in your area, call the Earth 911 hot line, 1-800-CLEANUP or search by zip code on the websites of Earth 911 or the National Christmas Tree Association.
In contrast, most fake trees in the U.S. are imported from China and are made of metals and plastic material, such as PVC, which can be a potential source of lead, according to grower groups. However, the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), which promotes artificial trees, contends that artificial trees can last as long as 20 years and save consumers money.
Tree Tip #10: Get the facts as you consider real vs. fake trees.
If you're wondering whether cutting down trees is harmful to the environment, that's actually a common misconception that tree growers have been trying to debunk. "All of us understand that live Christmas trees are really environmentally friendly," said Thomas, the Carroll County grower.
By planting the trees, growers are preserving farmland that otherwise would have been used for shopping centers or other development, he said.
Over the past 20 years, the fake tree industry has gained much of the market as artificial trees went from a stiff, bottle-brush appearance to today's more lifelike versions. With prelit trees to compete with, "it has been a real struggle to get customers to switch to real trees," Michael Ryan, owner of Clemsonville Christmas Tree Farm in Frederick County, said. But in recent years, he said, Christmas tree growers have added "agri-entertainment" — Santa and decorated barns — to attract families to the farm.
If you want to simplify things, then the ACTA emphasizes that artificial trees are a better bet. No shedding needles, no monitoring of water. No maintenance is involved and many are made of fire retardant plastic.
But if it's tradition you're looking for, then the real tree may be the way to go.