Christmas Tree 101


Tips on how to buy the perfect tree, and what to do with it when you get home, from TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook


Picking the Perfect Tree

Christmas comes but once a year, and picking out the perfect tree to jolly up the living room is a family ritual full of fun and promise. But with all the different types of trees out there, it's hard to know which one is right for your holiday display. And knowing how to keep it green and fragrant once you deck it out is a talent that eludes many a yuletide reveler. "When a tree goes south," says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook, "ninety-nine percent of the time it's human error." So before you turn your tannenbaum into the Charlie Brown special, take a few tips from our experts on how to pick one, measure for it, and make sure it lasts through December 25 and maybe into the New Year.

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Measure Twice, Buy Once

Before you head out to the farm or tree lot, make sure you know just what size tree you can fit in your house. Measure the height of your ceiling, but remember to subtract the height of your stand and the tree topper you want to use to get the maximum tree height you can fit. Also clear the space where you'll put the tree and see how deep it is. Different species are different girths, so you want to be sure you won't be squishing the branches against the wall. And keep an eye on the size of your stand. You want to be sure the trunk of your tree will fit in it, and that it's big enough to keep your tree upright. If you're upgrading to a larger tree this year, you may need to invest in a bigger stand. Failure to measure accurately and you could have a tell-tail sign of the mistake: "If you go to someone's house and there is a big, brown streak across the ceiling," says Roger. "That's usually where they stood up a Christmas tree that was too tall."

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Shop local
For the freshest and healthiest tree, you should patronize an established tree farm or a lot that brings in trees from local farms. The ones that the farms sell are grown specifically to retain their needles. Most Christmas trees are cut about 3 to 4 weeks before they arrive on the lot-usually the weekend after Thanksgiving, according to Clarke Gernon, chairman of the National Christmas Tree Association.


Get a Live One (or at Least a Not-So-Dead One)

Once you're perusing the lot, picking the right tree is like picking ripe mango: you should smell and touch.

1. Test the branches. Grab any branch on the tree between your thumb and forefinger, gently clamp down and pull towards yourself. If you end up with a handful of needles, the tree is already past its prime.

2. Crush the needles in your hand and then check the scent. "If the tree doesn't smell enough, don't buy it," says Roger.

3. Bounce the tree by holding it a few inches above the ground and dropping it. If the exterior needles fall off, it's sure sign of a bad apple. Needles that fall off from the interior of the tree are normal.

4. Make absolutely sure the tree's trunk fits your stand. Trimming the diameter of the tree by cutting away the bark will strip the tree of its cambium layer, which absorbs water. If this happens your tree is a goner.

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Wrap It Up

Before you tie up the tree, have the lot attendant put it through a shaker (if they have one-some farms use a blower, though a vigorous bounce will do as well). This will shake off any dead, interior needles. Don't worry-it's perfectly natural for an evergreen to have some dead needles on it from fall. Then have the tree sent through the baling machine to wrap it in netting for easy transport. ___Sal Vaglica

For even more Christmas Tree tips from TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook, see Christmas Tree 101 at thisoldhouse.com