Picking Your Tree

Christmas trees are available from all sorts of sources (supermarkets, garden centers, tree farms, service clubs, etc.). Regardless of where you get your tree, take the time to check it carefully. Ask when the available trees were cut and if new trees are brought in to replace sold stock. Check the height to ensure that the tree, along with its stand and likely angel or star top, fits in your room. Ask if you can loosen the twine or netting to get a better look at the form and density of the branches. (Trees that have received regular summer pruning should exhibit improved form and dense branching.)

Give the tree a good shake to see if it drops needles excessively and crimp some of the needles and twigs in your hand to see if they are still flexible or if they’re dry and break apart easily. Check the base of the tree to see if the sap is soft and fresh or hard and congealed.

An alternative to the store-bought option is to visit a tree farm and cut your own. Not only will you have a lot of choice, you’ll be better able to assess the tree’s form, height and condition. Additionally, some of these farms have wagon rides, camp fires, sledding hills, gift shops, etc. Not only do you get a fresh, hand-picked tree, but also a complete family outing.

Various trees including Scots pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, white fir and blue spruce.

An assortment of trees, including Scots pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, white fir and blue spruce.

A decorated Christmas tree.

Bringing Your Tree Home

When transporting your tree, wrap it to safeguard the branches and bark. A tree bag or old carpet should suffice. A tree that’s been freshly cut just before Christmas can be moved indoors relatively quickly. Upon arriving home with a store-bought tree, condition it by cutting about 1” off the bottom. Set it in a bucket of tepid water and leave it outside if temperatures are above freezing. If temperatures are below freezing, leave it in your garage. The fresh cut will allow the tree to absorb water and replenish its moisture supply. Remove any twine or netting to allow the branches to fall. This will help you to determine which branches need pruning. Before moving the tree indoors (after two to three days), cut another inch off the base. Ensure the cut is even so that the tree fits snugly into the bottom of your stand.

To move the tree through a standard-sized door, temporarily wrap it with twine or a polyethylene bag to minimize branch breakage and chipped paint. Select a location that shows off the tree to best advantage while ensuring optimal conditions for its stay indoors. Keep the tree away from heating vents, portable heaters, fireplaces, sunny windows and passageways where it could be knocked over. Access around the tree is critical for watering, ornament installation and gift placement.

A sturdy, properly sized tree stand is a must. The cylinder should have sufficient water-holding capacity to avoid having to top up daily. There are also stands with special self-watering adaptations that you might want to check out.

Leave lots of room around the tree for ample walkways and easy access to watering.

Lots of Choices

Across North America, there are probably 30 – 40 different kinds of market-grown Christmas trees. In my area (zone 5a), firs, spruces and pines dominate. When making your selection, consider form, size, branch density, branch strength, needle retention, aroma, availability and cost. You might think the 6’ to 7’ tree you buy is expensive, but consider that even a fast-growing Scots pine would likely take 6 – 8 years to reach that size, and a slower-growing fir, probably 10 – 12 years. The age of the tree is indicated by the number of whorled branches, with each year contributing a whorl.

Scots pine branches.

The branches and needles of the Scots pine, which was once one of the most popular types of Christmas trees.

For decades, pines have been one of the most popular Christmas trees, with Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) frequently being selected. Often used in reforestation work, this species grows relatively quickly, is affordable and fragrant. It has good branch strength for hanging ornaments and is able to survive in less than ideal indoor situations (hot and dry). It does, however, have sharply pointed needles that could be a concern around small children.

Spruce branches adorned with gold ornaments.

White pine (Pinus strobus) is a five-needle soft pine appreciated for its light, wispy appearance. Its lighter, flexible branches make it less desirable for heavy ornaments, but its boughs are widely used to make Christmas wreaths. Soak the stem bases of boughs in water for 6 – 12 hours and occasionally mist wreaths to avoid having them dry out.

Spruce (Picea spp.) is another commonly found Christmas tree, with the Norway spruce (Picea abies), white spruce (Picea glauca) and Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens glauca) being notables. These are inexpensive, fast growing, pyramidal shaped and readily available. All have strong, dense branches for holding ornaments. Their sharp needles may be a concern around children and pets. The Colorado blue spruce is a spectacular ornamental selection that can bear a cost premium. In a dry home environment, the needle retention of spruce is relatively short lived, which explains why they are often cut closer to Christmas Day.

Over the years, fir trees (Abies spp.) have gained a strong following because of their flat, soft needles; pleasant aroma; good needle retention; strong branch support for ornaments and increased availability. Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) is a longtime favorite, and Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) is now one of the most popular. Both have a sweet smell and strong pyramidal form. The needles of the grand fir (Abies grandis) seem to last forever, are glossy dark-green on top with white banding below and have a distinct tangerine smell when crushed. The white fir (Abies concolor), with its 2” – 3” silver-green needles, is another ornamental selection that looks dramatic when hung with blue-colored ornaments. Other firs to watch for are Canaan fir (Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis), which has a lovely scent, Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), a popular European Christmas tree, and noble fir (Abies procera). Regardless of the tree selected, it will probably end up on the curb for municipal recycling as mulch for parks and school grounds. I prefer to strip the tree of its branches and use the boughs as additional winter plant protection. Alternatively, I keep the tree intact, decorate it with suet balls and leave it outside to attract woodpeckers.

Spruce branches adorned with glittery gold ornaments.

Living Christmas Trees

There are some people who prefer to buy a living tree – soil, roots and all. For years, potted dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’), conical boxwoods (Buxus spp.), clipped cone Japanese yews (Taxus cuspidata) and pyramidal cedars (Thuja spp.) have been popular choices for decorating balconies, patios, courtyards and front entrances. In the spring, these smaller evergreens can be planted in selected garden locations.

Larger spruce, pine and fir trees, 1 metre – 1.5 metres in size, appeal to those who find it difficult to discard a cut tree after the short Christmas season. These primarily container-grown trees are preferred for their freshness, intense fragrance and the joy of giving them a life in the garden. It’s important to remember that after a certain time period indoors, living trees will break dormancy and initiate growth. Like cut trees, they can be acclimated in a garage or protected porch for a couple of days, then brought indoors just prior to Christmas. Their container should be placed in a water-tight tub or drip pan. Apply an anti-desiccant to help reduce moisture loss.

Blue spruce trees grown in containers.

Container-grown blue spruce trees can be planted outside after the holidays are over.

It is important to plan and prepare a planting hole for these trees in autumn. Place a plywood cover over the hole and keep the excavated soil stockpiled and tarped nearby. In areas with warmer winters and shorter periods of frozen soils, living trees can be garden planted early in the New Year. Fill the hole with amended backfill and apply mulch. In colder areas, place the tree in a protected outdoor storage area until early spring planting. For many years I’ve kept container evergreens over winter stored against a stone wall. I sit the containers on 2” thick outdoor rigid insulation to stop them from freezing to the ground and cover the root balls with 2’ of leaves and straw. A tree can also be held over in a trench dug to receive the container. The tree should be heavily mulched with leaves, straw and soil until it’s planted in its permanent location.

Tabletop-sized trees.

Tabletop-sized trees ready to be taken home and adorned for the holiday season.

How to Pick the Ideal Christmas Tree

The holiday season is a special time of the year, with the Christmas tree being one of its iconic symbols. Take time when purchasing your next tree and consider which of the various noted options might suit your situation. Merry Christmas!

Text by Frank Kershaw

Photos by Marnie Wright

Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience.

Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over 30 years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.

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