There are some excellent artificial Christmas trees on the market now, and with the holiday season approaching they’ll be appearing in stores any day now. If you really want to get the Christmas atmosphere perfect, though, a real tree is pretty hard to beat. They’re easily available, sustainably grown and look amazing, and decorating them is a great way to kick-start the festive spirit. They do need a little bit of care and attention though – not much, but a few simple tips will help your tree stay in great condition right through the season. Not only will it look better but it won’t create a mess all over your rug either. Fresh, green needles on the tree are a lot better than dry ones finding their way all through your home!
Always choose a fresh tree in good condition – check the needles before you buy, to ensure they’re firmly attached to the branches. If your tree is already starting to lose condition by the time you buy it, it will be much harder to maintain it later. Then, as soon as you bring it home, start your tree care routine.
For a Christmas tree water is the most important thing. Although it’s been cut the internal structure is still intact and will still be able to transport water for weeks, and that water is vital for keeping the needles bright and on the tree. Just planting it in a container of moist soil won’t help though. It has no roots, so can’t pick up the water it needs. It needs to be standing in water so it can soak it up through the base of the trunk, and it’s going to need some preparation.
As soon as the tree is cut the sap begins to harden on and around the cut surface. By the time you get it home the base of the trunk is pretty much sealed with dried resin – and this is waterproof. You can give it as much water as you like and none of it’s going to make it to the branches where it’s needed. The solution is to saw off about an inch from the base of the tree, clearing away the dried wood and opening up the cut end again. If you use a tree stand with tensioned arms the base will need to be cut to a taper, and you should do that right before setting the tree up; if it’s already been tapered you’ll need to plane or carve it down to fresh wood.
A proper stand with screws or spring arms is the best way to hold your tree, but the traditional bucket with a few bricks in it will work too. Just make sure it’s clean and doesn’t have any leaks. Once the tree is fixed in position you should add water immediately, before the resin has a chance to dry again. The ideal stand will hold at least a gallon; if yours is smaller than this you’ll need to check the water more frequently. A freshly cut tree won’t need as much but if yours was felled a few days ago it might suck up all the water in a couple of hours. If it does, refill until the water level stabilizes. After that check it daily and top up if it’s starting to run low. Letting the container dry out completely also means the tree will be sealed with resin and needs another cut, and that’s a major issue once it’s in place and decorated. It’s much easier to make sure it always has an adequate supply.
No Christmas tree is complete without a sparkling display of lights, but lights and water aren’t always a good mix. Check cables for work spots or cracks before decorating the tree, and don’t lead the cables up from the base of the trunk. Pets or small children can get at the water and start splashing it around, so you don’t want electricity anywhere near. Instead lead the lights in from the back of the tree at the level of the lowest branches. If you have old-style bulbs consider replacing them with modern LED lights – these use less power, and because they also release less heat they won’t dry the needles out so much. Also remember to unplug the lights every night before you go to bed. If a natural Christmas tree does catch fire it can blaze up very quickly, and you don’t want that happening while you’re asleep. Of course keeping it well watered will reduce the risk, but be sage and unplug it anyway.
You’ll often see suggestions for things to add to the water you give your tree – aspirin and sugar are common suggestions. Don’t bother with these; they won’t make any difference, and sugar can even choke the tiny channels that carry water up the trunk. Plain tap water is all your tree needs to keep it in good shape all through the holiday season.
Watering can be awkward. It’s not easy to get a jug or watering can under the bottom branches to refill the stand. Save yourself some trouble; get three or four feet of hose and fix one end inside the stand. Push a funnel into the other end and hide the whole thing – you can wrap some garlands round the hose if you like, then tuck the funnel among the lower branches round the back. When the stand needs a top-up just retrieve the funnel and pour the water into it. Be careful not to overfill, especially if you follow the tradition of stacking the gifts under the tree!
Even with the best care in the world a cut tree won’t last forever, but if you keep it watered most species should keep their needles for at least five weeks. That’s plenty time for the holiday. Don’t let watering lapse after Christmas, because when it’s time to take the tree down it will shed a lot less needles if it hasn’t dried out – and who wants to be vacuuming up needles for the next few weeks?