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10 essential tips for keeping your Christmas tree alive

Needle dropping, no more

watering your Christmas tree is essential to keeping it fresh Credit: Getty Images / maiteali

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Can you really be rockin’ around the Christmas tree if it’s dropping its needles every time you breathe near it? Certainly not. This kind of mess challenges even the best vacuum out there and doesn’t leave anyone having a happy holiday.

When you neglect your live Christmas tree, the obvious happens: Its needles drop all over your floor and make a huge mess in your main living area. You’re stuck vacuuming up for 12 months to come, at which point you start the whole process over again.

More seriously, a dry tree can also be a fire hazard (on average there are about 160 per year in the U.S.), whereas a well-watered one won’t burn at all—thanks to the National Institute of Standards and Technology you can watch what could happen, here.

If you’re wondering how long does a real Christmas tree last, here’s your answer: If cared for properly, your live Christmas tree should have no problem lasting five to six weeks, from just after Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

Here are some tips for keeping your live Christmas tree as fresh as the day it was cut.

1. Pick the right type of real Christmas tree

fraser fir
Credit: Getty Images / pejagr

Many of the trees in the fir family, like this Fraser fir, have excellent needle retention, especially when watered well, making it a great option for a Christmas tree.

If you’re wondering how to keep a Christmas tree alive, start with the type of tree. Sure, there are all sorts of external factors that come into play—which we will get to in a moment—but the first thing to consider is the tree itself.

There are dozens of types of Christmas trees out there, and popular choices vary based on where in the U.S. you live. But overall, a few types of evergreens are naturally more durable.

The freshest of fresh Christmas trees centers around the firs, including the balsam fir, noble fir, and Fraser fir, which all boast long needle retention. Another option for a great real Christmas tree is the Scotch pine, which holds onto its needles even when the tree is dry.

2. Cut your own Christmas tree

tree cutting use this one
Credit: Getty Images / Image Source

Cutting down your own Christmas tree at a local tree farm ensures that you get the freshest tree from day one.

When it comes to keeping your holiday tree fresher for longer, your next move can make all the difference. Consider making the choice to cut your own Christmas tree from a local Christmas tree farm rather than visiting a Christmas tree lot at a big box store or ordering a live Christmas tree online—unless you have to. And per quarantine, that may be your only option.

This aside, hoisting an ax or a bow saw and going out on a hunt with your family for the perfect Christmas tree adds to the season’s nostalgia, and it ensures you’re getting a fresh tree in tip-top shape, i.e. it hasn’t been windblown and sunbaked on a flat-bed truck or languished in a lot. According to NC State Extension school, under these conditions, a cut tree can lose up to half its water in a single day.

Whether you decide to cut your own Christmas tree yourself or buy one, do make sure it hasn’t been cut more than three to four weeks ago, or you’ll be bringing a very tired tree home.

3. Don’t buy your tree too early

trees on truck
Credit: Getty Images / BanksPhotos

When you buy a Christmas tree from a lot, ask how long it's been since the tree was cut. Many trees were cut a month or more before reaching the retailer and these could mean you're buying a tired, dry tree.

Although the pull to decorate your home for the holidays is intense and early this year, you need to fight the urge to buy your live Christmas tree more than a month from Dec. 25.

If you’re cutting your own tree and you live in a cold climate, wait to get it until after there have been a few hard frosts.

Farmers’ Almanac even has its own formula for the best time to get out there. It recommends cutting your tree when the moon is waning or waxing, because this means that the sap in the tree is lower and the lunar pull on it is similar to its effect on tides. In 2020, the best days to cut your own Christmas tree are Dec. 14-24.

4. Check the tree’s condition before you buy

tree inspection
Credit: Getty Images / FatCamera

Make sure the tree you plan to cut or buy is healthy by checking that it has a deep, rich color and that its needles are secure to its branches.

Just like when you buy a car, you’ve got to take a potential tree for a test drive—you want to find the best Christmas tree out there, right?!

Make sure the tree is healthy by checking that it has a deep, rich color. Its needles should be secure to its branches, i.e. it’s not a good sign if they fall off or shake off right away, and if you bend one of its branches, it shouldn’t snap. Both are an indication of dryness and deterioration.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) explains that indicators may include “excessive needle loss, discolored foliage, musty odor, needle pliability, and wrinkled bark. A good rule-of-thumb is, when in doubt about the freshness of a tree, select another one. If none of the trees on the lot look fresh, go to another lot.”

5. Transition the tree

According to the NCTA, trees can be temporarily stored for several days in a cool location, but you must put the freshly cut trunk into a bucket of water. The Old Farmer’s Almanac suggests letting your tree adjust for two to three days.

Letting your tree transition to an indoor setting not only acclimates it to a new general environment, it also allows for its branches to settle into place.

6. Use the right kind of Christmas tree stand

tree stand
Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

Make sure to use a tree stand that can hold at least one gallon of water.

A Christmas tree stand is pretty important for a number of reasons. You definitely want a sturdy one, and there are some excellent ones on the market.

But, to best keep a Christmas tree alive, you want to get a stand that holds at least a gallon of water. The NCTA says, “Displaying trees in water in a traditional reservoir type stand is the most effective way of maintaining their freshness and minimizing needle loss problems.”

Also, make sure the tree fits well in it—don’t carve the bark off the tree trunk to fit the stand, because this hinders its ability to absorb water.

7. Water it heavily and often

cut stump
Credit: Getty Images / eyecrave

Cleanly shear off a few inches from the bottom of the tree’s trunk to better help it absorb water—you’ll be removing its seal of dried sap.

The best way to keep a Christmas tree fresh and alive is water, water, water. We can’t emphasize this enough: Water it often, and every day if needed.

On the day that you get your tree, you will want to get it into water within three hours of it being cut. If you’ve bought a tree that’s been sitting around for awhile, cleanly shear off a few inches from the bottom of the tree’s trunk. Doing so helps it better absorb water, because you’ll be removing its seal of dried sap.

Farmers’ Almanac recommends using warm water the first time you water your tree. You should also check your Christmas tree water’s levels more often and refill when needed.

“Trees are very thirsty and will use up to a gallon of water a day! A fresh tree, like a sponge, contains more weight in water than the tree itself weighs when dry. So, do not let the tree dry out. Check your water level both morning and night for that first week!” writes Robin Sweetser in The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s online blog.

When checking the water level in your tree stand, make sure the bottom two inches of the trunk are always immersed. Doing so can be tricky, unless you like contorting your body low to the ground. So, you can guesstimate with your fingers, or you can use a watering system that keeps you out from under the tree, like Luster Leaf’s Tree Nanny.

8. Opt to use an additive to the Christmas tree water

The jolly jury is out on whether or not adding anything to Christmas tree water holds benefits.

Some manufacturers, like MiracleGro and The Home Depot’s Home Accents, make Christmas tree preservatives.

However, the Old Farmer’s Almanac doesn’t commit to the benefits of adding things like sugar, aspirin, or a preservative, and the NCTA says it’s best to only use plain tap water.

For safety reasons, the National Capital Poison Center strongly warns against adding Christmas tree preservatives because they aren’t necessary but, when placed in a Christmas tree stand, are easily accessible to children and pets, who can ingest it.

9. Keep the tree’s environment cool

cool christmas
Credit: Getty Images / prescott09

Keep your real Christmas tree alive for longer by setting it up in a cool room, away from a fireplace or wood-burning stove.

Do you have a room in your home that tends to be cooler than others—one without a fireplace or wood-burning stove? If you want to keep your real Christmas tree alive for longer, then consider setting it up here. Just like a wet shirt in a laundry room, heat will dry your tree out, fast.

Since cool conditions are best conditions for a live tree, you can also take a few other measures to promote the chill factor. Avoid setting it up in front of a sunny, south-facing window. Also, run a humidifier in the corner of the room that you can remove if guests come over. Lastly, if you’re dressing your tree with lights, use LED Christmas tree lights instead of incandescent bulbs that warm up when they’re lit.

10. Admit defeat and select a different option

Credit: Your Heart's Content / The Holiday Aisle

Bottle-brush Christmas trees and ceramic Christmas trees can be beautiful tabletop alternatives for those who don't want to put in the effort to keep a live Christmas tree fresh.

If locating and maintaining a real Christmas tree seems like too much of a hassle for you, maybe it's time to invest in other options. The best artificial Christmas trees look like the real thing these days, or they can put a decidedly modern spin on tradition, as with this candy cane version. And they don't require daily attention.

When it comes to holiday home décor, bottle brush Christmas trees are a rising trend this year, and a set of three glitter flocked or hand-dyed ombré sisal trees offer a festive air to holiday decorations. And, ceramic Christmas tree add a glow of light and love to a cozy gathering, whether it's got a nostalgic or a modern vibe.

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