The real secret to keeping your Christmas tree fresh

Look below for lists of local tree farms. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Tips for buying a Christmas Tree

wtopstaff | November 14, 2014 1:53 am

The real secret to keeping an indoor tree safe & supple

No, the secret to keeping a cut tree fresh is not in any magic mixture you place in the water holder in the tree stand. It’s in the handling of the tree before the bolts that hold it in that stand get tightened.

If you buy a pre-cut tree, be sure to cut an extra inch or two off the bottom when you get it home (have a bow saw ready — they’re handy, inexpensive and the perfect tool for this and many other “tree chores”). Then sit the bottom of that freshly cut trunk in a big container of water for several hours — preferably an entire day — before you put the tree into its stand. That fresh cut and long soak will allow the tree to become really saturated with needle-holding moisture.

Keep the tree away from heat sources indoors, use cool-to-the-touch LED lights (instead of those old hot incandescents) and keep the water reservoir filled, especially for the first week inside. Even “pre-soaked” trees can suck up lots of water their first days in a warm room. (There are several clever devices available that allow you to do this chore without crawling on the floor. My personal favorite is called “Santa’s Magic Water Spout.” And yes, that name is real. I wish I were clever enough to have made it up.)

Whatever you do, please don’t fall for Internet hoaxes that urge you to mix up a bath of toxic chemicals to create a “fireproof tree.” If you must use something other than water, pick up a bottle of “Vacation.” It’s a natural “anti-transparent” designed to help indoor plants survive a couple of weeks without water. (Hence the name — you use it to treat your houseplants when you go “on vacation,” but it also works well on cut trees.)

Buy local for the longest-lasting tree

Tired of pulling evergreen needles out of your socks on Christmas morning? Buy local. And I don’t mean locally made spruce-proof slippers — I mean the tree! The way to really ensure long-lasting freshness is to visit a local Christmas tree farm and “cut your own.” I use quotes here because I’m the only person who seems to bring their own saw — everybody else just picks out his perfect tree and the staff cuts it for them. Either way, you get a tree that’s FRESH with a capital “F.” Plus you’re buying local, helping to keep that land planted in trees instead of townhouses and it’s a great family day outdoors — you almost always get free cookies and hot chocolate! Oh yeah, and a really nice tree, too.

Here’s a whole batch of lists of Christmas tree farms in our area. Take the time to check all the lists before you head out, as some farms only appear in one listing and finding that specific farm could save you considerable travel time.

And while these newer “pick your own Christmas tree” sites aren’t the best organized, they contain a lot of detail about the listed farms:

What kind of tree should you get?

Personally, I’m a Blue Spruce man. I love the color, and blue spruce branches are the best for holding heavy ornaments (like my Spider-Man Santa with working web-shooters!). But they don’t have a lot of indoor fragrance, and you must wear gloves during the setup to protect your hands from the very sharp needles.

If it’s scent you crave, choose one of the firs. Douglas and Fraser firs have a strong traditional smell, while a Concolor (aka “white fir”) has notes of citrus as well. All firs have a wonderful holiday aroma, the needles are softer on your hands and the trees hold their needles longer than most of the other varieties. But the branches are so supple, they droop down like mad when ornaments of any heft are added.

There’s a trick to keeping rosemary Christmas trees green

Alas, this tip comes too late for Blair in Germantown, who writes: “I was feeling optimistic and acted on the impulse to buy a rosemary ‘Christmas Tree’ for the holidays. I’ve been using the ‘dunk it in the sink’ method of watering once a week but the plant is starting to turn black. What am I doing wrong? (Aside from trying to grow rosemary indoors, that is.)”

You didn’t do anything wrong, Blair. You just didn’t realize how root-bound these otherwise wonderful little trees always are. Rosemary grows naturally in a very shrubby shape and the farmers have to prune down big plants to get that conical shape. (It’s often more than one plant, in fact, as some growers jam two or three plants close together in the ground to get a faster harvest.)

No matter what, the rootball is way too big for the little pots the plants come in. So as soon as you get your rosemary tree home, take it out of its woefully small pot and put it into one that’s twice that size. Fill in the extra area on the bottom and sides with a nice potting mix — or even better, compost. Then hydrate it by standing the pot in a few inches of water for an hour or two. The soil will suck up the water through the drainage holes in the bottom — a much better way to water than from above.

Feel the heft of the now well-watered plant, and repeat this “in the sink” watering whenever the pot feels light as opposed to heavy. (The frequency will vary greatly with indoor humidity. It might need it every other day or every 10 days. Trust the weight.)

The re-potted plant should easily survive through the holidays. After that, you can harvest the rosemary to make a couple of sensationally scented meals, or keep it alive indoors and plant it outside when nighttime temps stop dropping much below 40 degrees. Although it generally doesn’t survive the dead of winter, rosemary does very well in the cool weather of late winter/early spring.

Prune your way to free holiday decorations!

You know how I’m always yelling at you not to prune any plants in the fall because it greatly increases their risk of winter injury? Well, fall will soon be over, and the short-range forecast for the next few days is perfect for some holiday pruning: bright and sunny, but cold and frigid.

So you have my permission to prune some overgrown evergreens to use for swags and garlands. And you can remove a few branches from your hollies and other winter berry-bearers as well. To make a nice swag, just arrange a few layers of well-trimmed evergreens, lay a couple of holly or other berry-full branches over top, tie it up with wire and then add a bow or some Christmas tree balls (for added adornment and to hide any wire!).

Boom — you’re Martha Stewart!

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