If you’re as enthusiastic about the holiday season as I am, you probably like to decorate your Christmas tree early, and that means bringing home a live tree soon after Thanksgiving and hoping it lasts several weeks.
If you’re not diligent at the start of the season, however, you could end up with more fallen pine needles than presents under the tree by Christmas Day.
There are a number of tricks to lengthen the longevity of your tree, and this goes for a tree picked up at the local tree lot, or a tree cut down on a Christmas tree farm (or even out in the forest, as we love to do in Central Oregon).
None of these tricks involve the advice you often hear for extending the bloom of cut flowers, like cutting the bottom at an angle or adding sugar (or molasses, aspirin, commercial preservatives, or other unnecessary additives) to the water.
In fact, the only things you’ll need to ensure a nice, long life for your tree is a clean cut and plenty of water.
Here are the steps I take every year to keep our Christmas tree fresh and beautiful all month long (and even past the New Year).
Start with a healthy, vibrant tree.
This is especially important if you’re buying a specimen from a tree lot, as the tree may have been cut a couple weeks prior and transported a long distance to reach the vendor. Don’t be afraid to ask the vendor where the trees came from and how recently they were harvested.
Before bringing a tree home, run your fingers along the branches and look for soft, flexible needles that have a rich, deep green color. Dried-out trees will often have a bleached or pale olive-colored appearance. Check how many needles fall off right away — if it’s a lot, it’s a good indication that the tree is not as fresh as it should be.
Give the tree a good shake and watch for an excessive amount of needles that fall, as well as signs of thinning or browning areas. If the tree is already starting to dry out and has stiff, brittle needles, it won’t pull up as much water, and a warm, cozy home will only exacerbate the problem.
Weight also matters: a heavy tree means it’s retained a lot of water, helping it stay fresher longer.
If you’re cutting your own tree, try to wait for a few hard frosts to happen first. This sends evergreen species into a state of dormancy so they’re hardened and ready for winter. Their needles form a heavy, waxy coating called cutin to help prevent moisture loss, and they’re less likely to react to sunlight and warm indoor temperatures.
Give the tree a clean, straight cut across the bottom.
Chopping down your own tree ensures you have the freshest cut possible, assuming you don’t live more than a couple hours away.
This is because it takes three to four hours for a seal of dried sap to form over the cut trunk, thereby hindering its ability to absorb water. In particular, this is common with non-dormant trees and those that sit out in the sun for a while.
If you’re buying a tree from a tree lot, ask the vendor to make a fresh cut for you by slicing off a thin disk of wood from the trunk. Or, make the cut yourself by sawing off an inch off the bottom in a straight line (no angled or “V” cuts necessary).
Get the tree in water as soon as you come home.
The drive home on the roof of your car can start to dry out even the freshest tree to the point where it needs a drink of water immediately.
If you aren’t decorating the tree right away, place the trunk in a large bucket of water in a cool, shaded, sheltered spot like an unheated garage (or a covered porch, if it doesn’t get below freezing in your area). Trees can absorb as much as a gallon of water in the first 24 hours, so it’s crucial that your tree stays well hydrated.
As soon as you bring your tree home, set it up in a sturdy tree stand with a generous water reservoir that holds at least a gallon of water.
Use a stand that’s properly sized for your tree, as you want to avoid carving off the bark to fit the stand — it’s those outer layers that help the tree absorb the most water. Without them, your tree will dry out sooner.
Keep it cool.
As romantic as the idea of a beautifully lit Christmas tree by the fireplace is (you know, so Santa has quick access), it’s actually not the most ideal place to keep a tree.
Heat sources like fireplaces, wood stoves, space heaters, and radiators can often dry out a tree much faster than you can water it, so it’s best to locate your tree away from heating apparatuses and heating vents, and out of direct sunlight.
If you love having your tree in front of a window, try to avoid a south-facing window (or draw the blinds or curtains during the day when the sun is most intense).
The warmer your home is, the more your tree will drink up water, so consider lowering the thermostat to slow the drying process.
If you live in a particularly dry climate, it may also help to run a room humidifier near the tree to keep the needles fresher longer.
Opt for LED lights.
The new school of LED holiday lights emit very little heat, which keeps your tree from drying out too quickly and also reduces the risk of fire.
They’re inexpensive, energy efficient, don’t burn out, and last a long time, and most modern LED lights come in a “warm white” glow that mimics incandescent lights. (My favorites are these sphere lights, which have a sort of retro look to them.)
For all these reasons, it’s worth replacing your traditional light strands with LED lights, or saving those hot-burning incandescent bulbs for your windows instead.
You can find tree toppers lit with LED lights, too. Many of them are made to connect to your LED light strands, so you don’t have to deal with extra cords or batteries.
Check the water level every day.
Trees suck up a vast amount of water, so don’t be surprised if you find that you need to top off your tree stand daily. Keep at least two inches of the trunk submerged in plain, clean water at all times to prevent sap from forming over the base. (It will be much harder to make a fresh cut again if your tree’s already decorated.)
Remember that sometimes there will still be water in the stand, but you won’t realize that the water level has dropped below the base of the tree.
In general, a tree can absorb up to a quart of water per day for every inch of its diameter, especially in the first week. This is one of the reasons a properly sized tree stand is helpful; if your tree trunk is 5 inches in diameter, get a tree stand that holds at least 5 quarts of water so you don’t have to refill it twice or more each day to keep the needles green and supple.
With proper care, a typical evergreen tree should last about four weeks before it dries out too much.
After that, you can dispose of it through your local tree recycling program (many municipalities collect them curbside with your yard waste), cut the branches into small pieces and add them to your compost pile, or run the branches through a wood chipper to make mulch for your garden.
If you have perennial beds that need mulching, you can strip the tree of its branches and place them around your plants and shrubs. Leaving the branches long like this will create a nice, thick mat of mulch for the remainder of the season.
For the crafty folks, you can also slice the trunk into thin rounds to use as coasters, place cards, gift tags, and other projects.