Cue the Christmas tunes: It’s officially tree-decorating season. First, however, you’ll need to head out to the farm — or local stand or garden store — and pick out a fragrant evergreen to stand tall and proud inside your home.
Want to make sure you’re choosing the best possible option? Linvilla Orchards’ farm manager Norm Schultz shares advice on how to both select a prime holiday tree and also keep it dazzling through the holidays.
For the Philadelphia region, Schultz recommends three species: the Douglas fir, the Canaan fir, and the Fraser fir. If treated properly, all three will hold their needles from now until the end of the year.
“The Douglas fir grows best in this climate, so if you go out to cut your own tree, that’s most likely what you’ll find,” says Schultz. “The species yields a nice, full tree that holds its needles longer than many other local species once it’s cut.”
The fullness of a Douglas fir makes it prime for decorations like colorful strings of cranberries or beads and other ornaments that lie across the tree.
Schultz notes that the Canaan fir, on the other hand, offers stiffer branches with more space between each limb, which make them ideal for larger and heavier ornaments.
“The Canaan fir is the next most widely grown tree and will hold its needles for about the same amount of time as the Douglas,” says Schultz. “It’s also more fragrant, so if you want more of that Christmas tree smell, go for the Canaan.”
The tree that will require the least number of needle-sweeping sessions on your living room floor is the Fraser fir.
“There’s no doubt that the Fraser holds its needles the best, but it doesn’t grow well in our elevation in Pennsylvania,” says Schultz. “The best grow up in the mountains of North Carolina, and many area farm stands will ship them in. At Linvilla, we get a fresh batch every week and have them available for precut.”
Once you decide on a variety, it’s time to settle on a tree. To check the vigor of a tree, Schultz explains that you can do a simple needle test.
“You want to grab six inches from the outer end of a branch and pull on it lightly,” he says. “If the needles fall off by sliding your hands over the branch, that tree likely has a problem.”
Schultz says at least 99 percent of the needles should remain in tact.
An obvious indication of a tree’s health is its color. While it’s important to avoid trees with yellowing needles, Schultz notes that brown needles toward the center of a tree aren’t cause for concern.
“An evergreen sheds its two-year-old needles, so there’s always a cycle of discolored needles towards the center of the trunk,” explains Schultz. “Most farms have a tree-shaker that will get rid of those old needles before you take it home.”
For vibrant color that’ll last until the final days of 2018, Schultz suggests waiting until at least Dec. 1 to get your tree.
Schultz advises that if you cut the tree before November ends, keep it stored away for a week or two.
"Place it in a bucket of water in a cold garage or in a shaded area outside,” he says.
Forgetting to measure ceiling height is one of the most common mistakes Schultz sees tree-shoppers make.
“Trees don’t look so tall out in an open field, so people often end up buying one that’s way too big,” says Schultz. “It can make for a good story but also adds a lot of unnecessary stress.”
If you’re not looking to work up a sweat with a handsaw out in the field, precut trees serve as an excellent option. Just make sure to ask for a “fresh cut” before loading it on top of your car.
“You want to saw off an inch from the bottom of the trunk to open up the area where the water’s being taken up,” says Schultz. “As it sits, sap can plug up the outer edge where the water gets absorbed.”
The one-size-fits-all concept does not apply to tree stands.
“A smaller stand won’t support the weight of a large tree, so it’s important to use a stand with recommendations that match the height of your tree,” says Schultz.
Stands will often add two or three inches to the overall height of the tree, another important factor to keep in mind as you assess the size of your space.
Sawing off the outer edge of a trunk to fit it in the stand is never a smart idea.
“It’s not in the center, but just underneath the bark where the water travels up to keep the needles fresh,” says Schultz. “Saw off the edges, and you’ll kill the tree’s life supply.
While you might not like those drafty corners of your house, your tree would prefer to live its entire Christmas existence standing within one of them.
“Your tree will keep its needles for the longest if it’s in the coldest spot of your house,” he says.
“There’s no such thing as overwatering a tree,” says Schultz. “Christmas trees are like cut flowers — you’d never leave them in an empty vase.”
Schultz notes that if a tree trunk gets dry, even for just a few hours, its ability to soak up more water becomes destroyed.
“The sap seals over the bottom of the tree, so even if you add more water to the stand, it won’t soak it up,” he says.