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How to care for Christmas trees

Frazier firs have open branching, allowing easy decorating.
Frazier firs have open branching, allowing easy decorating. (Photos By Sandra Leavitt Lerner)
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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, December 19, 2009

This is the perfect weekend to get your Christmas tree, if you haven't done so already. All you need now is just a little guidance to help you choose the right tree.

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As you shop, keep in mind that the right tree will feel pliable and soft, even on varieties with stiff needles, such as spruces. Bang the bottom of the tree on a solid surface once or twice to see if the needles are ready to fall; it's okay if some brown or yellow needles drop, but the tree shouldn't shed any green ones. Bring your tree stand to make sure the trunk will fit. Freshly cut Christmas trees generally hold their needles the best, so cutting your own is the only way to guarantee its freshness. For a list of farms in Maryland and Virginia where you can cut your own tree, check http://www.marylandchristmastrees.org or http://www.virginiachristmastrees.org.

After you bring the tree home, use a bow saw to cut two inches off the bottom of the trunk, and place the tree in water in your garage or another location close to the house. When you are ready to bring the tree indoors, make a fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk. Introduce the tree to room temperature one day before decorating, allowing its branches to open completely. Set it in a stand that's big enough to provide stability and large enough to hold water for the tree's daily needs. Use a hand pruner or pruning saw to shape the tree for a balanced appearance and to make room underneath for gifts. Of course, be sure to cut away from your body and from other people while pruning.

There are several important safety tips for homeowners to remember. Trees should be kept well away from fireplaces and at least three feet from any heating sources, and they should not be placed near exits. When using decorative lights, use only those that carry a UL approved tag, and be sure to turn off the lights when you go to bed or leave the house. Local fire marshals also recommend strongly that trees be kept indoors for as brief a period as possible. More information on holiday safety is available at http://www.kate.net/holidays/christmas/holidaysafety.html.

The National Christmas Tree Association, which represents growers of holiday trees, says that homeowners should not add products such as fertilizer, bleach or aspirin to water to make trees last longer. "Research has shown that plain tap water is by far the best," according to the group's Web site. "Some commercial additives and home concoctions can actually be detrimental to a tree's moisture retention and increase needle loss."

A Christmas tree can take, on average, six to 10 years to mature to a suitable size. Each year 73 million new trees are planted, according to the tree growers association. But if you're worried about the impact of all those holiday trees on the environment, take heart: Christmas tree farming does bring some benefits. A renewable resource, the trees boost air quality by generating oxygen and reducing carbon dioxide and particulate pollution. Tree growth also helps to stabilize soil, protect water supplies and provide refuge for wildlife.

After the holiday

Once the holidays are over, homeowners face a new question: What to do with the tree? Local jurisdictions typically schedule pickup for discarded Christmas trees, which are chipped and added to municipal leaf piles for compost. Most trees, in fact, end up providing a rich source of compost material. As a veteran Christmas tree vendor who sold them in the 1970s and '80s, I've seen many unsold trees enter the chipper. My consolation was that they contributed to enriching the soil.

You can do your own post-Christmas composting in a few easy steps. First, prune the limbs off the main trunk. Then strip the smaller woody stems off the main branches, putting the needle-rich stems in your compost pile. The needles will add nitrogen, while the wood stems will add carbon. The trunk and main branches can be placed curbside for pickup.

If you find a cone on your tree, remove it and allow to dry outside over winter. Peel back its "armor" in the spring to reveal the seeds hiding behind each woody scale. Plant the seeds in sunny spots. In six to 10 years, with proper soil, sun, moisture, pruning and temperatures, you may have a homegrown Christmas tree or two.

Your old Christmas tree can also be used to create a wildlife habitat. Lay the tree in the back of your garden, slightly out of view. Allow it collect leaf litter and plant debris. Place a hollow log or a dead shrub behind it. Squirrels, rabbits, foxes, toads, turtles and birds depend on this type of protected area for nesting and shelter from predators. As the tree decays, it will provide food for insects and worms that will in turn be eaten by birds.

Evergreen limbs can also be used as protection from wind or freeze damage for plants such as rosemary, loropetalum, or the roots of tender perennials and bulbs such as canna and dahlia. Lay the branches lightly, just one or two thick, as blankets over the desired area. Remove branches as growth resumes in the spring.

Some people are brave enough to bring home a live tree that can be planted in their yard. If this is what you have in mind, go to a garden center or tree seller that has experience with growing them. Live trees can be planted right after Christmas, but now is the time to dig and prepare the hole and put soil for planting the tree in an area where it won't freeze. The trees adapt well in humus-laden, well-drained soil, with sunlight. Of course, until you plant the tree, cover the pre-dug hole with thick plywood, for safety. Keep the root ball moist and take the live tree out of the house within a week after the holiday to keep it from breaking dormancy.

Have a safe and Merry Christmas!

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.


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