O, CHRISTMAS tree! What better way to start the holiday season off right than by heading to one of the area's many farms and nurseries to cut your own evergreen? If chopping isn't your strong suit, some locations also offer live, burlapped trees that can be planted after they have served holiday duty (dig the hole before the ground freezes) as well as pre-cut selections. In addition to trees, many farms sell wreaths, greens, cider, ornaments and other seasonal products. You're also likely to find holiday treats, horse-drawn wagon rides and visits from Santa.
Most tree farms are small family operations, so call before you visit to check hours, accepted forms of payment, prices and availability. Several farms will set up an appointment if you can't drop by during regular hours. A few more tips:
* Prices typically range from $15 to $50, depending on size and variety. Some farms sell by height (about $3 to $6 per foot).
* Not sure which variety to choose? The top sellers, according to the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association, are balsam, Douglas, Fraser and noble firs; and Scotch, Virginia and white pines. Pine varieties generally are less expensive. Firs have short- to medium-length needles, while pines have longer, softer needles; most varieties boast good to excellent needle retention. Spruces have shorter needles and may have poorer retention, but the branches are sturdy for holding ornaments.
* Trees look smaller under the sky than under your roof. Measure your room before you go, and bring a tape measure to check the tree's size before you cut.
* Dress for winter in the woods, making sure to wear sturdy shoes. (Your primary tree-handler will probably want to wear work gloves.)
* Bring your own handsaw (quicker, neater and safer than an ax) to avoid waiting for one at the farm, plus rope and a tarp to carry the tree home on your car roof (more comfortable than in your lap). Chain saws are prohibited at most farms. Most places offer free or inexpensive assistance with cutting, shaking, baling and loading the tree.
* Photo opportunities usually are plentiful, so don't forget a camera.
* To keep the tree fresh longer at home, saw an inch off the trunk just before you stand it in a bucket of water.
* Water your tree generously. It may require up to two gallons daily.
* Check with your trash haulers to find out how to get your tree recycled.
Maryland, Virginia and Loudoun County publish guides to tree farms, which often can be found in public libraries and tourism offices and are available online. For guides, contact the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, 3501 Hanover Pike, Manchester, Md. 21102 (www.marylandchristmastrees.org); the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Marketing, P.O. Box 1163, Richmond, Va. 23218. (804-786-3951, www.vdacs.state.va.us/trees/index.html); and the Loudoun County Office of Rural Economic Development, 1 Harrison St. SE, Fifth Floor, Leesburg, Va. 20177 (703-777-0426; www.rural-loudoun.state.va.us).