Fifteen years ago, there were fewer than half a dozen Christmas tree farms across the Fairfax County border in Loudoun County. Now there are at least 25, not counting the entrepreneurs who sell from the acre or two of trees in their back yards.

Wait a minute. Aren't farms supposed to be disappearing in the crush of suburbia? Yes and no. Farmers who once raised one crop are turning to others, such as trees that can be used at Christmas and for landscaping suburban lawns.

"It's {tree farming} grown because Loudoun County has grown," said area forester Dana Malone. "The market place is here. You have a ready market and a good market."

That bountiful supply of trees so near the Washington suburbs, and less than an hour from the District, is good news for Christmas tree buyers -- trees are fresher and decently priced. And because of the competition and the economic slump, most local tree-farm prices are unchanged from last year, Malone said.

A six-foot to eight-foot pine, spruce or fir still sells for $25 to $35, although some can be found for $20, he said. Malone estimated that half a million dollars' worth of Christmas trees were sold in Loudoun County last year.

Statewide, a record harvest of 1.7 million to 1.8 million trees is expected, according to James E. Johnson, a forestry expert with the Extension Service at Virginia Tech.

Competition also has improved the quality of trees sold, according to industry experts. "A few years ago, you used to see some real dogs and they'd sell them for 10 bucks," said Loudoun County tree farmer Louis Nichols. "Now, a consumer can buy a good tree almost anywhere."

More Christmas trees will be recycled this year. According to Joan Rohlfs, recycling coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, nearly every jurisdiction in the area will provide drop-off sites or collect trees at curbside. The trees will be turned into mulch, which will be made available free to local residents. Only a few jurisdictions did so last year, she said.

Nichols and others said selecting a tree from a cut-and-choose farm or a parking lot display is usually as simple as deciding what looks good and is the right height.

"There's no hidden thing to look for," said Nichols, a past president of Virginia's Christmas Tree Growers Association. "If they look good, smell fresh and you can bend the branches and there's some springiness, it's just fine."

Shake the tree lightly, Nichols advised, to make sure the needles haven't dried out. It's normal for a few to fall off from the inner branch, but the needles on the center and outer parts of the branch should look fresh.

Pine trees hold their needles longest, or have the best "needle retention," as the experts put it. Even most spruce and firs will last three weeks at least. Cedars dry out quickly indoors, and Nichols said they can be a fire hazard unless the water is checked regularly.

Once home, the tree should be put in water immediately. Waiting even a day means that sap will cover the newly cut trunk and the tree cannot absorb the liquid it needs to keep its needles. To prevent that, saw off half an inch from the bottom of any tree bought on a lot or from a farm tree kept out of water for more than a day.

Nichols advised against adding anything to the water in hopes of prolonging the fresh appearance of the tree. He also does not recommend fire retardants, saying people should keep the tree away from heat sources, turn off the lights at night and not use real candles.

Even more environmentally correct is buying a live tree, roots balled in burlap, for planting in the yard after Christmas. Live trees are an increasing share of the market, Nichols said, and many people think "it's a good example for their children."

The most important sign of a good live tree is a root ball that is adequately sized for the tree -- 24 inches in diameter for a six- to seven-foot pine or spruce, 18 inches on a five-foot tree. Buyers can part the branches to look for insects, Malone advised. But Nichols said most people cannot spot them, and suggested buying from a reputable dealer.

Malone said a live tree can be kept indoors for no more than a week before being planted outside, although Nichols said two or three weeks is fine.

Dig the hole in the yard as soon as possible (before the ground freezes too hard to dig), putting the dirt aside for later use. Malone said live trees can even stay outside for the winter, in an area protected from the wind, to be planted in the spring.

Arlington County: Residents may place trees at curbside and call 358-6570 for special pickup.

Fairfax County: Christmas trees collected in January at I-66 transfer station and Lorton landfill, with free mulch available to residents at those locations.

Prince William County: Free tree drop-off at county landfill in January, with normal charge waived for residents. Mulch available there.