Fifteen years ago, city residents who trekked west to the country to buy their Christmas trees could find fewer than half a dozen Christmas tree farms in rural Loudoun County.

Today there are at least 25, not counting entrepreneurs who sell a few off their back-yard acre or two.

Wait a minute. Aren't farms supposed to be disappearing in the crush of suburbia?

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

The bountiful supply of fresh trees less than an hour from the District is good news for Christmas tree buyers this year.

Competition has improved the quality of trees, industry experts say, and the economic slump has left most local prices unchanged from last year, Malone said.

New environmental services from local governments also will make it easier for people to turn their trees into beneficial mulch after the holidays.

A six- to eight-foot pine, spruce or fir is selling for $25 to $35 this year, although some can be found out in the country for as little as $20, Malone said.

They're better trees too. "A few years ago, you used to see some real dogs and they'd sell them for 10 bucks," said tree farmer Louis Nichols. "Now a consumer can buy a good tree almost anywhere they go."

Nichols and others say selecting a tree usually is 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, just to make sure the needles haven't dried out. It's normal for a few to fall off the inner branch, but the needles on the center and outer part of the branch should look fresh.

Pine trees hold their needles longest. Even most spruce and firs will last three weeks.

Cedars dry out more quickly, and Nichols said they can be a fire hazard unless the water is checked regularly.

Once home, a fresh tree should be put in water immediately. Waiting even a day means that sap will coat the cut edge and keep the tree from absorbing the liquid it needs to grip its needles.

That means trees bought from a lot or shop should be sawed off half an inch from the bottom and put in water.

And water is all they need, said Nichols, who scoffs at the concoctions people add in hopes of prolonging the fresh appearance of their trees.

"If God had meant for vinegar or sugar or anything else, he would have put it there in the first place," he said.

He also does not recommend fire retardants, saying people should just keep a tree away from heat sources, turn off the lights at night and not use real candles.

After the holidays, getting rid of a Christmas tree should be easier and less burdensome to the local environment. With local jurisdictions running out of landfill space, they are looking to recycle trees that used to be dumped.

Joan Rohlfs, recycling coordinator for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said nearly every area jurisdiction, including the District, will provide drop-off sites or collect trees at curbside to be made into mulch. The mulch will be made available free to local residents. That service was available in only a few places last year, she said.

Of course, even better for the environment is to buy a live tree, roots balled in burlap, for planting in the yard after Christmas. Live trees are a growing share of the market, Nichols said.

The most important sign of a good one is a root ball that is adequately sized: 24 inches wide for a six- to seven-foot pine or spruce, 18 inches for a five-foot tree. Buyers should inspect the branches for insects, Malone advised. But Nichols said most people usually cannot spot them, and suggested simply buying from a reputable dealer.

Malone said a live tree can be kept indoors for no more than a week; Nichols said two or three weeks is fine.

Dig the hole in the yard as soon as possible because it is easier to do before the ground freezes. Put the dirt aside for later use. Malone said live trees can even stay outside for the winter, in an area protected from wind, to be planted in the spring.

Christmas trees in the District will be collected from Supercan areas on the yard waste collection schedule.

In January, trees also will be collected on Wednesdays -- Jan. 9, 16 and 30 -- wherever there is twice-a-week collection.

Trees will be turned into mulch by the Department of Public Works.

For information, call 939-8099.