Last-minute Christmas tree shoppers need not worry about facing a paltry selection of dry, wilted trees this year. Maryland's healthy tree crop will easily accommodate the 1 million trees estimated to be purchased in the state this holiday season, industry experts say.

Carville Akehurst, director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, attributes the abundant supply of Christmas trees to the increasing number of tree farms in the state, now numbering 325.

"We don't have a glut but rather a good supply of trees," Akehurst said.

Gypsy moths and mice, considered the most threatening pests to trees, did some damage but not enough to hurt the supply, said Frank Gouin, director of the University of Maryland's Horticulture Department.

Although Maryland is not among the largest tree-producing states, such as North Carolina and Oregon, over the years it has steadily increased its yield of Scotch and white pines and the classic Norway spruce tree.

Akehurst and Gouin said consumers should expect to pay $20 to $40 for a healthy tree, and they recommend checking trees for dryness, a major fire hazard.

"Beware of trees from Canada and the northern states because they cut them in September, which means they're usually very dry by now," Gouin said. "Most trees in Maryland were cut around the last week in November."

Getting rid of the Christmas tree will be more environmentally benign this year, thanks to the recycling boom. 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 to be turned into mulch, which will be made available free to local residents. Only a few jurisdictions did so last year, she said.

As an alternative to disposing of a tree entirely, Gouin recommends first cutting off its branches to use as covers for outdoor plants and then roping popcorn around the tree as food for hungry birds.

"My kids have done this for years. It makes a good feeding station and the kids have a lot of fun watching the birds."

Louis Nichols, a past president of Virginia's Christmas Tree Growers Association, 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," Nichols said. "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 spruces 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 coat it and the tree cannot absorb the liquid it needs to grip its needles. To prevent that, saw off half an inch from the bottom of any tree bought on a lot or a farm tree kept out of water for more than a day.

Nichols scoffed at concoctions people add to water 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," Nichols said.

He does not recommend fire retardants, and advised that people 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.

Montgomery County: Curbside collection of trees Dec. 26 to Jan. 31 in neighborhoods that began curbside newspaper recycling in September. In the Bethesda-Silver Spring area, trees may be taken to elementary schools for recycling.

Prince George's County: Trees collected at Brown Station landfill in Upper Marlboro to be turned into mulch for county residents. Some municipalities will provide curbside collection service.

College Park: Curbside tree pickup; mulch will be made available to residents.

Gaithersburg: Trees may be dropped off at elementary schools; mulch will be available at City Hall.

Greenbelt: Trees may be dropped off at not-yet-announced locations; mulch may be picked up at the city compost site.

Takoma Park: Trees will be collected at curbside; mulch will be made available.

SOURCE: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.