It’s the fear of every Christmas tree first-timer: a Clark Griswold moment. As you wade into that forest of firs, will you remember the ax to cut your chosen tree? Will you select one that fits on top of the car — and in your home? Will you maintain the tree well enough to, you know, keep it from bursting into flames? Chevy Chase’s mishap-prone character, of course, failed on all counts in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” declaring it a “four-alarm holiday emergency.” We asked local tree mongers for advice on selecting and caring for a Christmas tree so you can fare better. (All distances are approximate and measured from the White House.)
Clouse’s Pine Hill Farm
2696 Green Spring Road, Winchester, Va.
Distance from D.C.: 86 miles
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursdays-Sundays
What kind of tree should you choose? White pines grow best in this area since they’re native to the Mid-Atlantic region, tree farmer Ryan Clouse says. “Their soft, graceful needles provide a great backdrop for lights and lighter ornaments,” he says. “Douglas fir are noted for needles with a hint of citrus,” while concolor firs have impressive needle longevity. The Norway spruce has strong branches and a pleasant scent; the Canaan fir and Fraser fir have a “picturesque form,” Clouse says.
Linden Hill Christmas Tree Farm
4102 Old Crain Highway, Upper Marlboro, Md.
Distance from D.C.: 23 miles
Hours: 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Fridays-Sundays
Cost: $10 per foot
What’s the best way to pick out a healthy tree? “Seriously look at its color,” grower and owner Sarah Stockstill says. “If it’s a deep or true green all over,” it’s a safe bet. And make sure the needles are secure: Pull a branch toward you, and if lots fall off, find another tree.
Middleburg Christmas Tree Farm
Christmas Tree Lane, Round Hill, Va.
Distance from D.C.: 51 miles
Hours: 1-5 p.m., Fridays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays
Cost: Most trees are $75 up to 6 feet; $10 each additional foot
What’s the first thing you should do when you get your tree home? Cut about 1 inch from the bottom of the trunk and place the tree in water — a bucket will suffice, owner Frans J. Kok says. If you don’t have a saw at home and won’t be able to cut it again, “bring a plastic bag and an elastic band that will fit over the bottom of the trunk” to keep the tree from drying out in the car.
Good Spirits Tree Farm
9711 Old National Pike, Hagerstown, Md.
Distance from D.C.: 70 miles
Hours: 3-5 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays
Cost: $40 to $60; extra $15 per foot over 10 feet.
Where’s the best spot to display a tree? Somewhere away from excessive heat, like the kind that comes from a wood stove or electric baseboard, owner Tom Castle says. Placing a tree by windows isn’t necessarily a good idea, “since heat registers and baseboard heat is normally” underneath, Castle says.
Showvaker’s Quality Evergreens
2020 Garrett Road, Manchester, Md.
Distance from D.C.: 77 miles
Hours: noon-5 p.m., Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays
Cost: $7.70-$8.35 per foot up to 9.5 feet (rates higher for taller trees)
What’s the lowdown on watering? “A fresh-cut tree can drink a gallon or more of water per day — talk about being thirsty,” owner Lisa Showvaker says. Tap water will suffice, she says, and additives aren’t necessary. “The first watering should be hot tap water, not boiling,” she says. Check the water level daily to make sure it’s covering the tree’s stump.
Snickers Gap Christmas Tree Farm
34350 Williams Gap Road, Round Hill, Va.
Distance from D.C.: 56 miles
Hours: Noon until dark, Mondays-Fridays; 9 a.m. until dark, Saturdays & Sundays
Can you recycle trees after the holiday? Yes, they’re 100 percent recyclable. Check if your community has a collection program; some landfills turn trees into mulch that’s then available for free, owner Steven Wolff says. Your garden or backyard will work, too. If you have a pond, “fish will use them as habitat,” he says, adding that if you put suet on your tree and leave it in the yard, you’ll provide a feast for birds and wildlife.
Prettyboy Run Farms
2105 Mount Carmel Road, Parkton, Md.
Distance from D.C.: 71 miles
Hours: 9 a.m. until sunset, Fridays-Sundays
Cost: $45 for 6 feet and under; $5 per foot over 6 feet
Why support local farms? “Christmas trees provide habitats for wildlife, produce oxygen — 1 acre produces oxygen for 18 people — and remove carbon dioxide, dust and pollen from the air,” owner Stefan Nock says.
Spruce Rock Farm
419 Lester Utz Lane, Brightwood, Va.
Distance from D.C.: 84 miles
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturdays & Sundays
How long does it take to grow Christmas trees? Eight to 12 years to get from seedling to a 7- or 8-foot tree, farm president Tim Williams says, noting that there’s a national tree shortage that began in 2001. “We, like many tree farms, are somewhat victims of our success, with trees currently selling faster than we can grow them,” he says. More reason to secure yours soon.