Caring for Christmas trees

For those who buy real Christmas trees, you certainly have a desire for that tree to retain a healthy appearance through the Christmas holiday season.

Maintaining a healthy tree should start by selecting a fresh tree. Of course, nothing beats choosing and cutting your own tree. That’s about as fresh as you can get. But, steps can also be taken to maintain as much freshness as possible from pre-cut trees.

Daniel Cassens, professor emeritus of forestry at Purdue University and a tree farmer, said fresh trees are the best bet for beauty and safety during the holidays.

Cassens suggested selecting a good tree: full all around, and the proper size. Trees in the field don’t look as big as they will in a living room.

“We like to joke that the trees tend to grow as they go through the front door,” Cassens said.

“A fresh tree’s branches are not crumpled or drooping, the needles are tight and the color is good. And, a fresh tree isn’t dried out so it’s safer.”

A good test for freshness is to grab the needles and gently pull them toward you. On a fresh tree, the needles will stay on the tree. Some businesses can put the tree in a shaker to dislodge all of the dead and loose needles on the inner parts of branches.

In addition to selecting a fresh tree, proper care at home can keep it looking festive. If the tree is not set up immediately, it’s a good idea to place the trunk in a bucket of water.

“When you get the tree don’t let it sit in the sun or wind – those things will dry the tree out quickly,” Cassens said. “Don’t tie the tree to the top of a car if you’re driving long distances, as it can dry it out quickly. Also, covering a tree with plastic can bake it if the sun comes out.”

Instead, Cassens suggests having the tree bundled at the site and placed in the trunk, or in the back of an SUV or truck.

Selection of a good tree stand is also important. The bigger the tree, the stouter the stand should be. Just before putting the tree in its stand, Cassens said a fresh cut should be made about one-half inch from the bottom of the trunk. “Since pitch tends to seal the trunk off, this opens up new wood and the tree can absorb the water,” he said.

The tree stand should hold one quart of water for every inch in diameter at the bottom of the trunk. Plain water is best and should be added daily. Cassens said commercial and other homemade additives may actually increase water loss.

Use guy wires attached to nearby window frames to ensure stability. Many have had the unfortunate opportunity to right a fallen Christmas tree more than once, and also clean up the watery mess on the floor. Guy wires may be the answer to your problem. As a personal note, I’ve learned this the hard way.

There is little risk to having a Christmas tree in your home.

“A tree doesn’t just burst into flames,” he said. “It has to dry out and be exposed to a flame to catch fire.”

To ensure safety, Cassens suggests placing both real and artificial trees away from heat registers, drafty areas, space heaters, fireplaces and other heat sources. Fires are rare, and many of those that do occur are caused by overloaded outlets or faulty wiring.

Purdue Extension has a first-time buyer’s guide, which includes tree care tips, available at extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/FNR/FNR-423-W.pdf.

When festivities are over, Christmas trees can add value to birds through the winter. Birds can use the tree for cover in your backyard. Be sure to remove all tinsel and other non-recyclable ornaments from the tree. You can even provide birdseed in various types among the old branches. Make sure you have the tree anchored well, or winter winds will roll it away. Your neighbor may not be as enthusiastic about providing shelter and food for birds as you are.

After winter, you can recycle the tree into mulch by chopping or grinding branches into wood chips, or by stripping the needles and using them as mulch. Smaller branches and needles can also be chopped and added to a compost pile for use later on.

John Woodmansee is an extension educator in Whitley and Noble counties.

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