Monday, December 12, 2022

Buying, Selecting, and Caring for the Perfect Christmas Tree 


I can still remember how exciting it was for my younger sister and me when, as kids, my dad announced, “We’re going to get the Christmas tree tomorrow.” The following morning we’d put on our hats and gloves and head out to the Christmas tree lot in front of Dad’s favorite hardware store to buy that ‘perfect’ Christmas tree. (Once the tree was up however, my sister and I quickly became more focused on what we hoped would be under it.)

Buy Local 

    As I see it, the choice we have as consumers this Christmas (and throughout the year) is to either support small, family-run businesses, or help some fat-cat, one-percenter CEO buy another yacht, sports car, or vacation home.

    Picking the perfect Christmas tree is high on many families’ to-do lists, right now. Maybe you’re planning to pick up your tree this weekend. If so, I want to encourage you to purchase your tree from a local tree farm, nursery, garden center, or farm stand, as opposed to a big box store.

    Money spent at small businesses stays in the local economy at a higher percentage than money spent at chain retailers. And if every one of us shifted just $100 of the money we spend at Christmas from big box stores or ordering from Amazon and other online businesses owned by multi-national corporations beholden only to their stockholders, with no vested interest whatsoever in our communities, to local, Independently-owned small businesses, farmers, self-employed artisans and craftspeople, and nonprofit groups, when so many of them are struggling, we establish connections and demonstrate unity with neighbors who are just trying to make ends meet or send a son or daughter to college, soccer camp, piano or dance lessons, or the dentist for that matter.


What’s more, we promote entrepreneurship and encourage new entrepreneurs to pursue their own new businesses. And, in doing so, we promote resilient, vibrant local business communities that can grow and thrive, while lessening the environmental impacts associated with the operations of large conglomerates.

Bringing home the perfect Christmas tree – USDA Forest Service photo.

Selection and Care 

    Before you head out to your local tree farm or lot in search of that perfect Christmas tree, I thought that I’d share what Cornell University specialists; experts who work closely with Christmas tree producers across the state; have to say about selecting the perfect tree and making it last into the New Year.

    Brian Eshenaur, a Senior Extension Associate for Ornamental Crops with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM) suggests choosing “a variety and shape that fits your needs. Each variety tree offers its own shape, color, fragrance, and even branch stiffness,” he says, “which is important to consider for holding ornaments.”

    Eshenaur recommends using your senses; sight, touch, and smell; when picking your tree. “Look for a tree with a good solid-green color,” he says, noting that “Needle yellowing or a slight brown speckled color could lead to early needle drop.”

    He goes on to say, “Don’t be afraid to handle and bend the branches and shoots. And avoid a tree if green needles come off in your hand or the shoots crack or snap with handling,” and emphasizes that, “Christmas trees should smell good. If there isn’t much fragrance when you flex the needles, it may mean that the tree was cut too long ago.” He asserts too, that “Fir trees (e.g. Balsam, Fraser fir) have great needle retention and stiff branches that make a perfect place to display ornaments all the way to the tip.

An 88-foot Engelmann spruce in Colville National Forest in Washington state was selected as the 2013 Capitol Christmas Tree – U.S. Forest Service file photo.

    Elizabeth Lamb, a senior extension associate, with NYSIPM agrees. “The fresher the tree the better,” she says, “which is a good reason to buy local. The branches should be springy and smell good. A few loose needles aren’t a problem but you shouldn’t get handfuls when you brush the branches.” She calls attention to the fact that, “Most New York state Christmas tree farms are choose-and-cut operations, although some have pre-cut trees” and notes, “You can ask the grower about how long they’ve been cut or “ask at your local lot where the trees are coming from.”

    Lee Dean has been lead arborist for Cornell Botanic Gardens since 2002. He explains, “If the tree was freshly cut, needle retention relates to how well you care for the tree, once it’s in your home. Monitoring the water level is very important. Keep water above the bottom of the trunk. Place the tree away from a heat source and turn off lights at night. This greatly reduces fire hazards and saves energy.

    Brian Eshenaur also advises, “Don’t forget the tape measure. Measure the floor to ceiling height before you go tree shopping and then while choosing, so you end up with a tree that fits nicely into your home.

    When asked about the ‘single-use’ aspect of real Christmas trees, Eshenaur believes that, “considering the alternative of a plastic tree produced and then shipped from overseas, which will eventually end up in a landfill, the real trees have their benefits. They are a renewable resource,” he says, “and by buying locally you’re supporting growers that will continue to maintain their fields, which are part of the greenspace we all value.”

Happy Holidays 

    To all of my readers, whatever your faith (or lack thereof), I wish you peace, joy, love, laughter, contentment, and goodwill during this holiday season and throughout the coming year.


Photo at top: Their conical shape is an adaptation that helps certain evergreens avoid snow build up. Photo credit: NYSDEC file photo.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

5 Responses

  1. John says:

    This article makes a good case for buying local. The references to fat cats, CEOs, one-percenters, chain retailers, etc. are what I expect from mainstream media of all persuasions that emphasize political and class warfare above all else. It’s unnecessary and detracts from the rest of this article. Besides, chain retailers are often selling locally sourced products they obtain from local businesses. And, many small businesses are using marketplaces like Amazon, eBay, Etsy, and many others to do business with a wider market. Plenty of small Adirondack businesses are among them.

    Despite the negative open, I kept reading and am glad I did. You won me over with the benefits, not with the negative selling against the competition. “Tell me why I should vote for you, not why I shouldn’t vote for the other guy.”

  2. Joe says:

    I am a cut your own christmas tree grower and want to correct Brian Eshenaur’s statement that fir trees have stiff branches all the way to the end. They do not. Spruce trees do. Firs do have the best needle retention. If you buy from a cut your own christmas tree farm you will not have worry about needle retention that much because of the freshness of the tree. Also some trees have little smell even in the field, others have much scent. Happy tree hunting.

  3. Joe says:

    I am a cut your own tree farmer. A correction to be made is fir trees have weaker branches to hold ornaments.The spruce tree has stiff branches. As for aritifical compared to real trees. Its a no brainer for the environment. Aritifical trees are made from natural gas and real are made from the earth.
    Disposing of the real tree compared to the other is a no brainer. Real decomposes back to the earth, the other stays for centuries. And if you can, cut your own trees compared to buying a pre cut tree, there is no waste of having unbought trees left on the lot to be discarded. You save all those unbought trees, left in front of the big box stores, and save all the energy to cut, haul and dispose of the dead trees.

  4. Luke says:

    When I moved into my new house in the country 12 years ago, I started my tradition of only buying living potted trees. They’re small, about 1 to 1 1/2 feet tall. I dig a hole in November before the ground freezes, and then in December I start canvassing the local nurseries and outdoor stores to see if any of them have Christmas varieties still in stock. There aren’t many outlets that do this.
    I decorate the tree indoors (real easy when it’s knee high) and plant it after the holiday..
    The first year, the last potted tree available at a tractor store was a Fraser fir with the terminal branch snapped. I bought it, hoping it would somehow recover and grow. That tree is now about 10 feet tall and the talk of the yard, surrounded by her sisters that are graded in size based on their Christmas year.
    The easiest source for these trees has become, surprisingly, our Wegman’s grocery store. They usually stock about 30 blue spruce at each of their locations. But they don’t offer any other varieties, and I was getting over spruced. Even though I suggest to the local nurseries and even the big chain stores that I think there’s a market for this product if they would offer it, they don’t seem interested. Which is surprising because the ones that do always sell out, and the prices are comparable to what a small cut tree costs.
    Anyway, I think if more folks tried this, they’d find the same enjoyment that I do while I get to remember and enjoy all the trees of Christmases past every time I mow my lawn.

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