Guide to Selection and Care of Christmas Trees

The Christmas tree is a holiday tradition that began in Germany in the seventeenth century. German immigrants and Hessian soldiers hired by the British to fight the colonists during the American Revolution brought the tradition to the United States. Today, many Americans decorate their home with an artificial, live, or cut tree for the holiday season.Cut Trees in Sales Lot

Good quality artificial trees are time-saving, clean, safe, and attractive. Yet, for many individuals even the best quality artificial tree lacks the beauty, charm, and romance of real, cut tree. For those who prefer a cut Christmas tree, a few simple guidelines will help ensure an enjoyable and safe holiday season. 

Where to Buy  |  Types of Trees  |  Selection  |  Storing  |  Care  |  Recycling & Disposal  |  FAQs  |  More Information

Where to Buy a Cut Christmas Tree

Christmas trees may be purchased from cut-your-own tree farms or as pre-cut trees in commercial lots. A list of tree farms in your area can be found on the Iowa Christmas Tree Growers Association website

Trees in commercial lots may be from local sources or out of state.  Oregon is the largest producer of cut Christmas Trees in the country, followed by North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  More than 80% of all cut trees come from those five states so chances are if it was not grown locally in Iowa, the tree is from one of those states.

Types of Christmas Trees

Tree species commonly available at tree farms and commercial lots in Iowa include Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, white spruce, and Colorado spruce. 

The species you select will depend on attributes like color, shape, needle retention, aroma, and branch stiffness (to hold up heavy ornaments).  Learn more about the types of trees used for cut Christmas trees in this article: Types of Christmas Trees.

Selecting a High-Quality Cut Christmas Tree

Before You Start Shopping

A few decisions should be made before going out to buy a Christmas tree.  Decide where you are going to place the tree in the home.  Be sure to choose a location away from heat sources, such as a fireplace or radiator.  Also, decide on the size (height and width) of the tree you want. Remember trees in a field or outdoor lot will not look as tall or wide as it will in your home. Bring a tape measure with you to ensure it will fit.

Evaluate Freshness 

Trees cut and purchased at cut-your-own tree farms are obviously fresh. Keep in mind, live evergreen trees still shed old interior needles so don't be surprised if needles still fall from the tree even before it is cut. Trees in commercial lots may be cut and stored for 4 or more weeks before they arrive at the tree lot so it is important to carefully check these trees to insure their freshness. 

Freshness can be determined with a few simple tests.  Gently run your hand over a branch.  The needles on a fresh tree will be pliable.  Those on a dry tree will be brittle.  Gently bend the outer branches. Fresh trees will have pliable branches that don't easily snap.  Another test is to lift the tree by the trunk and lightly bounce the butt on the ground.  Heavy needle drop indicates a dry tree.  A fresh tree will drop only a few needles. 

Attaching a stand to a cut Christmas tree
Attaching the stand to the tree before bringing it indoors makes setting the tree up easier.

Evaluate Other Factors 

When looking for a tree, select one that has a straight trunk.  A tree with a straight trunk will be much easier to set upright in the stand.  Check the diameter of the trunk to make sure it will fit in your stand.  Make sure the tree is full and has a nice shape. A tree with a bare side may be fine if you intend to place it in a corner or against a wall. 

Storing Your Tree

If you don’t intend to set up the Christmas tree immediately, place the tree in a cool, sheltered location.  An unheated garage or shed is often a suitable storage site.  (The sun and wind dries out trees stored outdoors.)  Put the butt of the tree in a bucket of water. 

Caring for a Cut Christmas Tree

Trimming the base of the Christmas tree
Remove an inch or more from the bottom of the trunk before bringing the tree into the house.  A fresh cut facilitates water uptake.

Setting up the Tree

Remove an inch or more from the bottom of the trunk before bringing the tree into the house.  A fresh cut facilitates water uptake. Place the tree in the stand.  Often it is easier to lay the tree on its side and secure the stand to the bottom with the netting used to wrap the tree for transport still on the tree,  Once indoors, stand it upright, straighten it, and then remove the net wrapping.  Get the tree into water as quickly as possible.  Avoid shaving the sides of the trunk down to fit in the stand as the outer layer of the trunk just under the bark is where most of the water is taken up.

Provide Plenty of Water

The single most important factor in caring for a cut Christmas tree is to be sure it always has adequate water in the tree stand. Never allow the reservoir to go dry.  If the water level drops below the bottom of the trunk, water uptake will be drastically reduced or cease when the reservoir is refilled. Use a tree stand with a large water reservoir and check water levels at least once or twice a day. Fresh trees absorb large quantities of water (especially in the first few days).

Use plain, clear water.  Do not add molasses, sugar, soft drinks, aspirin, or commercial products to the water. Additives provide no real benefit. Additionally, there is no benefit to drilling a hole in the bottom of the trunk or cutting the base of the trunk at an angle or into a v-shaped notch.  The tree is more difficult to stabilize when the bottom of the trunk is not flat.

Watering a cut Christmas Tree
The water reservoir in this tree stand is small.  Selecting a tree stand with a large water reservoir makes keeping the tree adequately watered much easier.  Never allowing the reservoir to go dry is the most important thing you can do to maintain a cut Christmas tree.

How Long Will it Last?

The length of time a cut Christmas tree can remain in the home is determined by the tree species, the freshness of the tree at purchase, and its placement and care in the home. In general, a fresh, well-cared-for Christmas tree should be able to remain in the home for three to four weeks. Remove the tree from the house when its needles become dry and brittle.

Recycling a Cut Christmas Tree

After the holidays, there are several ways to dispose of or recycle your tree.  Of course, before recycling your Christmas tree, remove all lights, tinsel, and ornaments.  If you place a large plastic bag under the stand before decorating (and hide it with the tree skirt) you can simply pull the bag up and carry the tree outside stand and all without dropping needles all over the house.  Once outside, remove the stand.

Use it to Feed and Support Wildlife

Place the tree in the yard or garden for use by birds and other wildlife.  The branches provide shelter from strong winds and cold.  Food can be supplied by hanging fruit slices, seed cakes, suet bags, or strings of cranberries or raisins on the tree’s branches.  You can also smear peanut butter and seeds on pine cones and hang them in the tree. 

Use it as Mulch

Prune off the tree’s branches and place the boughs over perennials as a winter mulch.  Chip the tree and use the chipped material as a mulch around trees, shrubs, or in perennial flower beds. 

Utilize a Pick-up and Recycling Program

If you can't use the tree yourself, contact local government offices, such as the Public Works Department, or your sanitation service.  Most communities have some type of Christmas tree disposal program.  Some have central collection points, others collect the trees at curbside. 

Conservation groups may be another option.  Some hunting and fishing groups collect trees and use them to provide habitat for wildlife. 

recycling Christmas tree for mulch
Many towns have Christmas tree recycling programs where the trees are often used for mulch.

Do Not Burn It

Don’t burn your Christmas tree in a fireplace or wood stove.  Dry, evergreen branches literally explode when burned and could cause a house fire.  Also, burning the tree may contribute to the buildup of creosote and lead to a flue fire.

Christmas Tree FAQs

More Information

Last reviewed:
December 2022