By Matt Hickman


Nothing says “holiday cheer” like packing up the family on a Saturday morning and heading out to pick a Christmas tree.

Whether you stop by a big-box store or head to a local tree farm and cut your own, this cherished pastime has been replaced by some Americans with fake trees stored in the basement or garage. But those plastic trees shipped from China don’t have the great, pine smell and aren’t great for the planet.

So in the spirit of keeping it real, we thought we’d pass along a few pointers on how to select, care for, and dispose of non-artificial Christmas trees, especially for those who might be enjoying the real deal for first time.

Start with exact measurements and look for moist tree needles

It helps to shop for a tree prepared with measurements of the space you plan to display the tree in. You’ll also save time if you know what you’re willing to spend and what style of tree you want.

When it comes to freshness, looks may be deceiving. The Utah State University Forestry Extension recommends breaking needles to make sure that they are moist and fragrant. They should also be tightly attached to the twig — if you brush up against a branch and lots of needles fall off, it’s time to move on. Be on the lookout for discoloration too. A healthy tree’s color, naturally, should be a vivid green.

It helps to shop early as the healthiest and freshest trees sell quickly. But if you decide to wait, selecting a tree with some lovable imperfections that can be turned toward a wall may result in a discount.

One of the many benefits of buying locally harvested trees is that they’re likely to be fresher (and last longer) than a tree that’s been shipped thousands of miles. If you’re worried about pesticides entering your house, consider an organic Christmas tree. Check out this database of organic tree farms.

Stay cool with LED lights and natural decorations

When you’re ready to light the tree, consider strings of LEDs, which are available at many stores and online. LED lights last longer, will reduce drying of the tree, and are more energy-efficient than incandescent light strands. Companies like even have Christmas light recycling programs that allow you to send in old incandescent lights for recycling and get a discount on the purchase of new LED lights.

When it comes to ornaments, if you already have a stash, use them. There’s no need to spend a fortune on ornaments when a tree can look beautiful with items found in your own backyard. Try decorating the tree naturally with berries, pinecones, discarded bird nests, dried flowers, and strings of popcorn. And if you’re DIY-minded, whip out the glitter and the glue gun to make your own ornaments.

Keep the tree fresh and alive

Fresh Christmas trees can absorb a gallon of water a day. Frequently check that there is an adequate amount of water in the stand. The water level should never drop below the tree’s base.

And although you might be tempted to feed your tree a bit of vodka, sugar, or crushed  aspirin to help preserve it, many of these additives actually dehydrate the tree when mixed in the water (and can be toxic to pets who take a sip). Just plain old water, and plenty of it, should do the trick.

Remember to turn off the tree lights when not at home and before going to bed. The tree will also stay healthier in colder temperatures, so it’s a good excuse to practice energy conservation by turning down the thermostat a notch. It’s also a good idea to keep your tree away from direct sunlight and sources of heat or ventilation, if possible. 

Dispose of the tree responsibly and easily

Although January 6 is the typical Christmas tree take-down day, if a tree starts to dry out before then, it should be removed from your home. How to properly and ecologically dispose of one depends on where you live, and most U.S. municipalities offer either curbside Christmas tree recycling or mulching programs.

If you can’t bear to say goodbye to your tree, there are many ways to recycle these biodegradable beauties at home including chopping it up and adding it to your compost pile or saving it for firewood, using it as a backyard bird habitat, tossing it into a local pond (get permission first!), and much more.

No matter how you decide to dispose of your tree, make sure it’s completely naked with every bit of tinsel removed and ornament stashed away. And don’t bother with a plastic Christmas tree disposal bag. Simply wrap it in an old sheet or tarp to you remove it from the house and avoid making a needle-y mess.

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