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COLUMN: Tips for enjoying a real Christmas tree this holiday

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By Bryce Roberts

Many of you may have already started or will start decorating your homes for the holiday season since Thanksgiving is upon us. I thought it would be nice to give you some tips on how to maintain a fresh Christmas tree.   These are some tips that I have passed on to you for a few years now.
Memories of Christmases past are often wrapped in the scent of a freshly cut pine tree.  It’s the aroma that welcomes you when you walk in the door at the end of a long winter’s day or mingles with the scent of coffee to wake you on a chilly morning.  
Some have traded in those scent-wrapped memories for the perceived convenience of an artificial tree, thinking there’s less mess, as well as fewer hazards with the plastic tree.  In reality, a real tree is easy to care for and will stay fresh in your home if a few simple steps are taken to care for it properly.
One thing to remember is that, being a crop plant, a real Christmas tree is a renewable resource. For every tree that is harvested, another is planted in its place.  And at the end of the holidays, it can be recycled.  An artificial tree made from non-biodegradable plastics and, in some cases, hazardous metals such as lead, will end up lying in a landfill for a very long time.
There are a variety of specimens and sizes available in real trees. In Kentucky, Christmas tree farmers typically plant white pine and Scots (or Scotch) pine.  The white pine retains its needles, which have a soft, flexible texture. The trees are often sheared into a pyramidal shape, though this often makes the tree very dense, which makes it difficult to hang large ornaments.
The Scots pine’s needles are shorter than those of the white pine and the color can vary from bright green to dark green to some trees that exhibit more bluish tones. The species retains its needles well and resists drying.
Douglas and Fraser firs are also popular choices at local tree lots.  The Douglas has dark green or blue green needles that are shorter and softer than pine needles.  Shearing gives it a denser form than the Fraser, which is a naturally pyramid-shaped tree, with even shorter needles than the Douglas.  Both trees have good needle retention and a pleasant scent.
For the freshest tree, the ideal choice is one you cut yourself from a tree farm.  The Kentucky Christmas Tree Association has a list of member tree farms on their website, http://www.kychristmastreefarms.com.  
  If buying a tree from a tree lot, there are two simple tests to check for freshness.  Bend one of the tree’s green needles.  If the needle snaps rather than bends, the tree is dry.  If the tree is a reasonable size, lift it a foot or so and thump the base of the trunk on the ground.  If green needles fall out, the tree is too dry.  If you see brown needles fall out, don’t worry.  Those are last year’s needles and are naturally shed by the tree.
  If you plan to cut your own tree from a local tree farm, don’t be in a rush to do it early in the season.  Cutting it later rather than earlier will insure that the tree stays fresh throughout the entire holiday season.  However, if you plan to purchase a tree from a tree lot, it might be better to purchase that tree early for the purpose of getting it in water and out of drying weather conditions as soon as possible.
Transporting a tree from either farm or lot can expose it to drying conditions.  Ask to have the tree tied with twine or placed in a sleeve of plastic netting.  This will allow less surface area to be exposed to the elements during the trip.  
Once you get your lot-purchased tree home, it’s a good idea to cut off one or two inches from the bottom of the trunk.  Place the tree in a bucket of warm water and store it away from drying sun or wind, preferably in a garage or enclosed sun porch.  Gradually move the tree into the house, to minimize shock from a drastic change in temperature.
In the house, be careful to place your tree away from sources of heat such as fireplaces, stoves, heat registers or radiators.  Keeping the thermostat set at a lower temperature will help to prevent the tree from drying out too quickly. Keep the tree well-watered.  A fresh tree can easily drink a gallon or more of water each day, so using a tree-stand that holds at least that much water will make your job easier.
After the holiday season, remember to recycle your cut Christmas tree. Recycled trees can have many uses. Placed in an outside sheltered location with peanut buttered pine cones, and strings of popcorn and cranberries, your tree can serve as a good winter habitat for wildlife.
The picture of a real tree swathed in strands of lights and treasured ornaments is often the quintessential image of Christmas. With a little care and forethought, it can add to your family’s memories of a joyous Christmas.
Feel free to contact me at your Spencer County Cooperative Extension Service at 477-2217 or you can email me at broberts@uky.edu.  You can visit the Spencer County Extension Services’ website at www.spencerextension.com.
Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability, or national origin.