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This is our first year to bring home a "real" Christmas tree. I know to water it when it's up, but how do we discover the best live tree on the lot (or in a field/farm)? – Carol Caroling

Dear Ms. Caroling: For those of us who still delight in a fresh, real, indoors Christmas tree, old consumer-savvy friend Mary Hunt offers some great tips for choosing and maintaining a live tree. We've been seeing tree lots and trees in nurseries for a while now so it's important we decipher the ones that aren't already on their last legs. First, when shopping, use the power of touch. Once you've chosen a tree you like, grasp (gently, gently) a branch between thumb and forefinger and pull it toward you. Assuming the tree is fresh, needles shouldn't bombard your hand. Pick up the tree (if possible) and thump it up and down on its trunk; again, the needles are key and shouldn't fall off excessively with this step. Remember, perhaps the most important characteristic when selecting a tree is its water capacity. Mary advises one quart of water for each inch in diameter of the trunk; thus, an average six-foot tree with a four-inch diameter must be sheltered in a minimum one-gallon tree stand.

Okay, so you've found the perfect tree and it's passed the appropriate tests. Immediately upon arriving home, grab the water after cutting off the tree's bottom approximately one-fourth inch. The latter is really crucial since the fresh cut ensures no sap seal occurs. If the seal happens, it won't allow water to enter the tree and all your initial efforts will have been in vain. (By the way, a bucket of water is great in which to dunk the tree until you're ready to bring it inside; store both out of the sun, such as a space in the garage.)

Also, before bringing in your soon-to-be festive tree, be certain it fits the tree stand. If the stand isn't the right size, it could cause the tree (perhaps heavily decorated at the time) to tip over. This incident actually happened to us a number of Christmases ago and, combined with the mess I made on the family room carpet trying to (over)water the tree before leaving every morning for school, resulted in the current Phillips' family lovely - but smellless - artificial tree. And speaking of, while it's certainly important to treat your tree to H2o (without additives) on a daily basis, be sure not to over water; otherwise, you might ruin carpet or hardwood floors underneath.

Finally, because it's a living "breathing" presence, if cared for properly, a fresh tree can last from the time you put it up (as early as Thanksgiving) through New Year's Day. Oh, Tannenbaum!

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Ellen Phillips

Contact Ellen Phillips at consumerwatch@timesfreepress.com.

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