How to keep your Christmas tree thriving throughout the season

Marie Havenga • Dec 3, 2016 at 9:00 AM

NUNICA — For many, Christmas isn't complete without a tree. But if you're choosing a live one, it's time to branch out your tree care knowledge.

Choose the wrong variety, or care for it improperly, and come Dec. 25 you could be sweeping piles of fallen needles off your presents and staring at a dead tree.

Roy Holmes, owner of RA Farms in Nunica, said the biggest secret to keeping a tree fresh throughout the holiday season is water. Lots of it.

“If you buy a pre-cut (tree), the best thing to do is take a thin slice off the end and maintain it with lots of water,” he said.

Related: Find the right tree for your family

Does adding aspirin or sugar to the water boost a tree's longevity?

“Any additive is a sales gimmick,” he said. “The Michigan Christmas Tree Association says just use water and that's it.”

When you first bring your tree into the house, water it every day.

“Maintain a full bowl on them,” Holmes said. “They will drink. Some trees I've heard of (drink) a quart a day. The first few days are big. Keep that water in there.”

The tree is dormant when you buy it, with all the sap down in the roots.

“When you bring it in, and it's warm, it's telling the tree it's time to start growing again and it wants liquid to get back up into the branches,” Holmes said. “If the water is not there, the tree dies.”

Besides water, choosing the right type of tree is critical. If you wait until a couple of days before Christmas to set it up, and you're cutting it yourself, any tree may do. But if you're shopping now, you'll want to focus on a few hearty varieties.

“One of the biggest things to maintaining a fresh tree is choosing the proper type,” Holmes said. “Certain varieties of spruce only have two- to three-week needle retention. Fir trees will last longer. Fraser firs can last 3-4 months with proper water. We tell people they're good until March.”

Customer feedback backs up that statement.

“People say they took them down in the middle of January, threw them on the deck and they stayed green until April,” Holmes said.

Here’s how trees stack up for needle retention: Fraser fir, 3-4 months; canon fir, six weeks; Douglas fir, four weeks; blue spruce, 3-4 weeks; Norway spruce, 3-4 weeks; white spruce, 2-3 weeks.

The longer-lasting trees are the same price, Holmes noted, so if you're an early-tree-putter-upper, the choice is easy. The industry favors Fraser firs because of their longevity, according to Holmes.

“The largest commercial cutter in the state sells 750,000 trees and they start cutting for distribution the second Monday in October,” Holmes said. “They take them and pile them up and start shipping the first of November. There are so many to cut, they can't cut them all in a week for everybody to get a fresh-cut tree. They have to start cutting early so they can ship them all over the United States. That's what you will find at the ‘big box’ stores — Fraser firs, they hold their needles.”

No matter what kind of tree you select, consider the placement. Keep it away from heating registers; warm, dry air; or other air movement.

Surprise! When it comes to fire risk, real trees are safer, according to Holmes.

“A fresh-cut tree is not nearly as volatile,” he said. “It will not burn nearly as rapidly as an artificial tree. An artificial tree is all plastic and tinsel. It's toxic if it catches on fire and will go up in flames much faster than a real tree.”

If you are potting your live tree instead of cutting it, Holmes said you'll need patience.

Keep this in mind: The sap flows down to the roots as the weather cools. If the sap stayed in the trunk and branches, when temperatures hit sub-zero, the sap would freeze, expand and the tree would explode. If you bring a tree inside, you're in a sense shocking it into spring.

If after the holiday you plant it in the ground, it will likely die.

“If you dig up a tree and bring it in your house, you're bringing it back to life,” Holmes said. “When you're done with it, you have to re-acclimate it to freezing temperatures. Set it in a cold place, like your garage, for 2-3 days to get the sap back down into the roots and get it acclimated to the freezing weather.”

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