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Care of Holiday Evergreen Trees And Boughs: Home

Spruce trees; Courtesy of Flickr cc/gerrybuckel
Spruce trees; courtesy of Flickr cc/gerrybuckel

For centuries, evergreen trees and boughs have been used to celebrate the winter solstice. Evergreens have always symbolized the promise of plant rebirth in spring.The custom of using evergreens as decoration traditionally marks the Christmas season. At one time all "Christmas trees" were cut from natural forest stands, but today almost 98% are grown on plantations. Don't feel guilty about buying a cut tree, you are helping to sustain a farming industry.

To ensure their freshness, beauty and safety through the season, take appropriate steps in selection, conditioning and care of trees and greens. Warm indoor temperatures and low humidity will cause desiccation unless certain measures are taken at the outset. Firs and pines stand up best indoors, while certain species such as hemlock and spruce are notorious for dropping their needles. All trees and greens will hold up better if they are conditioned, kept well watered and away from heat sources. Here are the requirements for success:


Obtain your tree early in the season before it begins to dry out in the open tree lot. Ideally, choose a tree that has been grown in your own region. Measure the ceiling height where the tree is to be placed to be sure that it is at least one foot shorter; this also compensates for the height of the tree stand. When you gently pull a branch toward you, the needles of the tree should be pliable and bend but not break. Shake the tree and bounce the trunk on its stump to test for freshness; if more than a few needles drop, put the tree back and try another. By shaking and bouncing the tree, insects and other foreign objects will also be dislodged.

Preparation and Conditioning

Every four hours that a tree is out of water a new dried seal forms on the cut surface, preventing the tree from absorbing water. So after the tree is brought home, make a fresh cut 1/4" above the end of the trunk to facilitate water absorption, and wrap the end in a damp towel until it is placed in a bucket of water. Spray your tree with an anti-desiccant to reduce drying and transpiration. Store it in a cool place either outdoors or indoors until it is ready to be set up. Make a new cut across the trunk 4" above the dried seal of the original cut. Place the tree in a clean stand that will hold at least one gallon of water, as a newly placed tree can absorb up to a gallon of water the first day. Be sure that the bottom of the trunk is continually immersed and that the water is checked and replenished daily. Set up the tree in the coolest part of the room, away from the fireplace, TV set, heater and other heat sources.

To condition evergreen branches (boughs) to be used for holiday decoration, wash them thoroughly in warm water to remove dust and dirt, and then rinse them in cold water. Remove any defective leaves and needles and split the stems about 2 to 3" up from the ends. Place the material in warm water and store in cool temperatures for at least eight hours prior to use. Keep the water level high by replacing any water that has evaporated in the container.

Care and Preservation

All evergreen material will last longer if conditioned prior to use. Storing it in cool temperatures before bringing it into a heated room will make a difference when you set up the tree or make wreaths, garlands or holiday arrangements. A tree in a warm room can absorb several quarts of water per day, so keep the reservoir well supplied with water.

Soft needles of Abies concolor (white fir)
Soft needles of Abies concolor (white fir)


For lighting the tree, use only UL approved lights and fireproof decorations. Check wiring before plugging into outlets. Turn off the tree lights when leaving home and before going to sleep. If needles do dry out creating a fire hazard, remove decorations and immediately remove the tree from your home. Needles are dry when they are dull gray-green and do not exude sap when broken. Remember that all evergreens kept cool and moist will be much more resistant to fire.

Recycling Options

Remember, trees are recyclable when taken down. If you have a fireplace, use the main trunk for firewood after removing the branches and needles. If you have a wood chipper, grind the tree into mulch for use on your garden beds and for composting. Many municipalities collect used evergreen trees and use them for compost. Check with local sanitation departments for collection and/or drop-off days.

A Live Christmas Tree Option

A living potted or balled & burlapped tree offers a viable alternative to the cut tree. The indoor environment will be very harsh for a living tree, so it is best not to keep it indoors for longer than five to ten days. Store the tree in a cool, shady place (for example a garage or shed) for a few days before you bring it inside; this transitional period is important to help the tree adjust to the warmer temperature. To ensure success, keep the pot or ball of the tree well watered during the entire time. Avoid placing your tree in a warm position in the house; keep it away from televisions, heat vents and fireplaces. After indoor display, avoid exposing the tree to the shock of midwinter temperatures and conditions. You can re-acclimatize it gradually by placing it back in an unheated garage or shed for several days.

Choose a permanent location for the tree and prepare a planting hole well in advance, before the ground is frozen. Keep the prepared back-fill soil covered and thawed, by placing what you have removed from the hole in your garage, basement or other protected space. Plant the tree as soon as it has been acclimated to cooler temperatures. If the tree is wrapped in burlap, cut the top of the burlap and roll it down the side of the root ball, laying the burlap on the ground around the hole. Remove the burlap completely if it is possible to do so without breaking apart the root ball. Make sure that the top of the root ball is level with the ground or slightly above it. When planting, one option is to add some compost into the soil as an amendment. This is not essential. In the spring you can go out and top dress the soil with compost to give the stressed tree some additional nutrients. Fertilizing during the first year is not essential. You are trying to encourage root growth and not top growth. Water the newly planted tree and  be sure to mulch it heavily to delay frost penetration; do not pile the mulch around the tree trunk. If you are unable to plant right away, heel in the tree for winter with a heavy mulch of wood chips and compost in order to postpone planting until early spring. When new growth appears in the spring, feed your tree with organic and/or time-release fertilizer.

The most important practice during the first year of the trees life is to make sure that you are conscientious about watering. Newly planted trees generally need an inch of water a week during their first few years to help get them established. This can either come from rainfall or a generous watering.

Photo of Pinus strobus 'Shaggy Dog' (Eastern white pine); long soft branches can be hard to hang ornaments from

The long slender branches of Pinus strobus (Eastern white pine) can make it hard to hang ornaments

Selecting a Christmas Tree

Botanical Name

Common Name


Needle Retention

Abies balsamea
balsam fir
Dark green with a pleasant fragrance
long-lasting needles
Abies fraseri
Fraser fir
Dark green with silver underneath and a pleasant fragrance
good needle retention
Abies procera
noble fir
Stiff, 4-sided needles similar to spruce with silvery blue-green color
long-lasting needles
Abies concolor
white fir
Soft, dark blue-green needles with a pleasant fragrance
good needle retention
Pseudotsuga menziesii
Douglas fir
Not a true fir; soft green needles with a sweet scent when crushed
good needle retention
Picea abies
Norway spruce
Stiff, four-sided needles with very sharp points, dark green color and a strong resinous odor. Dense needles can present a decorating challenge.
poor needle retention
Picea pungens
Colorado blue spruce
Stiff, four-sided needles with very sharp points, bluish-gray color and a strong resinous odor. Dense needles can present a decorating challenge.
poor needle retention
Picea strobus
Eastern white pine
Long, soft silver-green needles in clusters of five. Slender branches are difficult to hang ornaments on..
poor needle retention
Picea sylvestris
Scotch pine
Bright blue-green needles in clusters of two.
excellent needle retention

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Noteworthy Books on Evergreens and Winter Holiday Decoration