STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The holidays are upon us, and for many, with that comes the age-old tradition of putting up a Christmas tree. One of my favorite family traditions is going with my wife and kids on a nice day or moonlit night and scouring the hillsides for a perfect tree, always excited to have the smell of conifers once again filling our home.
If you’re going to buy a live tree from a local vendor, you have a lot of options to choose from, with size, species, and price all being considerations. These trees, typically grown on family-owned tree plantations around the country, are part of a sustainable, green industry.
When you go to a tree retailer, make sure to choose a fresh tree. A fresh tree will have a healthy green appearance with few browning needles. Needles should be flexible and not fall off if you run a branch through your hand. Raise the tree a few inches off the ground and drop it on the butt end. Very few green needles should drop off the tree. It is normal for a few inner brown needles to drop off.
If you don’t want to buy a tree at a lot, you might consider going out and cutting your own tree like we do. The USDA Forest Service sells permits for $10 per tree, and a family can purchase up to five permits. These can be purchased at your local Forest Service district office. The Bureau of Land Management typically sells permits for around $5 per tree, and may allow you to cut up to 3 trees. Check with your local Forest Service or BLM office for details and for permit purchase. Also, remember that private property is just that: private! Don’t enter private land unless you have explicit permission to do so.
When we search for the perfect tree, we look for one that is full and of a good height. We also try to make sure that it is a tree growing in among several others and not one that it out by itself. Why? The lone tree will likely survive longer in the forest, while those that are spaced too closely to one another are vulnerable to disease and insect issues in the future. This is an opportunity to not only get a good tree, but help manage the forest as well. A bonus for us is that we typically put our tree against a wall, so finding at tree that is a bit flat on one side since it’s growing among others is a plus.
Once you’ve found that perfect tree, cutting it is easiest as a two-person project. The “cutter downer” usually lies on the ground while the helper holds the bottom limbs up. While the cut is being made, the helper should tug on the side of the tree opposite the cut to ensure that the saw kerf remains open, keeping the saw from binding.
Before the tree comes inside, cut 1 ½ inches off the bottom of the tree and immediately plunge it into a bucket of water. Otherwise, sap will seal the bottom of the tree and keep water from entering. Have your tree stand ready, and work quickly so you can get water back in it right away. Trees take about 1 quart of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk, so be prepared to water the tree several times each day. Remember that if it goes dry, the sap can reseal the trunk. Also, to help keep the tree fresh, keep it away from heat sources and out of direct sunlight.
When the holidays are over, recycle your tree. The resulting mulch will be a great addition to your yard in the spring.
Finally, don’t forget that you can have a real, growing tree in your home as well. Buying a potted tree and planting in the spring can help keep the holiday spirit alive in your yard for years to come.
Happy holidays! May your days (and tree) be merry and bright!
— Todd Hagenbuch, Routt County CSU Extension
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