A decked-out tree is often the centerpiece of a home decorated for Christmas, which can make choosing the right tree a high-stakes decision.
Pick the wrong one and you could end up with an evergreen that scrapes the ceiling, crowds out nearby furniture or drops most of its needles well before St. Nick squeezes down the chimney for his annual milk and cookie snack.
Regardless of whether people buy a fresh evergreen every year or are looking for an artificial tree to last for several years, choosing the appropriate size is important.
“People need to know the space that they’re going to put the tree in before they get the tree,” said Mary Jeanne Packer, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers Association of New York. Besides knowing how tall the ceiling is, people also have to think about the height of the tree stand and how high the star or angel on top will reach.
People getting a fresh tree will want to consider the variety of tree, since some trees are wider and others narrower. Scotch pines and spruces look better as a wider tree, while Fraser firs are a little narrower and balsam firs are often manicured to be narrower yet, Packer said.
In addition, people should think about their personal preferences, such as how many branches they like to see on a tree.
“Some people like a real heavy, full tree,” Packer said, recounting her own childhood in a “fanatical Scotch-pine household” that featured a painstakingly manicured tree.
“You could have skied down the side of it,” she joked.
Other people like a lighter, airy tree with fewer branches, which they may consider easier to decorate.
While real trees are popular in many households, artificial trees include high-end options that look very realistic, said Cole Vanderlinden, assistant manager at Hewitt’s Garden Center in Glenville. Artificial trees can cost anywhere from $60 at a big-box discount store to more than $1,000 through a designer retailer, depending on size, quality, number of branch tips and quantity of lights if the tree comes pre-lit.
Most 7 1⁄2-foot trees cost between $150 and $650, Vanderlinden said.
The main difference between a $60 tree and a more expensive one is the type of materials, Vanderlinden said. Higher-end trees’ branches are made from two different types of plastic, and the molded plastic tips have a more realistic look and texture than less expensive trees.
The better artificial trees are held together with steel hinges and the branches are formed with steel wires instead of aluminum, allowing the boughs to bounce back into shape when they’re removed from the box instead of lying flat, Vanderlinden said.
Buying an artificial tree can be more economical depending on how much the person would pay each year for a fresh tree, he said. Plus, it’s faster to erect a pre-fabricated tree, especially if you don’t completely take it apart at the end of the season.
“You actually save a lot of time,” Vanderlinden said. “You don’t have to go pick one out.”
But many people enjoy going to pick out a real evergreen.
People who choose a pre-cut tree need to pay attention to freshness, local Christmas tree farmers say.
“They should always look for a nice, dark-green-color tree,” said Thomas Herba, who with his wife, Patty, owns Herba’s Acres Tree Farm in Perth.
Shoppers should run a hand over the tree’s branches and see how many needles come off. Most will stay attached if the tree is fresh.
It’s OK to give the needles a little tug to make sure they’re firmly attached, Packer said: “If it passes the tug test, it means they’re pretty fresh.”
Then, Packer suggests tree shoppers bend a few individual needles — if they’re flexible, the tree is fresh; if they snap in two, it’s dried out.
People who get a pre-cut tree from a lot should ask where it was grown — Packer said trees grown in New York state are going to be fresher than those trucked from, say, North Carolina or Canada.
“Those trees are never going to make it till Christmas,” he said.
People who choose a live tree at a farm, cut it and bring it home that day know it is fresh. But there are still plenty of other factors to consider, local experts say, such as its fragrance, needle texture and sturdiness of branches.
Balsam and Douglas firs are known as having the best piney scent, said Scott Zapotocki, owner of Thousand Acre Tree Farm in Delanson, which sells balsam firs as well as Scotch pine, blue spruce and white pine. Balsam firs also have soft needles.
People who have a lot of heavy ornaments may want to choose a tree that has firmer branches, such as a spruce.
Firs have become more popular as Christmas trees in recent years and are typically more expensive because they grow more slowly than spruces and other conifers.
Local sellers charge anywhere between $15 and $100 for a tree, depending on its size, variety and whether you cut your own or take a pre-cut tree off the lot.
Tree growers emphasize how important it is to water and care for fresh trees.
When people bring the tree home, growers recommend trimming up to an inch and a half off of the base before setting it up in the house. Otherwise, sap that oozed out of the end of the trunk when the tree was cut will clog the veins that bring water up the trunk and to the branches. Making a fresh cut allows the tree to absorb water.
Similarly, people should never let their trees run out of water once they’re set up, Herba said.
Fresh trees also should be kept away from heating ducts, fireplaces, candles and anything else that might dry them out or cause a fire.
With the proper care, a fresh-cut tree will last at least four to five weeks, though some customers report keeping theirs up much longer, Packer said.
“We have stories of people taking it down at Easter without any needle drop at all because they kept it properly hydrated,” she said.