As Thanksgiving leftovers become a memory, preparation for Christmas will occupy considerable attention through the winter holiday season. For those that enjoy staying faithful to tradition, that may include picking out a harvested evergreen tree to provide an indoor focus for gatherings and celebration.

More than a few vendors have sought to draw attention to their merchandise with advertisements and banners announcing the availability of “live trees.” I appreciate the effort to promote the freshness of the product they have for sale, but any tree separated from its root system is, at the very best, a “dying tree.” The below ground portion of plants, including trees, is out of sight, but is essential to the health of the plant. For many plants, particularly those that live for more than one growing season, the quantity of tissue below ground is as great as or greater than what is above the soil surface. Harvesting a tree for holiday display and removing the root system interrupts the water supply.

The challenge for homeowners is to prolong the duration of a green appearance for the “dying” tree. Following these recommendations from University of Georgia Cooperative Extension may help.

While the elements of the perfect tree are different for everyone, there are several important things to consider when choosing a live tree, according to Lucy Ray, Morgan County University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator.

First, tree buyers should decide where the tree will be in the home.

“Tree buyers need to determine where in their house the tree will be displayed, so they can determine what size of tree they will need,” said Ray, whose home county grows approximately 200 acres of Christmas trees.

Christmas tree buyers should make sure to choose a fresh tree that will last throughout the Christmas season. According to Ray, tree freshness can be determined by either running a hand over the needles or shaking the tree.

“If you grasp the branch of the tree and run your hand over the needles or shake the tree and several needles fall out, it likely is not fresh,” she said.

Freshness is an important factor in all Christmas tree varieties. Seven varieties of Christmas trees are grown in Georgia: white pine, Virginia pine, red cedar, Arizona cypress, Leyland cypress, Canadian hemlock and Carolina hemlock.

No matter which variety of tree a buyer chooses, they all require the same type of care.

One factor in tree management is determining whether a tree’s trunk needs to be trimmed after it is purchased from a Christmas tree farm.

“If the tree has been cut within eight hours of the time the person would pick it out, the tree’s trunk will not need to be cut anymore,” Ray said.

It is also important to keep the tree’s water level balanced. A tree will likely require more water when it is first displayed in the home. But, as with any plant, it is important not to apply too much water.

Another approach to determine a tree’s “freshness” is to hold a branch about 6 inches from the top of the tree between your fingers. Very few needles should come off as you slip your fingers along the branch if the tree is fresh. Some trees retain needles better than others. A fir or spruce is likely to lose needles more rapidly than a Leyland cypress.

When the tree arrives at your home, care should be taken to keep it green as long as desired. The “circulation system” of the tree will take up water, if it is intact. That requires that the bottom surface of the stump be exposed and not sealed with sap. Making a fresh cut at least a quarter inch above the original cut will ensure that the tree can absorb water from the tree stand. Allow the tree to sit in a bucket of water, in a shady location outdoors, if it will not be decorated immediately.

Once in the tree stand provide a gallon of water the first day and between a quart and a gallon the second day. No special products need to be added to the water. Check the tree stand frequently, particularly during the first week, to ensure that it does not dry out. If a tree runs out of water, it may seal the stump and the base may need to be cut again to open it for water uptake — a precarious task if decoration has been completed. Trees should be placed away from heat sources and rapidly circulating air to reduce moisture loss.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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