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Over the Garden Fence

Selecting Your Christmas Tree

evergreen trees

With Thanksgiving last week, holiday tree shopping – whether you are going to cut your own or visit your favorite lot to purchase your tree – is in full swing now. Some of the common favorites are balsam fir, Fraser fir, Scotch pine and white pine, each having different needle characteristics, fragrance, and color. There are of course many other kinds of trees to pick from at any retailer or lot.

There will be the family debates about how the tree will look full of ornaments and lights. Do you want the ornaments to hang? Do you want the lights throughout the tree or just on the exterior? Do you want a short-needle or long-needle tree? The list goes on. One place to start, is to measure the space saved for the tree at home, and then be sure to take a tape measure along with you to the farm, lot or store. Those trees always look smaller in the lot or field than the space you actually have in the family or living room. If you are going to have to make the tree smaller, save the boughs for decorating elsewhere in the home or in the planter by the front door.

No matter how the tree is chosen, any tree should be as fresh as possible. How can you tell? Branches and needles should be pliable.  If you shake the tree vigorously, green needles should remain on the tree, only naturally browned needles should fall.  If you scrape the bark of a branch the color should be a deep, wet-looking green.

The goal should be to have your holiday tree retain good color and moisture for 3 to 4 weeks once indoors. Cut-your-own trees may have the edge this year with the cooler, wetter weather this fall. Trees on a lot will typically last in the home quite well too. Tree lots may offer to put a fresh cut on the base of your tree. This is a good idea to encourage water uptake once inside your home. Setting your tree into a bucket of room temperature water for a few hours also will help before you bring your tree indoors. If it is going to be a few days before you set up the tree, plan on making a new cut yourself at home.

Once inside, wait a few hours to a day before decorating to allow the branches to open again. (This will not be needed with a cut-your-own tree.) While you are waiting, enjoy the fragrance.  Remember to check the water reservoir often, especially for the first few days, and never let the tree run out of water. When that happens, the tree is not likely to last as long even when you refill the reservoir.

One last note, plan ahead for when you are done with your holiday tree. You can reuse it in the yard as a feeder station for the birds, or cut the branches off and use them to protect tender perennials during the winter. Save the trunk for the garden to grow peas, morning glory, or other climbing or vining plants. If none of that fits, take advantage of community-recycling programs.

For more information, we have short videos about choosing and caring for Christmas trees at or at, or consult the Illinois Extension Christmas trees website at

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.