Sauk County Gardener: Selecting and caring for Christmas trees

Jeannie Manis

“The smell of pine needles, spruce and the smell of a Christmas tree, those to me, are the scents of the holidays.” - Blake Lively

The day after Thanksgiving, my hubby and I started our Christmas decorating. We got the outdoor decorating done, but we still need to complete our indoor decorating. Like many families, one major event will be putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. One of my favorite family traditions was to go to a tree farm to select and cut the perfect tree. As we tended to have tall ceilings in our home, I was always on the lookout for a tall, full, yet slender, tree. When we moved to Missouri for a short time, we had extra high ceilings – perfect for the tall tree! Unfortunately, the tall, live tree selection in Southwest Missouri was extremely limited and very expensive. As I would not negotiate on having a tall tree, we resorted to purchasing a 12-foot artificial one. Although I prefer a real tree, we still use the artificial one since our move back to Wisconsin. We leave our tree up well into January (about eight weeks total) for when we celebrate the holidays with my extended family of siblings, spouses, children, and grandchildren. It is quite a houseful (pushing 50 people at times) but absolutely wonderful. As the current COVID situation makes extra-large indoor family gatherings not advisable, I told my husband I’d like us to consider getting a real tree once again instead of putting up the artificial one.

If you too are looking to find the “perfect” real Christmas tree, the first thing to consider is the species of tree you want: Fir, spruce or pine. The following trees are usually available at most tree farms and tree lots and offer many options for the discerning tree shopper.

The first one I’d like to mention is the Fraser fir. I’m particularly fond of the Fraser fir because of its excellent form, amazing “Christmas tree” smell, and strong, slightly upward-turning branches to hold the many ornaments I’ve collected over the year. Its flat needles are blue-green with silvery undersides, not very prickly, and has excellent needle retention.

Similar to the Frazer fir is the Balsam fir. Native to Wisconsin, it too has an exceptional long-lasting scent and single needles that are flat, dark green and longer than a spruce tree – around ¾ - 1½ inches long. It too has excellent form. If you like a tree that has that traditional Christmas smell, definitely consider a fir tree.

Another wonderful choice to consider is the Colorado Blue spruce tree with its bluish needles. The branches are stiff so they will hold ornaments well. Spruce trees, like fir trees, have single needles that are 1/3 to one inch long. The needles are four sided and can be very sharp. Even though a spruce can be difficult to handle, you might want to consider this tree if you are trying to keep pets away – not sure how well it will work for a naughty kitty, but it should deter the dog.

The White spruce, another Wisconsin native, also offers stiff branches that can hold many ornaments. Its ½ to ¾ inch needles are bluish-green colored and has better needle retention than other spruces. If aroma is important, keep in mind the White spruce doesn’t smell as good when its needles are crushed.

If you like longer needles (2½ - five inches), a pine is a great option. Most pines have two to five needles bound together at the base. The native White pine is typically very full with soft green needles that don’t hold on as long as a fir or spruce once they are indoors. Heavier ornaments will need to be strategically placed due to its weaker branches. However, if you want a large tree for that high ceiling at an economical price, the white pine is a good choice. Another good pine option is the Scotch pine and should also be readily available. And with its easy needle shedding, the pine is great for those that want any excuse to get that tree out of the living room as soon as Christmas is over.

The next thing to consider is where you will get your tree. In Wisconsin, we are fortunate to have a good selection of both “cut your own” and retail tree lots. Before you head out the door, take a moment to measure both the height and width of the space where you’re going to put your tree. Also, measure the diameter of your tree stand. Tuck that tape measure in your pocket to later measure your perfect tree - no need to pay for a bigger tree than can’t fit in your tree stand or house. If you decide to cut your own tree, you shouldn’t have to worry about your tree being fresh but check to makes sure it is healthy with few or no dead or bare spots. If you want to cut your own tree, do a little research ahead of time to see if the tree farm offers additional services such as providing saws, tree wrapping, wreaths and boughs, sleigh rides, or even hot cocoa. If you decide to purchase at a tree lot, check for freshness by pinching the needles. It’s fresh if the needles bend instead of breaking. Run your hand along the branch or gently bounce the tree on the ground to see how many needles fall off. If too many fall off, move on and find a different perfect tree. You can also feel the base of the tree; if it’s sticky with resin, it’s relatively fresh and should hold up through the holidays.

Once you get your tree home, put the tree base in a bucket of warm, plain tap water – no extra additives are recommended. If you can’t put your tree up right away, store it in a cool, shaded area; an unheated garage or shed is perfect. Cut off an inch or two only if the tree was cut down more than 12 hours ago or it doesn’t fit in the tree stand. Make a straight cut, not angled, and don’t trim the sides or drill holes as it won’t improve the water intake.

Your tree will need about a quart of water for every inch of trunk diameter. So if you have a four-inch trunk diameter, your tree will need a gallon of water. It can drink that much water daily, especially the first week, so make sure you check your tree at least once a day. Hopefully you are able to put your tree in a location that is not right by your heating vents or where it gets lots of direct sunlight as that will cause your tree to dry out sooner. Keep all of these things in mind and you should be able to enjoy your Christmas tree for three or four weeks.

There is one more option you might want to consider and that is purchasing a tree you can plant after Christmas (ex. ball-and-burlap or container tree.) Seeing as our holiday plans are significantly changing, it’s an option I’m researching for this year. Of course, that means having to dig a hole to plant the tree in after about two weeks in the house and it definitely means I can’t have my typical 12-foot plus tree or my Fraser fir. Ah…decisions, decisions.

If you’d like more information on finding and selecting your “perfect” Christmas tree, visit the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers website at

Remember to contact the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County staff if you have any gardening questions.  Please send an email to or call the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension Sauk County office at 608-355-3250.

Jeannie Manis is president of the Sauk County Master Gardeners Association (SCMGA).