Choosing a Tree

Fresh greens are not only good for your body; they’re good for your home. In fact, there’s nothing like the smell of fresh pine or cedar filling your home at Christmas. The aroma sets your senses to remembering tradition and past celebrations and welcoming the one that’s yet to come.

“I love going for natural trees,” says Karen LeRoy of Alta Vista Flowers, who decorated one of the homes in last month’s Homes for the Holidays tour.

Decorating with a real tree may be something you’ve done for years, but have you ever stopped to think about how to pick out the perfect one? Or maybe opting for a real tree is a new experience for you. Either way, here are some tips on choosing the tree that’s right for you, along with other options for decorating with Christmas greenery.

Can you see what you’re getting?

If your annual trek to get the tree is simply heading to your nearest store and buying one that’s pre-wrapped, you can’t be sure of what you’re getting, beyond the type of tree. Will its shape be right for your home? Is it full and bushy or thin and sparse?

If you go the pre-cut, pre-wrapped route, the best you can do is choose the variety you want (see below for pros and cons of popular varieties) and test what you can for freshness. The best way to test for freshness is to see how firmly the needles are attached to the branches. Lightly grasp the branch of the tree and gently pull the branch and needles through your hand. If the tree is fresh, very few needles will come off.

(If you’re cutting your own tree, you’ll still want to look the tree over carefully for signs of overall quality. Needles should not shed easily or be discoloured.)

There’s nothing wrong with simply tromping to your nearest Home Depot to get a tree, says LeRoy, who also doesn’t think the type of tree is hugely important, unless you want a certain style, like a pencil shape, which is gaining in popularity over big, broad trees. “I think people just don’t have the room any longer.”

Most trees are typically cut in early November. They may not dry out while they’re still outside on a tree lot, but even the freshest trees – like the ones you cut yourself – will dry out quickly in your home. That’s why it’s key to use a tree stand with a large water capacity and to keep it filled with water.

Tree types

Fraser fir: A favourite of many, although often more expensive, this tree has a lovely evergreen scent, soft needles, and it holds moisture in its needles longer than most species, reducing needle drop.

Balsam fir: Another popular choice, it too has a nice scent and holds moisture, but the needles are shorter and therefore you won’t hang as many ornaments on it. It’s a good choice if the decorated tree is to be left standing for a longer period of time.

Scots pine: Often referred to as scotch pine, this tree has long, stiff needles. The trunk is often not straight, though a good specimen can be. Needle retention is average.

White spruce: These dry out very quickly. If you choose this type, keep it outside until a couple of days before Christmas and take it back out a couple of days afterwards. This type has strong, slender twigs that hold ornaments well. The dense foliage and symmetrical proportions of the spruce make it a very beautiful Christmas tree.

White pine: Many people think the graceful white pine is the most beautiful of all Christmas tree varieties, even though its soft needles make it difficult to decorate.

What type you choose will depend on which qualities are most important to you. Is price the key? Does it need to have the right shape? Or is it important how it smells or whether it can hold a lot of ornaments. Once you’ve narrowed your priorities, it’s easier to select a variety.

Not sure where to go to find your perfect Christmas tree? Here are some suggestions from one of our previous blogs.

Caring for your tree

A few key tips for getting the most out of your tree:

  • If you’re not bringing the tree in right away, make one cut to the base (take off about an inch) and stand the tree in water. You’ll need to make a second cut just before you bring it indoors so that the tree can take in water in the drier environment of your home.

  • Keep it away from heat sources, like a fireplace or floor registers.

  • Check the water level several times a day. Trees may use several litres a day and you don’t want the level to fall below the base of the tree. If this occurs, the cut end can seal over, preventing further water uptake.

  • Adding things like aspirin, soda water or sugar to the water is no more effective in keeping the tree fresh than adding plain water each day.

  • LED lights are best because they do not generate heat, which will help keep your tree fresher longer.

Beyond the tree

But what about other holiday decorating? Wreaths, garlands, urns, table centrepieces – there’s plenty you can do to add a fresh and festive spirit to your home.

“For your door, there’s a lot of options,” says LeRoy, who personally loves wreaths and urns to dress up a front entry. And, if you can, do a fresh garland on your railing. “Those are things that a lot of people forget.”

Start by scouting your own property to see what you can “harvest”. Cedar branches and other evergreen trees and bushes make great foundations for many decorations. Just be sure you choose boughs from the lower portion of the plant, take more than you think you will need, and don’t cut off too much in one spot, instead, balance it out. And, don’t worry, it’s not harmful to prune evergreens at this time of year.

Look, too, for interesting seeds and fruit your yard might hold, like pine cones, ornamental grasses that are still standing, even rose hips, if you grow roses. Grapevine and curly willow are great staples in seasonal arrangements. For added pop, why not spray paint them a metallic gold or fire engine red?

Then let your creative juices flow and see what you can create. Arrangements for the outdoors will soon freeze in place, while indoor decorating may need watering, misting or even replacing of some of the pieces to keep them looking fresh.

If you don’t feel comfortable creating décor pieces on your own, try a workshop. LeRoy is not yet sure whether her shop will have any workshops this year (she’ll post it on her website if she does), but Artistic Landscape Design is holding wreath-making workshops.

Time’s up

Not sure what to do with your tree and other fresh decorations after the holidays? According to the City of Ottawa’s website, trees will be collected on the same day as your green bin. Remove all decorations and place it at the curb no later than 7 a.m. on your scheduled collection day. (Trees will not be collected if wrapped in plastic bags or if frozen in snow banks.)

If you have an urn on your front step, it’ll stay fresh looking as long as it’s frozen. You may want to swap out any obvious Christmas elements, like oversized ornaments, for something less holiday-specific, but otherwise let it continue to dress up your front door.

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