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11 Tips for Buying a Real Live Christmas Tree That Will Spruce Up Your Holiday

According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), Americans buy 25 to 30 million live Christmas trees each year. Whether you opt for an artificial or real Christmas tree, it’s the centerpiece of holiday celebrations. But picking out a live Christmas tree is a quintessential family holiday activity. Even better, it’s a safe outdoor Christmas activity perfect for getting into the holiday spirit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as much as you look forward to enjoying your tree every year, it’s unlikely you’re as thrilled about the price tag. According to data from point-of-purchase platform Square, the average cost of a Christmas tree in 2018 was $76. The New York Times reports that for 2020, depending on where you live or buy your tree, it could cost upward of $100. But a little strategizing can help you save on your initial purchase and get the most for your money so you can reserve more of your holiday budget for the presents.

Tips for Buying a Real Christmas Tree

Choosing the perfect Christmas tree is often a challenge. It’s not simply a matter of picking the one that looks best. From saving money on your initial purchase to getting the most for your dollar by picking a tree that will last through the season to considerations of design aesthetics, kids, and pets, there are a lot of factors that go into choosing the right tree.

1. Choose & Measure Your Space

Before you head to the tree lot or farm, decide where to put your tree so you can be confident the space is available. Try to avoid spots near heat sources like radiators, fireplaces, and heating vents, which can dry out your tree or create a fire hazard, according to Michigan State University Extension (MSU). Also, try to locate your tree near a power outlet to avoid unsightly extension cords that could potentially cause a trip hazard. And avoid high-traffic areas, which can cause safety issues from accidental bumping.

Once you’ve picked out the perfect spot, measure your space. Know your ceiling height, taking into account the additional space needed for the tree stand and tree topper. These typically add at least a foot of height. So if you have an 8-foot ceiling height, don’t buy a tree taller than 7 feet. In fact, it’s best to aim for closer to 6.5 feet to prevent your topper from scraping the ceiling.

And don’t forget to measure the width and depth of your space. Different tree varieties have different girths, and you don’t want to have to squish the tree against the wall. Speaking of which, don’t put a newly unwrapped tree up against the wall as soon as you get it home, as it often takes an hour or two for the tree’s branches to settle after you unwrap them. Additionally, measure the width of the door you’ll bring the tree through to ensure you don’t break off any branches bringing it inside.

Finally, measure the width of your tree stand to ensure the trunk of your chosen tree will fit in it. The last thing you want is to get your tree home to discover it won’t fit in your stand. And you absolutely don’t want to compensate by cutting away the bark to trim the trunk’s diameter. According to This Old House, doing so strips the tree of its cambium layer, which helps the tree absorb water. And a tree that can’t absorb water is as good as done.

2. Be Strategic About When You Shop

For the best selection and freshest tree, buy your tree as early as feasible. When you shop early, you get the pick of the lot. But when you wait until closer to Christmas, fewer trees are available. When you’re dealing with a living crop, availability can vary from one year to another due to natural disruptions in the growing season, including weather, insects, fire, and drought.

Moreover, due to the 2020 holiday season COVID-19 pandemic, trees are even more likely to sell out fast. Getting out to buy a tree is an activity that’s pandemic-safe and helps everyone get into the holiday spirit. So it’s appealing to people who’ve spent a lot of time cooped up indoors. So expect shortages earlier this year than usual.

And if you plan to get your tree from a lot and not a choose-and-cut farm, buying early guarantees you a fresher tree — and not one that’s been sitting out with subpar or nonexistent care for weeks. Mid-November is typically when Christmas tree farms start cutting their trees for sale at lots, according to Burger Farm & Garden Center. So if you wait until mid-December, you won’t get a fresh tree, and that means a dryer tree with less needle retention. Ideally, buy your tree in the latter half of November when they’re fresher.

If you buy your tree early, Burger Farm & Garden Center recommends not bringing it in your house right away. The more time your tree spends inside your warm, centrally heated home, the faster it will dry out and drop its needles. So buy your tree before Thanksgiving, but don’t set it up until after. That way, the fresh tree’s three- to five-week window has a better chance of lasting through Christmas. In the meantime, set it in a bucket of water in your garage or another spot that can protect it from natural elements like wind or insects.

But if you’re less concerned about making your tree last and just want the best sticker price, buy it on a weekday in mid-December. According to Best Life, vendors sell approximately 90% of their Christmas trees by the second week of December. So if you visit a vendor on a Tuesday or Wednesday after that, you’re likely to score the best deals.

Whatever you do, avoid buying your tree on Black Friday. According to Real Simple, that’s the day Christmas trees are the most expensive due to high demand. Tim O’Connor, executive director of the NCTA, tells Better Homes & Gardens that the best time to buy a tree that’s reasonably priced and still fresh is after Cyber Monday, when prices start to fall. He also advises customers to buy their trees during the week, when there are fewer shoppers, as sellers are more willing to negotiate or mark down prices.

The one exception to Black Friday markups is big-box stores. According to Krazy Coupon Lady, stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Walmart have sold Christmas trees for as much as 25% off on Black Friday, and if you ask for a special military, student, or senior discount, you can get another 10 to 15% off.

3. Visit a Christmas Tree Farm

Many trees are cut weeks before they’re sold and sit on a tree lot for several more before they end up in your living room. During that time, the trees are constantly exposed to the elements and deprived of water. A fresh tree can last from three to five weeks, NCTA spokesperson Doug Hundley tells USA Today. But one that’s not so fresh has less chance of making it through the full holiday season.

According to a report from Penn State University Extension, locally farmed trees are the freshest. So for the longest-lasting tree, opt to visit a Christmas tree farm and cut one down yourself. Plus, it’s a fun experience for everyone. According to MSU, in addition to Christmas trees, many choose-and-cut tree farms provide holiday-themed family entertainment like hayrides, petting zoos, bonfires, hot chocolate and cider stands, and gift shops. And while that could lead to even more spending, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it could also stand in for other less-safe activities you typically enjoy during the holiday season.

To find a Christmas tree farm near you, use the NCTA’s Real Christmas Tree Locator. But note that many farms and tree lots are selling out early this year or have specific COVID-19 requirements. So call ahead to confirm their supply, hours, whether they’re offering choose-and-cut or only pre-cut trees, what winter activities and attractions are available, and whether there are precautions like mask-wearing and limited entry. Don’t just take their website’s word for it. Any of those details can change at any time during the season, depending on the weather and market conditions — potentially faster and more frequently than they can update the website.

4. Shop Online

You’ve shopped for everything else online in 2020, so why not your Christmas tree? Even without COVID-19 to worry about, shopping for a tree can be time-consuming, and it often requires visiting a cold, overcrowded tree lot. Plus, you have to expertly tie the tree to your car and lug it home. But if you can’t make it to a tree lot, don’t have a car, or just prefer to skip the hassle, you can shop for your Christmas tree online. Plenty of vendors will ship a fresh-cut tree directly to your home. And shopping online could save you money if you comparison-shop.

Although the trees are often pricier and many come with additional delivery fees, they’re typically higher-quality. According to Thought Co., farms that supply online dealers give them their best trees. Plus, they’re fresh-cut, so they have the potential to last longer — getting you more for your dollar — than trees that have been sitting on a lot. Thought Co. also recommends you place your order early, as online sellers have limited stock and usually won’t deliver a Christmas tree after Dec. 12. In fact, most online sellers require you to place your order early in November, at which time you can choose a delivery date.

The best online vendors for Christmas trees include:

  • The Home Depot. The Home Depot’s selection of real Christmas trees includes various tree types in different heights and price ranges, including Fraser firs, Douglas firs, noble firs, Scotch pines, and blue spruce. Although they advertise zero delivery fees, those available for delivery are significantly more expensive than trees available for in-store pickup. But even so, they’re typically cheaper than those of other online retailers. The trees are freshly cut and shipped from Oregon, so allow at least a week for shipping.
  • Lowe’s. Lowe’s has a similar selection to The Home Depot, including Fraser firs, Douglas firs, noble firs, and Scotch pines. Plus, you can buy everything from a 3-foot tree to a towering 12-foot one. And Lowe’s offers some of the lowest prices — although delivery adds significantly to the total cost, tacking on an extra $69 no matter the size of the tree. Instead of using a third-party service, Lowe’s delivers trees from your local store. But even though it’s more expensive, you could get your tree much quicker than with other online sellers.
  • Christmas Trees Now. Christmas Trees Now offers Fraser firs, Douglas firs, balsam firs, and Colorado blue spruces grown on its Windblown Tree Plantation in Wisconsin. Purchasing from this online retailer guarantees you a tree straight from the farm, hand-picked and fresh-cut to order. The prices are very reasonable, but shipping is not free. Expect it to add upward of $85 to the total cost.
  • A Tree to Your Door .com. This tree farm, located in Michigan, sells Douglas fir, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white pine trees. Once you order from A Tree to Your Door .com, they harvest and ship your tree within less than 24 hours. As with other online retailers, the tree prices are reasonable. But the shipping fee is the steepest of all the online sellers, adding more than $100 to the total cost.
  • Walddie Christmas Trees. Walddie Christmas Trees connects you to local farmers, which means you get a fresh-cut tree delivered to your door in record time while supporting local businesses. Although prices and availability vary by farm and region, delivery is free, and you can choose your exact delivery date.

5. Know Your Tree Types

Every Christmas tree species has unique qualities, so finding the perfect tree means considering your household’s needs and wants. For example, if you have kids, lean toward pines and firs with soft needles instead of spruces, which have sharp needles. Additionally, trees come in a variety of colors and shapes to match your design aesthetic. A Fraser fir has a very traditional look with dark green branches that are full and lush. The narrow silhouette and bluish needles of the Eastern white pine offer an elegant, contemporary look.

Plus, different tree varieties come with varying price tags. Although they’re the most popular, firs typically cost more than spruces or pines because they take longer to grow, according to Better Homes & Gardens.

And finally, some tree varieties are naturally longer-lasting than others, which means you’ll get more bang for your buck opting for one of those varieties. According to NCTA spokesperson Hundley, pines last for two to three weeks, spruces last three to four, and firs can last a month or more.

The most common varieties of Christmas trees include:

  • Fraser Fir. The most popular choice for a Christmas tree, Fraser firs have a dark, blue-green color, upward-turning branches, and a long-lasting pleasant scent. The branches are sturdy enough to support heavy ornaments and retain their short, firm needles better than other tree varieties.
  • Balsam Fir. Like the Fraser fir, the balsam fir is long-lasting with short, dark green needles and a Christmassy scent that outlasts other trees.
  • Douglas Fir. The Douglas fir boasts the classic Christmas tree profile — long, pyramidal, and uniformly shaped on all sides with compact branches that give it a lush, full look. The branches have short, soft, blue-green needles that give off a sweet, citrusy scent. It’s another long-lasting tree that retains its needles well.
  • Noble Fir. The Noble fir has strong, well-spaced branches — perfect if you’re planning to adorn it with lots of heavy ornaments. The upwardly curved branches and blue-green needles are similar to the Fraser fir, and it has a pyramid shape similar to a Douglas fir.
  • Scotch Pine. While we commonly call all Christmas trees “pines,” most are firs. But the Scotch pine is the real deal. It has a long-lasting pine scent and sturdy branches ideal for heavy ornaments. Even better, it resists drying. And if it does dry out, it won’t drop its needles. It’s also a lush tree, though many people don’t like its longer 2- to 3-inch needles, and the trees often have crooked trunks.
  • Virginia Pine. The Virginia pine has wide tufts of soft needles that range in color from dark green to gray. Developed as a heat-resistant alternative to the Scotch pine, it’s popular in the South. The trees have sturdy branches with lush, dense foliage and a scent to rival concentrated pine essential oil.
  • Eastern White Pine. The Eastern white pine features soft, flexible needles that are 2.5 to 5 inches long, but they won’t prick if little ones get too close. And while the trees have minimal scent, that makes them ideal for allergy sufferers. Plus, it has a fresh green color and tiered branches that give it a more texturized look for a resplendent minimalist tree — which is good since its flexible branches won’t support heavy ornaments.
  • White Spruce. The white spruce has the best needle retention of any of the spruce varieties, and the sturdy branches, short and stiff needles, and natural conical shape make it easy to decorate. But the needles smell unpleasant when crushed, and they shed more than other Christmas tree varieties.
  • Colorado Blue Spruce. The symmetrical form and blue foliage of the Colorado blue spruce make it an attractive variety. Unfortunately, the needles are sharp and, like the white spruce, smell unpleasant when crushed. You can buy this variety as a living Christmas tree, including the root ball, making it plantable after the holidays.
  • Leyland Cypress. Popular in the Southeast, the Leyland cypress has a pretty dark green-gray color and doesn’t produce allergy-inducing sap like fir and pine trees. However, the branches can’t support heavy ornaments, and if you’re after that classic Christmas scent, the Leyland cypress doesn’t have any.

Note that whatever your favorite, the availability of tree varieties varies by region and growing season.

6. Look for Trees With Broken Tops

David Daniken of Daniken Tree Farm in Illinois tells Best Life you can save money by asking for a tree with a broken top. Since customers want Christmas trees that look perfect, flaws like that reduce a tree’s value by 25% to 33%. But if the rest of your chosen tree has a pleasing shape, you can use a tree topper to hide the flaw.

7. Consider Shape & Fullness

Though a tree may look beautifully full and lush sitting on a tree lot, the denser it is, the less space it has for ornaments. So think about how many ornaments you plan to decorate it with when deciding on your tree’s shape and fullness. If you’re planning to fill it up, a tree with some empty spaces is better. Likewise, you want to go with the largest tree you can fit in your space if you’re planning for more lights and ornaments. But if you’ve only got a few decorations, go with a smaller tree no matter how large your space is.

Lastly, inspect the shape of the trunk. Ensure the “handle” (the bottom 8 inches) is relatively straight, as that’s the part of the tree that goes in the tree stand.

All this scrutiny is why you should never buy a tree from a lot that keeps them locked down under netting. While you want your tree netted before you take it home, as it makes for easier transport and preserves the tree’s condition, you can’t see what you’re getting unless you see it unwrapped first.

8. Ensure You Have a Fresh Tree

Once a tree dries out, no amount of water can bring it back to freshness, and that means you won’t get your money’s worth on a tree that lasts through the holiday season. A dry tree is also a fire hazard.

To check for freshness, do the following:

  • Check the Foliage. Take hold of a branch and pull your hand toward you. Most of the needles should stay on the branch. If a lot of needles fall or it feels dry and brittle, choose another one. You can also bend a needle in half. Fresh fir needles should snap, while fresh pine needles should bend and not break.
  • Check the Branches. The branches should be pliable and bend without much resistance. If they’re brittle, move on.
  • Check the Color. A dry tree doesn’t always turn brown. According to Better Homes & Gardens, some types of Christmas trees go from a deep green to a dull gray-green when dried out. So look for needles that have a rich green color.
  • Check the Scent. Excluding unscented varieties, a fresh tree should have a fragrance.
  • Check the Trunk. On most trees (except for the Leyland Cypress), the trunk should be slightly sticky. The presence of sap is a good indicator the tree is not dried out.
  • Do the Tap Test. Lift the tree and tap the trunk on the ground. You don’t want to see a shower of needles. But if just a few needles fall off, the tree is fine.

9. Look for Bugs

Because they grow outdoors, live trees are vulnerable to natural threats, and that means bugs. So if you don’t want to bring home some unexpected Christmas visitors, ensure your tree is relatively free of pests before buying it or bringing it inside.

First, when you head out to the tree lot, bring a bright flashlight with you. Shine it on the trunk, branches, and needles to highlight any bugs or eggs. A few bugs are normal and removable, but a heavily infested tree isn’t worth it.

After you’ve inspected your tree, shake it out. Thoroughly shaking your tree encourages bugs to jump off before you bring the tree home. In fact, Christmas tree bugs are so common that some sellers feature a Christmas tree shaker for this purpose.

Once you get the tree home, Mark Chisholm, an arborist and Stihl tools spokesperson, tells Better Homes & Gardens he recommends giving your tree a blast with a leaf blower to remove any additional insects or egg masses that survived the journey.

Whatever you do, don’t use pesticides. Chad Gore, an entomologist and market technical director with Ehrlich Pest Control, tells Prevention that over-the-counter insecticides are flammable. When combined with holiday lights and dried-out needles, they could lead to a fire.

Note that while the presence of bugs can be alarming, Gore advises not to worry too much about them unless there’s a significant number since they mostly eat plants and won’t bother humans.

10. Properly Secure the Tree to Your Car

Properly securing your newly purchased tree to your car can mean the difference between having a Christmas tree to light up your holidays or one left behind on the road. Worse, according to AAA, an improperly secured tree can end up costing as much as $1,500 in car repairs due to scratched paint, torn door seals, and distorted window frames.

To prevent damage, first, ensure your vehicle is large enough to safely transport the tree you want. AAA advises using a car with a roof rack or the back of a pickup truck, SUV, or minivan large enough for the tree to fit entirely inside. Have the tree vendor wrap it in netting. But skip the flimsy twine offered at tree lots and bring strong rope or bungee cords with you. Lay a blanket on the roof of your car to protect it from scratches. Then lay the tree on your roof with the trunk pointing to the front of the car to keep the needles from blowing off. Secure it at the top, bottom, and middle to fixed points on your vehicle. And before you drive off, give it a tug test to make sure it’s securely attached. Then drive slowly and carefully, avoiding freeways if possible.

11. Consider an Artificial Tree

While nothing says Christmas quite like a real, live Christmas tree, there are money-saving perks to going artificial. You may shell out slightly more upfront, but a faux tree often lasts for six to 10 years or more, making it more economical over time. Plus, you get to skip the chore of lugging it home, the tricky task of getting it to stand up straight in the tree stand, the daily watering, and the mess of disposing of it. And if untangling Christmas lights is the annual bane of your existence, you can even buy a prelit one from retailers like Balsam Hill or National Tree Company.

It does mean skipping out on the memory-making activity of trekking to a charming Christmas tree farm. Plus, there are some genuine environmental concerns with the PVC in fake trees, and buying a real tree means supporting an industry that continually plants more trees and preserves green space.

But if saving money is your goal, depending on the artificial tree’s size and where you buy it, it can cost even less than a single live tree. For example, according to The Krazy Coupon Lady, you can get 6-foot prelit Christmas trees or 7-foot unlit trees for under $50 from big-box stores like Target or Walmart on Black Friday. So you can save your money to spend on other holiday activities.

One big reason to go artificial: It’s safer for pets. Pet supply company Hartz tells Newsweek that live Christmas trees are hazardous for pets who like to chew. At best, the needles will irritate their mouths. At worst, the oils in the trees can cause excessive vomiting, and the needles can puncture their intestinal lining.


Final Word

There are definite advantages to going artificial. These include money-saving benefits and getting to skip the hassle of caring for a real Christmas tree. Yet it’s also true there’s no replacement for the realness of the woodsy pine scent that fills your home throughout the holiday season. Nor is there a substitute for the annual tree-picking tradition that marks the start of the holiday season in a way few other activities do. As Tim O’Connor, executive director of the NCTA, tells The Washington Post, buying a real tree is a magical, memory-making experience.

So, if you’re new to real trees, there’s no need to be put off by a live tree. A few simple tips help ensure you’ll find the perfect one to gather around this Christmas without overtaxing your holiday budget.

Sarah Graves
Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.

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