Every year, millions of Americans put up a Christmas tree as a centerpiece of their holiday celebrations. And for 25 to 30 million of them, that means a live tree, according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). After all, there’s an undeniable classic Christmas feeling to a real tree. That’s likely why so many are willing to shell out an average of nearly $100 on a live tree every year.
You look forward to gathering around the Christmas tree, whether to decorate it, enjoy its warm glow and sparkling ornaments, or unwrap the presents nestled under its branches on Christmas morning. But if you want your live tree to last until the big day — and get the most for your money — it requires care.
NCTA spokesperson Doug Hundley tells USA Today that a fresh tree can last three to five weeks with proper care. So, if you’ve decided a real Christmas tree beats out an artificial one for getting into the holiday spirit, follow these simple tips to make it last all season long.
Tips for Caring for a Real Christmas Tree
Getting the most for your money doesn’t end with buying the perfect Christmas tree. Proper care keeps it fresh, helping it look its best as it lasts through the holiday season and preventing potential safety hazards.
1. Make a Fresh Cut
According to Hundley, tree sap begins to seal off the pores in the trunk, preventing it from taking in water, as soon as it’s cut. So making a fresh cut once you get it home gives your tree a much longer lifespan. Saw an inch off the bottom of the tree before you put it in water to ensure it can stay hydrated. You can have the tree vendor do it for you as long as you’re able to get your tree into water within four hours.
2. Submerge Your Tree in Water as Soon as You Get Home
Once you recut the trunk, don’t wait. Lowe’s recommends immediately placing your tree in a bucket of water and letting it absorb the water for several hours before placing it in your tree stand. And if it’s been more than four hours since the tree has had water, it’s best to take another inch off the end because the sap will have started to seal over again.
3. Use the Right Tree Stand
According to Hundley, a Christmas tree’s lifespan is only as good as the tree stand you put it in. Your stand should have a large water reservoir — capable of holding at least 1 gallon, which the average tree drinks in a day. Better Homes & Gardens says the same, noting that water capacity is the feature that could mean life or death for your tree.
There are tons of 1-gallon or more tree stands for sale — everything from basic tree stands that run $15 to self-leveling stands that make setting up your tree easier but cost around $100. How much you spend depends on your personal budget and how much effort you want to put into ensuring your tree is straight and stable. But first and foremost, don’t skimp on water capacity.
4. Keep It Watered
Don’t ever let the water in the tree stand reservoir get below the tree’s base. If you do, you risk the cut end sealing over and becoming unable to absorb water. Check at least twice daily — preferably in the morning and evening — in the first few days you have the tree home, as that’s when the tree soaks up the most water, according to Better Homes & Gardens. After that, Christmas trees begin drinking around a gallon of water per day, so check water levels at least once per day but ideally a couple of times per day.
To make watering easier, create a watering system by attaching a funnel to one end of a 3- to 4-foot PVC pipe. Place the pipe through the branches at the back of your tree, down into the tree stand. That way, you don’t have to bend over, disturb your tree, or accidentally spill water all over your floors when you give your tree a drink. Get the full instructions on Do-It-Yourself Danielle.
5. Use Plain Water
Michigan State University Extension (MSU) recommends skipping the pricey additives and sticking with plain tap water. That includes forgoing the hydration powders or gels the tree vendor tries to upsell you as well as home recipes like adding aspirin, sugar, or bleach, some of which can actually lower your tree’s ability to retain needles. According to MSU, researchers in Washington and North Carolina found that plain water keeps a tree fresh just fine.
6. Follow Fire Safety Precautions
Live Christmas trees can be a serious fire hazard if they dry out. So to prevent a home fire, keep them watered and away from heaters, heat vents, fireplaces, and candles. Likewise, stick to low-heat lights. Miniature lights produce less heat than large bulbs, and if you’re still using incandescent lights, you can switch to LEDs, which don’t get hot.
Jennifer Greene, executive director of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, tells Real Simple the lights are generally what causes fires. So opt for LEDs, make sure there are no breaks in the electrical cords, and don’t overload electrical outlets. And always turn the tree lights off before leaving the house or going to bed.
And never keep a dry tree in your house. If your tree dries out, immediately dispose of it. A fresh tree is less likely to catch on fire, but Hundley warns that a dry tree is a fire hazard no matter how cautious you are with it.
7. Take the Tree Down Before It’s Dry
Proper care of your tree doesn’t stop once the holidays are over. There’s still the clean-up to consider. Although it’s the least fun part of the holidays, it’s crucial you don’t procrastinate. You definitely want it out of the house before it becomes a fire hazard. But it also makes disposal easier, as trees drop all their needles when dry. So taking it down before it gets there means a lot less to sweep off the floor.
8. Dispose of Your Tree Properly
Remove all the lights, ornaments, and tinsel — even if they’re also destined for the garbage. Many municipalities have laws dictating how to dispose of Christmas trees, including disposal programs that run the trees through a chipper to turn them into landscaping materials. These programs require trees to be bare.
Additionally, your town may have regulations requiring you to bag the tree for curbside pickup by your local yard waste management service or drop it off at a recycling center. Check your town’s website for details.
Also note that many towns don’t take trees wrapped in inorganic material like plastic disposal bags. So, if you want to avoid leaving a trail of needles in your wake, wrap the tree in a blanket or tarp to haul it out to the curb. Once it’s on the curb, reclaim your blanket or tarp, and ensure your tree doesn’t obstruct walkways or streets.
9. Recycle Your Christmas Tree
Alternatively, look for a way to keep your celebration green and opt to recycle your tree. Some municipalities have Christmas tree recycling programs as part of their waste management program. If yours doesn’t, check with local recycling centers to see if they take Christmas trees. Recycling centers chip and shred trees for use as mulch in flower beds and parks or bedding on playgrounds.
Additionally, some communities have soil erosion programs that use your Christmas tree as an erosion barrier for lake and river shorelines. Check your town’s waste management website, search online for “recycling near me,” or visit a site like Earth911 to find recycling centers.
You can also recycle your tree yourself for some clever gardening hacks. If you have a wood chipper, you can turn your tree into mulch for your own yard or garden. If you don’t have a wood chipper, use the trunk and branches as organic material to fill the bottoms of raised garden beds or use them to create barriers for raised beds.
Caution: Note that Lowe’s warns you should never burn a Christmas tree in your fireplace or stove, as evergreen trees contain high levels of turpentine oils. These are highly flammable and could cause flare-ups or chimney fires. They also warn that a flocked Christmas tree, which is covered with a white, powdery mixture to resemble snow, isn’t recyclable or usable as mulch. And some municipalities won’t accept flocked trees for disposal. So be sure to check with your local waste management service for specific guidelines on disposing of flocked trees.
10. Repurpose Your Tree
Recycling is an ideal way to dispose of your Christmas tree, but it’s not the only option that doesn’t involve disposal. You can also use the wood from the tree for other purposes.
- Coasters. Cut slices from the tree trunk and use the wood rounds to make coasters. Paint them using stencils, as shown on Unoriginal Mom. You can even save them to give as a DIY Christmas gift for next year.
- Christmas Ornaments. Or make homemade Christmas ornaments by painting pictures or designs on the wood slices. Drill holes in them to string them with twine and hang them on next year’s tree, as shown on Just a Little Creativity.
- Bird House. As suggested by Lowe’s, stand your tree or a few of the larger branches in your yard as a winter bird sanctuary. Fill the tree with pinecones covered in peanut butter and birdseed, dried orange slices, and garlands of popcorn and cranberries. You get to enjoy a decorated tree long after it’s no longer usable indoors and do some birdwatching.
- New Year’s Tree. If your tree is still fresh after Christmas, use it as part of your New Year’s celebration. Hang balloons, streamers, toys, and handwritten wishes for a joyous new year from the branches.
11. Clean Up
Sweep any dropped needles with a broom, even if you’re cleaning carpet. Tree needles can clog and damage vacuum cleaners.
Also check your floors for water damage. Overwatering or spills may have caused water to collect at the base of the tree stand. If that’s the case, Lowe’s recommends cleaning and steaming your carpets to prevent mold.
While buying a live tree for Christmas may seem like more work than it’s worth, few things are more classically Christmas than a real tree. It brings with it the memory-making activity of a family expedition to a Christmas tree farm and that festive pine scent you can’t replicate with candles or scented ornaments. Plus, there’s no beating the all-out realness of a live tree and the way it brings the natural world into your home and your holiday celebrations.
While it may be true a live tree is more work than an artificial one, a real tree lends the holidays an extra dose of magic. And with a little planning and know-how, it’s possible to make it part of a stress-free holiday season.