As homeowners head to retail stores and corner lots to purchase Christmas trees, some pre-trip preparation and on-site sleuthing can help them ensure a greener, fresher-smelling holiday.

Christmas trees are rarely returnable. The first step before leaving the house should be measuring the height and width of available space for a tree, said Todd Ruedt, owner of Grounds Maintenance Services, Brookfield ( Next is bringing a tape measure while shopping to check available trees’ exact dimensions.

“The biggest mistake homeowners make is buying a tree that is too large for their space,” Ruedt said. “Remembering a tape measure can prevent problems later. Once they reach their destination, shoppers can ask where trees of specific sizes are located to be sure they are looking in the right area.”

Trunk size is important. A trunk that is too large for a tree stand will require either buying a new stand, or significant shaving of the trunk. Excessive shaving could affect a tree’s stability.

Once tree candidates are selected, shoppers can use their detective abilities to find the best one. A fresh tree is dark green with no yellow or brown needles, Ruedt said. The needles of firs or spruces should snap when bent. Conversely, longer pine needles should be pliable.

Running a hand across a branch should not leave a fistful of needles, Ruedt said. Shaking the tree is another good test – a dry tree will shed a small blizzard of needles in response.

“Age is critical in choosing a Christmas tree that will not create a mess with its needles,” he explained. “Many lots get their trees from outside suppliers. Some trees might be a month old, especially ones that are not grown locally. If in doubt, customers should ask how long ago the trees were cut.”

Balsam and Fraser firs are popular species that generally retain moisture and hold their needles, and are easy to decorate, Ruedt said. Making a fresh cut on the trunk is crucial to keeping a tree fresh, as is regularly checking and refilling water in the tree stand. Placing the tree away from radiators, heat vents and fireplaces also helps. 

Like the holidays, Christmas trees don’t stay long. Once a tree stops “drinking” water, homeowners usually have 10 to 14 days before it becomes brittle and starts dropping lots of needles, Ruedt said. The trick is removing the tree in time to prevent lots of clean-up afterward.

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