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Live versus live-cut for Christmas

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By Jeneen Wiche

Live or live-cut...that is the question for this year's holiday tradition of decorating an evergreen indoors for Christmas.

You may think that you are being a better environmental steward by purchasing a live tree, but that's not necessarily true.

Live-cut Christmas trees are a 100 percent renewable resource that is reusable, recyclable and biodegradable.  They are an American product, farms employ approximately 100,000 people each year; and one acre of planted Christmas trees provides the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. 

Our options in the live-cut market include several varieties of evergreens, but the Fraser fir has risen to the top in the last 20 years.  In 1990 it accounted for about 7 percent of the U.S. Christmas tree market, today it accounts for nearly 60 percent.

The aromatic quality of the Fraser fir, its quintessential Christmas tree shape, and its sturdy nature make it a great choice for the holidays.  I like it best because it holds my heaviest ornaments with ease.

The branches angle up slightly, and the boughs have distinct separations, which allows for additional ornaments to be hung within the boughs, not just on the tips of the branches.  More ornament space for your money, really. 

The kind of ornaments you have may determine which type of tree you should consider bringing in for the holidays.  The Scotch pine, which used to be the top seller because it is so easy to grow, has similar characteristics to the Fraser fir, but it has longer, more pliable needles, which gives it a softer appearance.

Their sturdy branches hold heavy ornaments, but they can only hold one per tip because of the tight growth habit (achieved through annual shearing that shapes each tree perfectly).

Similarly, the Douglas fir is sheared in order to maintain a tight conical shape, but the needles are shorter, which gives it a traditional "fir" appearance even though it is not really a "fir."  Overall it has a nice appearance but the branches tend to be too weak and droopy for ornaments with any substantial weight.

Let your senses help you with picking out the freshest tree.  The tree should smell fresh, and the needles should be flexible with little needle drop when brushed or bounced. 

Yes, bounce the tree on the butt of the stump a couple of times to check for excessive needle drop. A few are normal but move on to the next one if the tree looks like Charlie Brown's after a couple of bounces. 

Once you get the tree home, saw at least a  half-inch off the stump before putting it in water.  This is critical in keeping the tree fresh because the original cut sealed over with sap within a couple of hours from when it was last cut.

Once you carry it indoors, just be sure to keep the tree stand full of fresh water; a tree that drinks a lot of water is a good sign.  

If you still have your heart set on a live tree, consider a few things first:

* The logistics of transporting a live tree needs to be considered.  The root ball of a 5-foot tree can weigh on average of 75 pounds.

* Live evergreen trees are more costly then live-cut trees, but once you get the live tree indoors you may save money on your energy bills. The tree will need to be kept cool so that it does not break dormancy, thus rendering it defenseless once you have planted out-of-doors in the middle of winter.

* The tree should be inside no longer then a week and be sure to keep the root ball adequately damp.

* You need to be prepared to dig a hole in late December, no matter the weather.

I always tell people that only the committed should have a live Christmas tree, and one sure way to prove your commitment is to dig the hole before you even purchase the tree. 

Cover it with plastic to keep the soil workable if a considerable amount of precipitation is forecast.