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Essential Cut Christmas Tree Tips; How Not to Walk on Needles This Year

I had promised an article on "pollarding" this week (that's a real word by the way), but the topic turned out to be much more interesting than I first thought, so I want to do some more research—AND— I realized that if I was going to go over the essentials for keeping cut Christmas trees fresh I better do it before Christmas is over.

And so, to paraphrase part of another holiday tradition, I ask "why is this year different than other years?"

The answer is rain; some of us got way too much, but many parts of the country got way too little. And yes, this actually has a lot to do with Christmas trees, both cut and "alive"—meaning that their roots are intact inside a big burlap bag and you have not officially killed them yet.

Let's start with the traditional cut Christmas tree, of which there are several varieties (firs are the most popular, but I have always been a blue spruce man—fabulous color and nice strong branches that are great for hanging heavy ornaments).

But there are also two basic types: Pre-cut and "cut your own", which should not scare you. It basically means that you and your family spend a nice afternoon walking around a farm, arguing about which tree is best and then finally tie a ribbon around one. Then you go congratulate yourself with cookies and hot chocolate while somebody else trudges out and cuts it down for you. (And yes, you should tip them.)

A visit to a local Christmas tree farm is a great idea for several reasons. The first, of course, is freshness. If you're in the North, mid-Atlantic or other region where your neighbors were building Arks and looking for twins all summer, you know that a local tree cut fresh is going to be as full of water as I am full of other things. And if you're in one of the unfortunate areas that were bone dry this year, you'll know that your tree really needs the treatment we'll soon describe (but it will still fare better than a tree that was cut previously).

And when you go to a local tree farm, you're also preserving open space by helping prevent that family farm from being turned into condos. And you're getting the brats—excuse me, "children"—outside where they can blow the stink off of themselves and enjoy the wonder of being outdoors for a change. (Hide their phones. Pretend their whining is a Christmas song.)

And there's that hot chocolate and cookies; that'll shut 'em up for a few minutes….

"The Treatment": The True Secret to a Really Fire-Proof Tree

Whether you get your tree from a local Christmas tree farm or some shady character burning trash in a barrel outside of a bar, make sure the needles and branches are supple. If they feel stiff or snap, take a pass.

Have the tree shaken side to side to get rid of leaves, bugs and other debris before you leave the lot. (Don't bang the trunk into the ground.) Tree shaking machines are a real plus here. Do not neglect this step; some people had the pleasure of seeing praying mantises emerge from their unshaken tree last season.

Other people got ticks—that's some real coal in your stocking.

When you get the tree home, use a bow saw to cut another inch or two off the bottom of the stump. Don't have a bow saw? Buy one! They cost around 20 bucks and they're the perfect tool for pruning medium size branches. (If you got your tree from a farm in a wet area you can skip the re-cutting. Weenie.)

No matter what, immediately plunge the cut tree into a big bucket or galvanized tub of lukewarm water for several hours, preferably overnight—and be prepared to check on and refill that container. And don't assume that the tree isn't thirsty just because you live in an area that had a lot of wet weather; pre-cut trees can be trucked in from far far away; and if it came from out of town, it might suck up gallons.

(Forget pennies in the tub and magic [and toxic] Internet formulas, the secret to a cut tree keeping its needles past New Year's is to be sure you started out with a tree that was totally hydrated. Ignore this advice and green the color of your carpet will be.)

Then attach the stand and bring the tree inside to the coolest possible area—away from any hot air vents or radiators, refill the stand with lukewarm water and wait a full 24 hours for the tree to spread before ornamenting it.

After that, your only job is to keep that water reservoir filled. If it dries out even for a day, the tree may be unable to take up more water afterwards. If crawling under branches isn't your idea of 'festive', pick up one of those gadgets that either waters the tree automatically (these look like gift-wrapped packages under the tree) or a long funnel-like device that allows you to add water while standing up, like "Santa's Magic Water Spout."

And no, I'm not making that up. And its fun to yell when you're setting the tree up: "Hey, has anybody seen Santa's Magic Water Spout?"

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