How to look after a real Christmas tree
The pine scent, the twinking lights – nothing says Christmas is on the way like a real tree. In our household, picking one out is a ritual. We’ll wrap up warm, then spend a good hour at our local nursery, checking our every fir and spruce until we find the perfect one. We even name our tree after whoever wraps it in netting for us – this year, it’s Kevin. And as it’s virtually one of the family by the time we get it home, it’s important that we know how to take care of Kev – sorry – it.
Looking after a real Christmas tree shouldn’t be too much of a chore, provided you’ve chosen well and site it in a good spot. But there are several things you can do to make sure it survives well past Boxing Day and still looks good for your New Year celebrations.
Ways to keep your Christmas tree alive
Your tree’s chances of survival will depend on many factors, and its fate may be sealed even before you get it home. But follow these top tips, and you can’t go wrong.
Choose a healthy tree
The quality of Christmas trees available in the UK has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade. “They’re not the sort you’ll remember having as a kid, where the needles were dropping in the first few days,” says Pamela Smith, a gardens and parklands consultant at The National Trust. “That rarely happens now. There’s such a good selection at Christmas tree farms and garden centres.”
Our top picks are:
Nordmann Fir: One of the most popular Christmas tree varieties in the UK. It takes longer to grow, which can make it more expensive. However, it’s very compact and dense, so it’s good for smaller homes, and – most importantly – holds on to its dark green needles.
Norway Spruce: Has smaller, tighter needles and is easier to hang decorations on as it’s not as bushy as a Nordmann Fir. These trees are quicker to grow, which makes them cheaper, and give off a beautiful scent, but are thirsty and more prone to dropping needles.
Blue Spruce: As the name suggests, has stunning silver-blue foliage, with a strong scent.
Fraser Fir: Like the Balsam fir mentioned below, has very soft needles that don’t drop, so are great for homes with children, cats and dogs.
“I’m a big fan of spruces and also Balsam firs,” says Smith. “They’re very clustered and dense, and they can be quite silvery. Balsam firs almost look like Stickle Bricks, and their needles aren’t sharp – you can almost stroke them, which I like. Pine needles, on the other hand, are quite prickly, especially when they’re dry.”
If you’re not sure of what tree to go for, feel the weight, advises This Morning‘s expert gardener David Domoney. “The heavier tree, the more moisture it’s got in it. I also give it a bang on the floor, because if it’s a tree that’s dried out, a lot of needles will fall off. If it’s well hydrated, they won’t,” he says.
Trim the trunk – but take care
A great way to look after your Christmas tree before you get it into the the house is to give its trunk a little trim with a handsaw.
“Like cut flowers, you will put your Christmas tree in water, but of course, the trunk seals at the end,” explains Domoney. “So what you want to do is to take a slither of the trunk off – about a centimetre. This exposes fresh tissue. I then sit it in the back garden in a bucket for a night and a day to soak up as much moisture as possible so it’s fully hydrated before I bring it inside.”
Pippa Wild at the British Christmas Tree Growers Association agrees, suggesting ‘a half inch’ is a good amount to remove before you put up your Christmas tree.
Keep your tree away from heat
It goes without saying that a real tree is flammable, so it’s not a good idea to put it near a naked flame. If it must go near your festive fireplace, do not light a fire. And keep candles away.
“Remember that Christmas trees are outdoor plants first,” explains Domoney. “If suddenly it’s moved into a hot environment, it will struggle. So don’t put it anywhere near a radiator, as that just dries them out even more.”
Underfloor heating is another issue. “If you have underfloor heating, look at turning that area off or try putting your tree on a heat proof mat,” says Wild.
Smith adds, “Unfortunately, for many of us, there may only be one or two places where you can fit a tree. If that’s the case and you have no choice but to put it next to a radiator, you might be able to turn that one radiator off.”
Put it in a corner
Thought no one liked being put in a corner? Well your Christmas tree will thank you for it. “[A] corner [position] is ideal as it will keep your tree safe from knocks and bumps,” says Dobbies’ horticultural director Marcus Eyles. “But make sure the space you choose has a plug point nearby for your lights.”
Otherwise, you could end up running cables along the floor, creating a trip hazard.
Don’t overload your tree
Heavy, badly distributed decorations can leave your tree looking droopy and sad. Look after your Christmas tree by making sure it can take their weight.
“We would recommend a species with stronger branches to support larger/heavier ornaments such as the Fraser Fir, Nobel Fir or Blue Spruce,” says Wild.
Eyles notes, “If you have a lot of decorations, spread them out right into the centre of the tree instead of just on the edges of branches for more stability. The Premium Nordmann Fir is great for this thanks to its full, broad conical shape.”
Decorate it with LEDs
Domoney urges everyone to ditch incandescent bulbs, and use LED Christmas lighting on their trees if they’re not already doing so.
“Rather than that old set that you’ve had up in the loft and take out every year that gets really hot, use LEDs – they’re a lot cooler, and your tree will stay fresher. They’re safer, too,” he explains.
Water your tree regularly
It’s important that you choose a stand that can hold a reservoir of water if you want your tree to survive. “While they will have lost their fine roots through felling, trees continue to absorb water through the stump,” says Smith. “Keep a close eye on the water level and top it up at least every couple of days. It’s amazing how much they drink.”
B&Q recommends that your water your tree daily to keep it looking plump and full.
“A dehydrated tree will start to droop and wilt quickly, so we recommend adding a minimum of 500ml of water a day,” they explain. “A real tree can absorb around 1-2 litres of water per day, however a cut tree will keep hydrated with less.”
Smith adds, “Some people mist their trees. This can help but do bear in mind your decorations as some can be ruined by being doused in water.”
Give it a little feed
Garden experts aren’t always in agreement that feeding your Christmas tree makes a difference, but some swear by it. And a common recommended ingredient? Lemonade.
“You can either use florist’s cut flower food, or you can just mix up some sugar water, or add full-fat lemonade, because that will help keep the tree going and keep it looking fresh,” recommends Domoney.
Avoid adding liquid fertiliser that you’d feed houseplants with – this will only work on plants with roots, and is of no benefit to a cut tree. You can fertilise potted Christmas trees, but it’s best to do this in the spring, in line with their natural growth spurt.
How long should a real Christmas tree last?
“A well-chosen and cared-for tree should last around four weeks,” says Wild, who advises that, as Christmas trees are a fresh product, you don’t buy them too early.
“The later you buy and bring your tree in, the fresher it will be,” says Domoney. “‘Buy while the choice is there… but you can leave it in water in your back garden until you’re ready to bring it in.”
Guy Barter, chief horticulturist at the RHS, says a tree should last four weeks if held outside and displayed in a relatively cool room for at least some of the time, before it goes into the warmer rooms for a shorter time, and if the water is kept topped up.