Published on 12/12/05

Late tree shoppers, test for too dry to buy

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Whether you are just late catching the Christmas spirit or all the new lead danger warnings have you concerned about putting up your old faithful artificial tree, University of Georgia experts say take time to inspect cut trees before you buy.

"You have to consider that trees have been out for several weeks now," said Bob Westerfield, a UGA Cooperative Extension horticulturist in Griffin, Ga. "Check it out closely to make sure it's not too dry to buy."

There are several simple tests Westerfield recommends tree shoppers use:

Bump it - "Hold the tree upright and bump it on the ground, if a lot of needles fall off, that's a bad sign," he said. "You might want to pass on that tree."

Bend it - "Find a limb near the top of the tree and bend the outer edges," he said. "The branches should be flexible and pliable." If the branches snap and crack when you twist them, "that's a dry tree and one to avoid," Westerfield advised.

Grab it - "Grab a branch and run your closed-fisted hand down the branch," he said. "You should not have a hand full of needles. If you do, don't buy that tree."

Most varieties will last the holiday season given adequate water.

"If you go for blue spruces or one of the firs, remember they have already come a long way to get here from the north or Canada," Westerfield said. "Take extra care with them. If they weren't taken care of on the truck here, the needles will all fall off and you'll end up with an expensive Charlie Brown tree."

The Leyland Cypress varieties are more likely to have been grown closer to Georgia, Westerfield said.

Fresh choice

A good bet, too, is to make a family outing to a local tree farm and cut your own tree.

"It's more of an experience for young kids if you do a choose- and-cut," Westerfield said. "Many farms offer other fun activities like hay rides, and you are assured of a fresh tree that way. They are also usually cheaper that way."

The downside to cutting your own is Georgia growers offer limited variety choices.

"Some farmers are now growing a few Virginia pines and red cedars, but Leyland is the king in Georgia right now," he said.

Water is key

Buying a fresh tree is the right start, then you must keep it fresh once you get it home.

"The whole key to keeping the tree fresh, is water," Westerfield said. "When you get the tree home, even if it hasn't been cut long because you cut it yourself, the stump will scab over with sap. You should remove a half inch of the base with a sharp saw to make a clean cut and open up the channels to the trunk. Immediately get it in a tree stand full of water."

To make sure your tree gets adequate water, start with a good stand.

"Go with the deep basin stands that hold at least a gallon of water," he said. "The first day, the tree will drink it dry. The first few days you have to check it several times a day. Then it will slow down."

There are myths galore about adding aspirin or Alka-selter to the tree's water, but Westerfield recommends using plan water.

"There are no magic potions that will make it last longer," he said. "The keys are the clean cut base and continuous watering."

If you allow the tree to go dry for any period of time, the base will harden over again. This causes excessive drying and creates a fire hazzard.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.