How to Care for a Christmas Tree | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Care for a Christmas Tree

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real christmas tree with natural ornaments, pinecones and dried oranges
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Make Your Christmas Tree Last until the Big Day

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Are you bringing home a Christmas tree? Attending to that cut tree during the first few days is critical to making it last through the season! See our tips on buying and caring for your holiday tree, plus how to recycle that tree.

3 Essential Christmas Tree Care Tips

If you only remember three tree tips, here they are!

  1. Cut off the bottom of the trunk (at least an inch). Any pre-cut tree will have sealed its original cut with sap so it can’t suck up the water it needs! 
  2. Put the tree in the water immediately! Think of your tree as a cut flower. It will not survive long without water; you may not see the tree wilt, but it will never be the same if it dries out. You can start by just placing the tree in a bucket of cool water in your garage, but don’t store it for more than a day or two.
  3. Never let the water run dry. Check on water levels twice a day for the first week!

Now that we’ve shared our three most critical tips, here is more expert advice on buying and caring for your Christmas tree. 

cutting the end off our a fresh christmas tree with a chainsaw

Buying the Christmas Tree

  • If possible, buy a freshly-cut tree from a reputable nursery or cut your own (with the land owner’s permission). Why? Any of the trees for sale were cut weeks before.
    Freshly cut Christmas trees are farmed specifically for their purpose and to support local agriculture. 
  • If you’re buying a tree that can be replanted later, remember that a tiny percentage of these trees survive after being indoors in the winter. To give them the best chance of survival, only keep a live tree in your house for a MAXIMUM of one week. The heat and dry air in a home can really take a toll on a living pine tree.
  • Give trees 2 to 3 days to adjust by letting them sit in a garage or “in-between” transitional spot before and after they are in the home.
  • As reported by growers across the United States, the top-selling Christmas trees are the Scotch pine, Douglas fir, white pine, and balsam fir, in that order.
  • If there are many needles on the ground around the trees, go elsewhere.
  • To check a tree’s freshness, pull your hand toward you along the branch. Needles should not fall off.
  • If you want to keep your Christmas tree potted and in the house after Christmas, a Norfolk Island pine would be the best choice—they are commonly kept as houseplants. Check with a local florist or nursery in your area.
christmas tree natural
K. Alexey/Shutterstock

Caring for Your Christmas Tree

  • When you bring your tree home, you’ll need to saw an inch off the bottom of the trunk before setting it in water. When trees are cut, pitch oozes out and seals the pores. 
    By sawing off the base, you will open up the pores, and the tree can absorb water. A straight cut is fine; there’s no need to cut at an angle. You can cut even more off the bottom if you need to fit the tree in your home. Never trim the bark, though.
  • Make sure you have a tree stand that has a one-gallon capacity because the tree will drink up to a quarter of water from every inch of its stem diameter. 
  • Watering is critical. A freshly cut tree can consume a gallon of water in 24 hours!
    • Fill the tree stand with water and keep it filled.
    • Never let the water level go below the tree’s base.
    • Plain water is fine.
  • Indoors, keep the tree away from heating ducts or other heat sources. The lower the temperature, the better the tree will do.
  • One old Vermonter we knew always packed his tree stand with well-watered soil and planted the tree in the mixture. Keep the soil wet.
  • Some people add aspirin, Sprite, or sugar to the water; we can’t say whether these help. Again, water is the vital element.
  • See more advice for keeping your Christmas tree fresh.
watering a christmas tree in a plastic stand
Credit: Georgy Dzyura/Shutterstock

10 Ways to Recycle a Real Christmas Tree

Live, biodegradable Christmas trees can be turned into mulch. Most cities have recycling events or even curbside pickup during the weeks after Christmas. All you do is donate the tree, and they’ll shred it down to natural mulch to take home and use in your garden. Check with your city government about tree pick up or drop off.

mulch made from a christmas tree as part of the recycling process

Besides curbside pickup, there are many DIY ways to recycle a tree.

  1. Use the branches and pine needles as mulch to provide your garden with insulation and moisture throughout the winter (you can even add on top of snow). Break off the needles, cut the branches into small, one or two-inch pieces, and use them as mulch.
  2. Or, you can use entire limbs to cover your garden beds, which reduces frost heaves by insulating sensitive plants such as roses. Use boughs from your tree to shade broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, insulate perennials, or protect against frost and snow.
  3. Your tree can also make an excellent base for your compost pile. Don’t include the needles for the best results, which can slow down the disintegration process. 
    Instead, use the needles for mulch. Then, cut the branches into small pieces to turn into compost faster. Learn more about composting.
  4. Saw the trunk into several pieces after trimming off the branches. These logs will make for an aromatic Yule fire in your fireplace next Christmas Eve! Bundle up the branches as firewood, too. Note: The wood must have time to dry. Please do not throw the live branches into your indoor fireplace, as it will cause sparks and is a fire hazard.
  5. Prop up your old tree near your bird feeder as a staging area for small birds, such as chickadees and finches.
  6. Or, create a living bird feeder. String your tree with fresh orange slices, popcorn, cranberries, homemade suet, and other bird-friendly goodies, and put it in a sheltered location. Eventually (within a year), the branches will become brittle, and you can break the tree apart by hand or chip it in a chipper.
  7. Who doesn’t love the scent of pine trees? Pluck out the pine needles and add to a potpourri bowl for a natural air freshener, or use it as stuffing for small fragrance pillows. Sew scraps of fabric, and fill them with the needles to make fragrant balsam sachets to freshen drawers and closets.
  8. Another use for your pine needles is to make them into tea. It’s as easy as steeping pine needles in boiling water, and then straining it into cups to drink.
  9. If you’re creative, use the trunk and branches to make fantastic wood coasters, candleholders, or other crafty items.
  10. Some Fish and Game Departments use recycled Christmas trees to make fish-friendly habitats. Some lake bottoms are void of the natural structures that fish like to hide in, and pine trees make cozy areas for fish and tadpoles to live, sleep, lay eggs, and find food.

Another reader says, “In Louisiana, we use old trees to bait fishing holes. Just anchor them in a good location; the fish will use it for cover, especially bream and white perch. Go back in the spring, and usually, the fish will be in it or near it.”

chickadee eating a birdseed with a recycled tree

Replanting a Live Tree

Sometimes, we’re asked about replanting a live tree. First, you can only replant trees that came with a living root ball (that hasn’t been cut or damaged). Second, the tree can’t be dried out; most Christmas trees will only last about a week (at the most) indoors in a heated home. But if you kept the tree in a cool area or near a window, it could be worth a try.

With those caveats, you’ll want to plant the tree immediately after Christmas. If you’re in a cold climate and the ground isn’t prime for planting, mulch around the tree’s base and set it aside in a cold, sheltered area until the temperature warms. In the meantime, water the tree every few weeks.

Learn More

Where did the tradition of Christmas trees come from? Read about the origins of popular Christmas traditions here

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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