Christmas Tree Selection and Care

By John Wilson, Extension Educator

I hate rushing the Christmas holiday before we’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, but this might be too late for some people if I wait until next week. I’m guessing some people will select a Christmas tree on the weekend after Thanksgiving, along with their other early Christmas shopping.


For many families, once the Thanksgiving leftovers are in the refrigerator, it’s time to start preparing for Christmas. For many, the most prominent part of the holiday display is the Christmas tree. There has been a trend with more people selecting natural trees, but it is important to select a fresh tree.


This reduces the potential for fires, aids in cleanup… and makes it more pleasant for whoever has to crawl under the tree to distribute the gifts found there. OK, the last one is a family tradition and since I have the profile most closely resembling Santa Claus… never mind!


Follow these steps to assure the tree you are buying is fresh:

 Gently pull on the needles. They should be tightly attached to the twig.

Shake the tree vigorously or hold the tree several inches off the ground and drop the butt end on a hard surface. If green needles fall to the ground, look for a different tree. Dead, brown needles falling from inner parts of the tree may have been shed years ago and are less of a problem.

 Other considerations when selecting a tree should include:


Measure the height and width of the space you have available in the room where the tree will be placed. There’s nothing worse than bringing a tree indoors only to find it is too tall or wide. Take a tape measure with you when selecting your Christmas tree.

Remember to choose a tree for the area where it is to be displayed. For example if the tree is displayed in front of a large window, then all four sides should look as good as possible. If the tree is displayed against a wall, then a tree with three good sides would be okay. A tree with two good sides would work well in a corner. In general, the more perfect a tree, the more expensive it is.

Make sure the base of the tree trunk is straight for six to eight inches so it will fit easily into the stand.

 Once you have chosen a fresh Christmas tree, do your best to keep it fresh. A tree can stay fresh and healthy for several weeks if it is well cared for.

If you are not putting the tree up right away, store it in an unheated garage or some other area out of the wind and freezing temperatures. Make a fresh cut one inch from the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of water.

When you bring the tree indoors, make another fresh cut one inch higher and place the tree in a sturdy stand that holds at least one gallon of water. A rule of thumb is a tree will use one quart of water each day for every inch of diameter of the trunk.

Be sure to keep the water level about the base of the tree. If the base dries out resin will form over the cut end and the tree will not be able to absorb water and will dry out quickly. Commercially prepared mixes; aspirin; sugar and other additives added to the water are not necessary and may be detrimental.

If it’s a nuisance to water a Christmas tree once it’s decorated with a tree skirt and surrounded by presents, here’s an easy solution. Buy a funnel and a 3 to 4 foot length of vinyl tubing to slip over the end of the funnel. Fasten the funnel/tube with a twist-ties or twine in an out-of-the-way but reachable part of the tree. Extend the tubing down the tree trunk and into the tree stand reservoir. Now you can water the tree through the funnel without bending over or disturbing the tree skirt or its ornaments.

Keep the tree away from heat sources such as fireplaces, TVs, radiators, and air ducts. Never use lighted candles or have open flames near your Christmas tree. Check all Christmas tree lights for worn electrical cords. Use UL approved electrical decorations and cords. Unplug tree lights at night or plug them into a timer.

 Following these guidelines on selecting and caring for your Christmas tree helps ensure a safe and happy holiday. But once the holidays are past, here are a couple final suggestions.

Take down the tree before it dries out. Many fresh cut trees if properly cared for will last at least five weeks before drying out.

Recycle your tree after Christmas. Many communities will pick up trees and turn them into wood chip mulch. You might put the tree in your backyard and place bread and suet among the branches for the birds.

 For more information on Christmas tree selection and care, contact your local Nebraska Extension office.

Large Snow Flakes During Winter Storm

Very big snowflakes fell during the winter storm, making the blue lights on the Christmas tree more beautiful. Photo Credit/Denise Gilliland, Editor and Chief, Kat Country Hub.

Very big snowflakes fell during the winter storm, making the blue lights on the Christmas tree more beautiful. Photo Credit/Denise Gilliland, Editor and Chief, Kat Country Hub.

Christmas Tree for the Birds

John Wilson

John Wilson

By John Wilson, Extension Educator

First, I hope everyone has (or had) a great Christmas (depending on when you get your paper) and a Happy New Year. Patty and I had some extra days at home over the holidays, so rather than sit around and stare at the TV (or each other), we enjoyed watching the constant stream of birds that come to the feeders and birdbath in our back yard. We have a variety of trees behind our house so there is lots of cover. But here’s an idea if you want to attract birds and don’t have that kind of setting.

Before taking your Christmas tree to the recycling center, consider creating some habitat for birds. To attract birds to your backyard, you must provide their three basic needs: food, water, and cover or shelter. Your old Christmas tree will provide excellent shelter for birds, providing protection from wind and predators. It can also serve as a feeding station, where you provide a buffet of food for our overwintering birds.

Before taking a tree outside, remove all the decorations and lights, including tinsel. To provide the most shelter possible for the birds, place the tree on the south or east side of your house, sheltered from winter’s harsh northwest winds. Securely anchor the tree by setting the stump in a five gallon bucket of damp sand and securing the top of the tree with heavy string or twine to nearby buildings or trees.

Decorate your tree with strings of popcorn, cranberries or raisins. Popcorn will attract cardinals and finches. Cranberries and raisins should attract cedar waxwings, finches and any robins wintering in the area. Apples, oranges, breads, and pine cones covered with peanut butter then dipped in birdseed can also be added. For best results, place these edible ornaments well into the tree.

Suet is especially attractive to insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches and is a good winter energy source. Suet seed balls will also attract chickadees and blue jays.

Press suet into the branches or hang it in mesh bags like those that contain onions or fruit in the grocery store. It is best to keep suet balls in the shade so they don’t melt. Also, keep them high enough in the tree so dogs can’t reach them. Pre-made suet cakes, which include suet, bird seed and a variety of dried fruits, are available at most nurseries, farm supply and hardware stores.

To make your own suet seed balls, purchase suet from your local grocery store. Mix birdseed and a small amount of peanut butter with suet while the suet is warm enough to be molded. Use a birdseed mix that contains sunflower seeds, proso millet and finely cracked corn. Mold the mixture around a wire hook that can be used to hang the suet seed ball in the tree, or fill empty orange rind halves with the suet mixture and attach them to the tree. You can also scatter some of that birdseed mix on the ground or snow around the base of the tree for ground feeding birds such as juncos.

If you decide to start feeding the birds, be consistent with your feeding. Feeding birds in the winter results in their reliance on you for part of their diet. Lack of this food, especially during severe cold or storms, could result in the birds starving to death before they can find another food source.

Even in winter, birds need water to drink and to keep their feathers clean. A birdbath with clean water will attract many birds if the water is not frozen. Commercial immersion heaters will keep the water in birdbaths from freezing. They are available from many nurseries, farm supply or specialty bird supply stores. Providing for the winter needs of birds can result in many hours of entertainment, spent watching these beautiful creatures.

For more information on attracting birds to your back yard, contact your local UNL Extension office.

Picking the Perfect Christmas Tree

By John Wilson, Extension Educator  


John Wilson

John Wilson

Besides Black Friday sales, the day after Thanksgiving often is the day families will select and put up a natural Christmas tree. Artificial tree sales increased in the past, but those sales have leveled off and now there’s a return to having a traditional tree.

A natural Christmas tree is an environmental friendly way to celebrate the holidays. The average artificial Christmas tree has a life span of 6 years before it ends up in a landfill. A live Christmas tree, while used only one season, can become valuable mulch, a winter bird feeder, or even used as a fish habitat after the holidays.

So how do you pick out the perfect tree? The best way to obtain the freshest tree is to harvest it yourself at a local Christmas tree farm. This way you are guaranteed a fresh tree rather than one that may have been harvested several weeks earlier. A list of Nebraska Christmas tree growers is available on the Nebraska Department of Agriculture website. If cutting your own tree is not possible, here are some ways to check the freshness of a Christmas tree.

First, give the tree a light but vigorous shake. Only a few interior needles will fall out of a fresh tree. If a pile of brown needles appears on the ground, particularly from the branch tips, it is not fresh. Next, reach into a branch and gently pull the needles through your hand as you move out towards the tip. The needles should bend, but remain firmly attached, as your fingers run across them.

Regardless of whether you buy a tree from a lot or cut it yourself, once you get it home, leave it outside in a shady area while you set up the stand. The choice of a stand is probably the most critical factor in maintaining the freshness of the tree once it’s in your home. The stand should hold one-half to one gallon of water as a new Christmas tree may absorb this much water per day. A good rule-of-thumb is a tree will use one quart of water per day for every inch of trunk diameter at the base. If you have a tree with a 3-inch trunk, it may use about three quarts of water per day.

Make sure you start with a clean stand. Before setting up the tree, wash the inside of the stand with a solution of three tablespoons of bleach in a pint of water. After washing, rinse the stand with fresh water. This will reduce the growth of microorganisms that may also plug up the tree’s pores.

Just before you bring the tree in the house cut off the bottom inch or two of the trunk. This will open the sap-filled pores which transport water into the tree. The base cut should be square, not slanted. The angle makes little difference in the amount of water absorbed and it may expose part of the base to air sooner if the water level runs low. Once the tree is in the stand, add water and then never let the stand become empty. If the stand becomes empty for more than six hours, the tree’s pores plug up. Water uptake will be significantly reduced, the tree will dry out, and the needles will soon begin to fall.

If the tree stand does dry up, there is nothing that can be done other than pull the tree out of the stand and re-cut the base… not a pleasant task once the lights and ornaments are already up. Nothing needs to be added to the water in the stand to improve needle retention. Commercial “tree fresher” products do not significantly increase the life of the tree and the home remedies such as aspirin, sugar, soft drinks and vodka do not work and may be harmful to pets that may drink from the stand.

Finally, place the stand in a spot that receives only indirect sunlight and is not near a heat duct, entry door, or other drafty location. This will reduce water loss from the tree and prolong its freshness.

For more information on Christmas tree selection and care, contact your local Nebraska Extension office.

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