Confused about how to choose the best live Christmas tree for your family? Pick the perfect real Christmas tree with these must-have tips.

By BH&G Holiday Editors
Updated November 10, 2020
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Picking out a live Christmas tree is one of the most classic holiday traditions there is. While the time to head to the tree farm only comes around once a year, it's a memory to be remembered for decades. This year, don't let a sad tree become reality. We'll show you the right way to pick a real Christmas tree that'll last throughout the holiday season. Plus get our must-have tips for caring for a live Christmas tree so it looks merry and bright. Once the holiday is over, be sure to recycle your real Christmas tree for a sustainable and earth-friendly holiday.

mother and daughter looking at trees
Credit: JackF/Getty Images

Choose Your Location At Home

"Before you head to the lot or store to pick out this year's perfect tree, you must be certain of where you want to place the tree and the space available. Try to avoid spots near heat sources such as radiators, fireplaces, heating vents and even televisions or sun-drenched windows" says Mark Chisholm, arborist, and STIHL spokesman. "Also try to tuck the tree into a low-traffic area to avoid accidental bumping and possible safety issues. Next, you'll need to measure the space dimensions you have to work with, bearing in mind that a tree stand will add a few extra inches of height, as will a star or angel to finish the top."

You'll want to leave a minimum of six inches between the top of your tree and the ceiling. If you're planning on using a tree topper (we love this Wire Wrapped Star Tree Topper Gold, $25, Target), allow at least 12 inches. If you have standard 8-foot ceilings, a 7-foot tall tree is ideal.

Know What You Want

Each tree species is a little different, so to find the best types of real Christmas trees for your family, you need to match it to the needs and wants of your household. For example, if you have children, you might lean toward pines or firs with soft needles instead of spruce trees, which have sharp needles that can hurt when you step on them.

"At the lot, you will see three or four common varieties of trees. Some things to consider when choosing the right type will be the color, shape, and feel of a tree. Some trees are dark green and others have gray or white hues. There are trees with tight branching patterns and then some with more spaces. One thing to remember is that if the tree looks very full while absent of ornaments, it may be difficult to decorate," says Chisholm. "Most trees that end up on a lot have been groomed and sheared to look great during the selection process. Then you get it home and realize that there's very little space for ornaments. Choosing one with some empty spaces might be a better route. You could also bring a few of your favorite ornaments with you to test at the lot. Also, be sure that the first foot of trunk is straight too, or you'll have one heck of a time getting it to stand up correctly at home."

Check our complete guide to living Christmas tree types for all the details you need to choose the best tree for you.

Consider All Angles

Step back 5 to 8 feet and check the tree from several vantage points. Look for a densely branched tree with good shape, color, and fragrance. The trunk should be straight (or nearly so) and should not be visible through the foliage.

Check the Tree's Freshness

First, check the trunk of the fresh Christmas tree. The trunk should have a slight stickiness to it. Bend a needle in half with your fingers; fresh firs should snap, while fresh pines bend and should not break.

To find the best Christmas tree that will last the longest, gently grab the inside of a branch and pull your hand toward you. The needles should stay on the tree. Alternatively, gently tap the cut end of a tree on the ground; if a few needles fall off, it should be fine. If a lot of needles fall off, keep searching for a different tree.

Some types of Christmas trees will go from deep, rich green to a dull gray-green if they get too dried out. Err on the side of caution and stick with a "greener is better" mindset.

Freshen the Trunk

Once you get the Christmas tree home, take proper care of the trunk. Cut off about a half-inch from the bottom of the tree's trunk (or ask the Christmas tree lot to do this for you). The fresh-cut will absorb more water, so your tree holds its needles and keeps its color longer. Put the tree in water as quickly as you can after making the cut. As tempting as it may be to place the tree next to a fireplace, know that heat sources—including a heating vent—will cause your tree to dry out faster. Place your tree in a cool and dry spot. To keep your Christmas tree looking perfect, keep the water in your tree stand filled all the time. You may need to add water two or even three times the first few days.

Editor's Tip: Water capacity is the stand feature that could mean life or death to your tree. (If a stump cut dries, it can’t soak up water.) Get a stand that holds at least a gallon like this 8 ft Max Tree Height Medium Tree Stand ($15, The Home Depot).

Chisholm also recommends giving the tree a quick blast with a leaf blower ($140, Ace Hardware) to remove "any loose needles, debris wedged in the branches and, most importantly, remove any insects or egg masses that might have survived the journey."

These tips will help extend how long your real Christmas tree will last. Your tree will stay fresh for about 4-6 weeks with proper care.

Recycle Your Live Christmas Tree

"After Christmas is over, you'll need to dispose of the family tree. There are many recycling programs all over the country that account for the recycling of 93% of all trees nationally," says Chisholm. "Most get ground into mulch to be given back to the community or utilized as mulch in flower beds and parks. Other communities have extensive erosion programs that take advantage of this biodegradable resource."

Check your local municipality’s website or websites like Earth911.com for more information.

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