Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to pick a real Christmas tree and keep it alive

Tree types, sources and care make the difference

Marko van Streun (Forest Technology ’12) fondly remembers picking out Christmas trees as a kid. His dad would take him and his brother, and it would take a while.

“We’d go from lot to lot to find a tree that was perfect.”

His dad would bring a homemade tool – pieces of wood shaped into a “u.” It matched the width of their tree stand, and using it to check the diameter of a trunk ensured they didn’t buy one that was too big. The brothers made fun of him for it, even if they enjoyed the process. Van Streun still does.

“I go out with my dad every year and we do the old Christmas tree hunt,” he says.

Between those annual expeditions and what he learned at NAIT, van Streun has gotten good at picking the best and making them last. He doesn’t take along a homemade tree trunk tester, but he always follows the tips below.

Where to buy a tree


“Tree lots tend to have fresher trees,” says van Streun. Also, the staff will likely be the same ones who picked the trees from the local farm, so should be able to tell you what you want to know about each variety.

These may cost more than those from major retailers. Expect to pay, $50 on average, van Streun estimates. Don’t be afraid to haggle.

What kind to pick

fir tree branch

You may find a few Scotch pine, but fir generally dominates the market, says van Streun. A good lot should offer choices within that group. Douglas fir tends to be the cheapest option, with thinner limbs that can sag under heavier decorations. But it still has that classic, sweet holiday smell.

For something sturdier, van Streun recommends Noble or Fraser fir, which also tend to hold their needles longer. If you’ve got a big space to fill, ask for Grand fir, which tend to be larger overall.

How to choose the best one

christmas tree lot

Just as you might knock on a watermelon or delicately squeeze an avocado, you should test a tree, too. Needles will naturally be shed from the centre of the tree, but shouldn’t come away easily from the outer limbs. Pinch a branch and run your thumb and forefinger along it.

“If you get a handful of needles, it’s a dud.” But, if you crush the needles and they give off that nice sweet smell, it’s good.

“If you get a handful of needles, it’s a dud.”

Don’t forget to measure your available space at home – including floor to ceiling – before hitting the lots. Account for the tree topper and stand. Be cautious about buying wrapped trees, van Streun adds, as it’s hard to know exactly how much they’ll stretch out once thawed.

Keep it alive

watering a christmas tree

At home, cut 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) off the base of your tree and place it immediately in fresh, clean water (no special tree food required). Sap has sealed sealed off the “open wound,” says van Streun, and will prevent water uptake.

Do not, however, shave the sides of the trunk to make it fit your tree stand. “Those are the layers that absorb water and transport it to the rest of the tree.”

Never let your tree dry out. Sap will reseal the cut, preventing water uptake. Check it daily – and more frequently right after getting it. A new tree can drink four litres of water in the first couple of days off the lot.

How to dispose of it

thrown out christmas tree to be picked up at the curb

After the gifts are given and the Christmas memories made, return the tree to the earth. Compost it yourself, says van Streun, by cutting it into small pieces and adding it to your backyard pile.

Better yet, he adds, let the city do it. In Edmonton, put your tree out for pickup by 7 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.

There is another good use for your tree, post-holidays, van Streun points out.

“It’s free firewood.” Set it aside to dry. Come summer, use it to make more memories around the backyard fire pit.

Cut your own

For a classic Christmas experience, cut your own tree, says van Streun. Get permission first. The Government of Alberta issues inexpensive tree cutting permits online.

Limit your hunt to areas indicated by the ministry and, once you get home, don’t forget to recut the base if sap has sealed the cut.

Banner image by Olga355/istockphoto.com


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