Last year my household chose our Christmas tree badly and ended up with a tree that died within two weeks, a mildly depressing turn of events. I'm too alert to metaphors to be joyful about opening an excessive number of consumer goods under a drooping, desiccated husk dropping needles on wrapping paper made of... dead trees. It's enough to make a person consider getting a fake tree.
So this year, in the hopes of choosing a more robust, fragrant specimen, I spoke to Roger Preuss of the Equinox Valley Nursery in Manchester, Vermont.
Select Your Type
At our local Christmas tree stand here in Brooklyn, we have two choices: A Balsam fir or Fraser fir. While there are obviously other types of trees (Douglas firs, Scotch Pines, Norway Spruces) on the market, "the Balsam and the Fraser are the favourites. They retain their sap at a higher rate than the spruce or the pine, which will dry out faster," says Preuss. "The Frasier is the Cadillac of Christmas trees - it has dark green needles and a silver underside."
Choose When It's Cut (If You Can)
"Choose a grower that will cut the tree on your time frame," says Preuss. Obviously a farm that will cut the tree when you're there is best; if that isn't an option, go to a garden centre that you trust and has been using the same growers for some time. Preuss's nursery buys from a grower that guarantees the trees are cut no earlier than mid-November. "When they're cut is very important," says Preuss. "You want one that's been cut after two hard frosts, which solidifies the sap." Though frost doesn't apply is Australia's summer Christmas, it's still a good idea to look for a tree that's been recently cut. Many sellers will cut as early as October and stand the trees in water or manure bins, which means they won't last as long in your living room.
Check the Needles
Many trees are precut, so Preuss recommends asking for a fresh cut: Have the seller slice off an inch or two off the bottom right before you take it home. "And check the needle drop," he says. "Shake it and bounce it. A few needles will fall out," but it shouldn't rain needles - a giveaway that the tree was cut too long ago to last the season. (And an old, dry tree is also more of a fire hazard than a fresh tree.)
Consider Your Shape and Branch Strength
Some trees have been sheared, but other growers leave the tree "open" for a more natural effect. You need to consider your ornament strategy here: If you have a tree with a lot of dense, floppy branches, you might have a hard time getting your ornaments to stay on without drooping. Again, the Fraser fir has sturdier branches for ornaments than, say, the Balsam fir.
Keeping It Fresh Until December 25
Preuss recommends two strategies for keeping your tree free and fragrant until Christmas. One is a product called Prolong, a Christmas tree preservative. It isn't available in Australia, however there are alternative preservatives available. The second is 4L of hot water with a cup of dissolved sugar as your tree's first "drink". "The capillaries in the tree will start to absorb water immediately," says Pruess. "And keep the reservoir filled with water," which will keep your tree as damp as it can be, especially in a hot and dry living room.
This year, I'm taking Preuss's advice - or at least as much as I can without a nearby Christmas tree farm. And if all else fails, we can always go fake.