The Christmas tree is the most important decoration that you will buy over the festive season, and should be the star of the show in any household.
However, before rushing out and buying the first one you see, heed this advice on what to look for, the best variety to choose, and how to care for your selected seasonal spruce.
How to buy a Christmas tree
The British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) estimates that six million real Christmas trees are sold in the UK each year, so make sure the tree you are choosing is sustainable and eco-friendly.
Where possible, ‘buy direct from the grower,’ says Nick Hendy, manager at Langford Lakes Christmas tree farm. ‘Go to the farm and see where the trees come from. Many growers make the process a real festive experience, with mince pies and mulled wine, and in some cases, you’ll even choose your tree before it comes out of the ground.’
Unfortunately, if you buy a Christmas tree from a seller rather than a grower, there is no way to guarantee that the tree you are buying is eco-friendly. Check it comes from a member of the BCTGA to guarantee it is British grown. An imported tree will have been out of the ground for longer, so will probably begin to drop its needles earlier. It will also have likely travelled from Scandinavia, increasing its carbon footprint.
How to test if your Christmas tree is fresh
- A fresh tree will have a healthy, shiny green appearance, with needles that are flexible and do not fall easily. Check this by dropping it lightly on its stump; evergreens lose needles all year, but if it drops more than a few, it is not fresh.
- Compare the weight of similar-sized trees on sale: fresh, good-quality trees will normally be heavier.
- Avoid pre-wrapped stock as you cannot properly assess the shape, width or quality, and measure exactly the ceiling height of the room where the tree will be placed – there may be an allowance of up to 15cm on the measurement shown on the tag. Factor in, too, the dimensions of the stand, which will add to the overall height.
- Aim to buy, or collect, your tree no more than three weeks before Christmas Day, but leave it outdoors until two weeks before at least, in order to keep it at its maximum freshness.
How to maintain a Christmas tree
Once you have the tree home, cut approximately 1–2cm off the stump using a handsaw, before standing it in a pail of fresh water, in a cool, shaded area. When it is brought indoors, mount the tree in a water-holding stand, and place away from any heat source, such as a radiator.
Once it is unwrapped, allow the branches to settle before decorating them. Keep the container regularly topped up with water, as the tree will consume a surprising amount. This will help it to maintain its sheen and needles.
Choosing a sustainable Christmas tree
An eco-friendly Christmas tree should be farmed in such a way that it has a positive impact on the surrounding environment. Members of the BCTGA have strict guidelines to follow on where they buy their seeds, what pesticides and herbicides to use and how to harvest their trees.
‘The use of herbicides and pesticides is unavoidable on any farm,’ says Nick Hendy, manager at Langford Lakes Christmas tree farm. ‘However, what farmers can do to minimise the impact of chemicals on wildlife, while also maximising the chance of a large crop, is timing when to use those chemicals. We use chemicals early in the year, when wildlife and insects haven’t moved into the forests, so that the chemicals don’t impact upon them.’
Only a small percentage of a Christmas tree farm is felled every year. This means that there is a constantly changing but permanent eco-system in which British wildlife can thrive. One condition of a BCTGA membership is that trees can’t be felled if there are animals nesting in them. As all felling occurs close to Christmas, it is very rare that it impacts upon the resident wildlife or the farm production itself.
Real Christmas trees vs synthetic trees
Christmas tree farmers are naturally passionate on this subject. ‘Synthetic Christmas trees have a trail of carbon leading as far away as China and once you’re finished with them, they can’t be recycled,’ says Jeremy Aves, owner of Deliver Me a Christmas Tree. ‘Real Christmas trees, however, are a completely renewable resource. For every harvested tree, a new sapling is planted.’ The BCTGA code of practice also dictates that all growers need to replace any trees harvested by at least one sapling.
A real Christmas tree needs to be transported from farm to house, so even if grown locally, it will still have a small carbon footprint; however, they have a 10-to-15-year lifespan, during which time they are absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.There is an estimated 12,000 hectares of Christmas tree farms providing this natural benefit in the UK.
If you already have a synthetic tree, maintain it as best you can and use it for as long as possible, thereby minimising its impact on the environment before it goes to landfill.
How to recycle a Christmas tree
Most local authorities run a tree recycling service, or members of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (bctga.co.uk) will recycle them free of charge. Alternatively, cut up the wood and season it for at least a year to use as firewood, or chip it to use on garden borders.
Planting your Christmas tree
If a live tree to plant afterwards is what you’re looking for, go for a pot-grown version. For this, there are essentially three main types:
These are trees that have been prepared so that they can be dug up, ideally with a full root system. In practice, this is often difficult to do and, because they have no soil around the roots, the trees must be freshly harvested. Bare root trees still need potting up and, although they remain fresher than a cut tree, usually have only a slim chance of re-establishment if planted in the ground after Christmas.
If you see trees described as ‘potted’, this simply means they have been lifted from the ground (usually as bare root stock) and plunged into a pot; the chances of root damage are high, and survival low.
Having spent most, if not their entire, lifespan in a pot, these trees come with a good root system. As long as they are kept cool and the compost damp, they should survive the rigours of Christmas and are the best option if you intend to keep or establish them in the garden. They are usually quite small specimens (seldom more than one metre) and can be more expensive.
After Christmas, pot-grown trees can either be planted out with a very good chance of success, or left to grow on in the pot. If choosing the latter option, re-pot the tree into a larger pot in late winter, using a soil-based John Innes potting compost. This can be done annually, until the tree reaches the maximum size that can be moved comfortably.
If planting the tree in the ground, acclimatise it first in a sheltered spot and keep it well watered. Most Christmas tree species ultimately grow to form very large specimens, frequently reaching a height of about 15-20m within 20 years.
Tip: As with any Christmas tree, delay as long as possible before bringing living trees indoors. Aim to keep them in the house for no longer than 12 days, but be guided by the tree – if it looks unhappy, then put it back outside.
Different types of Christmas tree
Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana)
Since the 1990s, the Nordmann fir, with its highly acclaimed ‘non-drop’ needles, has become the UK’s bestseller. It remains a more expensive option on account of the time it takes to grow, but with its citrus smell, and lovely soft needles, it is a great option for families with young children. The reliably triangular shape tends to be slightly more open and less dense than Norway spruce, so it is ideal for those who prefer baubles and other hanging decorations aplenty.
Norway spruce (Picea abies)
Although the Norway spruce accounts for just 10 to 15 per cent of UK sales, it remains the ‘traditional’ species for the British Christmas tree. Its triangular shape, dark green needles, gently drooping branches and distinctive ‘pine’ fragrance are the very essence of Christmas, and its dense bushy shape is excellent for decorating. It is also quite cheap when compared to other options. It does tend to shed its needles quite freely, however, particularly as the festive season progresses. Offset this by bringing it inside later than other varieties; keep it well watered and away from direct heat sources.
Blue spruce (Picea pungens)
Related to the Norway spruce, this is one of the most attractive Christmas trees, with a good natural shape, and distinguished by the striking blue-green – sometimes almost electric blue – needles. These are very sharp, however, so take care when handling it. Although its foliage is slower to drop than that of the Norway spruce, it is not a non-drop option. It does have a wonderfully distinctive ‘pine’ scent, and is so attractive that it commands attention even before it has been decorated.
Noble fir (Abies procera)
Introduced into Britain in 1830, noble fir is a native of the forests of Washington and Oregon, where it grows to a great height. Although it is thick stemmed, which can make it difficult to use with a tree stand, it has lovely, well-spaced foliage.
Fraser fir (Abies fraseri)
A new entry to Christmas trees in the UK, the blue-green Fraser fir is very popular in the eastern United States, and its narrower shape makes it ideal for smaller spaces. With dense foliage, it’s not ideal for bauble devotees, but with a minimalist approach, and plain lights, it can make a wonderful centrepiece.