Hold On to Your Needles

Millions of Americans will head out between now and Christmas to purchase a fresh Christmas tree, but the process can be a bit daunting to the first-time tree buyer. How do you know which species to buy? Where should you buy it? How do you keep it from carpeting your living room in needles?

Trees are available to purchase at a variety of locations, including right from the farm, from a large chain store or from a garden center. You can even buy a tree online and have it delivered, although the National Christmas Tree Association said those sales are still negligible compared to other outlets.

In 2012, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the association, about half of the people who bought trees got them from either a cut-your-own farm or a large chain store, like Lowe’s or Wal-Mart. The rest purchased trees at garden centers, retail lots or from a nonprofit organization.

The freshest trees obviously come right from the farm. In the Ohio Valley, residents have at least two Christmas tree farms from which to choose: Wierzbicki’s in Lansing and Feisley’s in Belmont, both of which are established, longtime family businesses.

Customers can wander the fields until they find the tree they like. Then they either cut it themselves or tag it and have a farm employee cut it for them.

“We only have about 20 people who cut their own trees,” said Wierzbicki’s owner Antonia Wierzbicki, who is 96 and has been in the business for 65 years ever since her late husband, Ted, started it. Four generations are now involved in the business.

If you’re going to cut your own tree, Wierzbicki’s provides manual saws to use: No power saws allowed. When choosing a tree, she recommends people first and foremost look at the trunk to make sure it will fit the stand they are planning to use and to ensure it isn’t crooked.

She grows eight varieties but said the three most popular are Fraser firs, Canaan firs and Concolor firs, the latter of which have very soft, long needles that smell of citrus. Scotch pine is also a good seller because it is inexpensive. Scotch pine, in fact, is the top seller nationwide, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, followed by Douglas fir, white pine and balsam fir.

Wierzbicki said it’s best to cut a tree as late as possible. At her farm, customers can come as early as September to tag their trees, then have them cut in December. In recent years, she has sold trees as early as two weeks before Thanksgiving, but she doesn’t recommend it.

Wierzbicki’s also has pre-cut trees for sale. The advantage of buying one of these trees is it was cut recently, right there at the farm – not weeks beforehand like at most retail centers.

Even trees that were cut a month ago, however, will retain their needles right through the New Year, said Nikki Lenz, co-owner with her husband, P.J., of Nicky’s Garden Center in Woodsdale, Wheeling. Nicky’s sells only Fraser firs because they “have the best needle retention, have a great fragrance, are nice and easy to decorate, they’re soft, and they’re long lasting.” Nicky’s Frasers come from a farm in North Carolina.

The key to retaining needles, Lenz said, is to put a fresh cut on the trunk – a service they provide at Nicky’s – and to make sure the tree always has water. The tree association noted a tree could suck up a gallon of water in one day. It can withstand only a couple of hours without water before the drying out process begins.

“Where the cut is, it’s a wound and (without water) it will heal over with sap. The sap will prevent (more) water from coming up,” Lenz explained. Once the tree is decorated, you’re probably not going to be able to put another fresh cut on the bottom of the trunk without removing the decorations. As a last-ditch effort, Lenz said drilling holes in the trunk could allow water to seep in.

“We just recommend that you don’t let it dry out.”

Lenz said when picking out a tree, consumers should look for one that has pliable branches and looks healthy and fresh. The tree association also recommends running a hand along a branch to see if many needles come off. Other things to watch out for, according to the association: discolored foliage, musty odor and wrinkled bark.

“A good rule-of-thumb is, when in doubt about the freshness of a tree, select another one. If none of the trees on the lot looks fresh, go to another lot,” the association states on its website, www.realchristmastrees.org.

Lenz said this weekend and next weekend likely will be their busiest of the season, and she projects sales will peak on Dec. 14. “After that, it trickles down, but we’re still selling on Christmas eve,” she said.