Finding the best Christmas tree for you
• Scotch pine has medium-length needles that are green to blue in color. Some popular characteristics of the Scotch are its excellent needle retention and sturdy branches for homes with heavy ornaments.
• Austrian pine has a dense growth habit and sports long, dark green needles. The boughs are quite strong and will withstand large, heavy ornaments.
• White pine has long, soft needles that are blue-green in color with a white hue. This tree works best for smaller intricate ornaments and lights as its branches will droop under too much weight. The white pine retains its needles very well. Note: Allergy sufferers have been known to have no adverse reaction to the white pine.
• Fraser fir is known for its fragrant smell, and it has short, strong, soft needles with a silver underbelly and is dark green on top. It has sturdy boughs and long-lasting needle retention.
• Artificial trees available online and in stores range in price from $20 to $1,399, with otherwise hard-to-find varieties including upside-down trees, palm trees, and Christmas trees in fall colors of maple, brown and gold.
Picking out a real Christmas tree, getting it home and keeping it fresh takes a little bit of work.
First, there is the variety of trees you have to choose from in Douglas County: locally grown Scotch pines, prickly white pines, and Fraser firs imported from Wisconsin. In the tree lots, families can be heard disputing which trees are too short, which are too tall and whether a tree in question is flat on one side. Whichever you choose, it’s likely to cost you at least $40. Then, once you get it home, you must water it to keep the needles from falling off and figure out what to do with it when the holiday is over.
Why all the bother, when you can buy an artificial tree at Walmart for $20?
For Gilbert Gonzales, of Topeka, and his family, it’s a fun tradition.
“It’s the nostalgia of it,” Gonzales said while having a fir tree loaded onto his car at Strawberry Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Lawrence on Saturday. For years, he has been bringing his children to Strawberry Hill, re-creating a holiday activity from his own childhood. Two of his sons are now grown, and he learned long ago to pre-empt any internal disagreements. Each year, it’s a different family member’s turn to pick the tree. This year, it was his wife’s turn, and in four years the task will fall to his son, Ian, who is not yet 2 years old.
“It’s kind of silly, but we make a competition out of it,” Gonzales said. “Sometimes, when we get it home, it barely fits in the house.”
Strawberry Hill owners Eric and Lynn Walther are on their third generation of visitors. They try to keep things as people remember them, down to putting out black-and-white cookies and apple cider in the same spot every year.
Like most Christmas tree growers in the area, Strawberry Hill was hurt by this year’s drought, but most customers won’t see those effects for six or seven years, when this year’s saplings are supposed to be full-grown. Lynn said they were short of trees this year because of drought years from the last decade, but they imported the usual varieties from Wisconsin and North Carolina to stay in business.
Owners of other Christmas tree farms in the area, such as Prairie Elf Christmas Trees, 765 East 750 Road, and Evening Star Pines in Eudora, or Topeka’s Boresow’s Country Pines and HalfDay Creek Christmas Tree Farm, or Pine Apple Farm in Grantville, said their stock was largely unaffected by drought, and it was the busy season as usual starting Friday.
Picking out a tree
When it comes to choosing and caring for a suitable specimen, most Christmas tree farmers will advise you the same as Catherine Wright Howard, publisher and editor-in-chief of Christmas Trees Magazine, an industry journal based in Lecompton.
A lot of time and effort can be saved, Howard said, by first measuring your tree stand and living room so you can check the base and height of a tree and make sure it will fit. If you are having a live tree cut down, you know it will be fresh, so all that leaves is to make sure the top of the tree will fit whatever ornament you have in mind for it.
If you are buying a pre-cut tree in a store, Howard said, you can check a tree’s freshness by running one of its branches through your fingers. If needles fall off, it might be too dry. Or you can bend one needle between your fingers. If it bends, that’s good. If it breaks, that’s bad.
Prices at most tree farms in the area range from $40 to $100, with some growers charging by the foot. Generally, the Fraser firs and Normandy firs hauled down from Wisconsin cost at least $10 more than locally grown pines. If the price seems a little steep, or the tree has a bad side, Howard advised, “talk to the farmer and see if he’ll knock a few dollars off. ”
Also, if you can wait until the week before the big day, you might be able to pick up a late bargain. Howard said she once bought a tree for $25 a few days before Christmas.
Caring for the tree once it’s in your house is fairly simple, Howard said. The only thing to do is put the tree in water immediately and keep watering it daily. If the tree is pre-cut, you’ll need to cut a few inches from the base so that it has a fresh surface to drink from. Any tree will drink a lot of water in the first few days, Howard said, so that might mean adding water two or three times a day. Without that water, the tree will quickly dry and litter needles all over your floor.
Every farmer has heard from customers that plan to help the water along by spiking it with artificial additives, sugar, soft drinks, aspirin, or even Clorox. But it’s been the experience of Richard Reese, owner of Pine Apple Farm, that additives like that hinder rather than help.
“Keep the aspirin for your headache, put the sugar in your cereal, get the tree in the water,” he said. “And you’re good to go.”
The city of Lawrence will pick up discarded Christmas trees from Dec. 31 to Jan. 7. Residents are asked to remove all lights and ornaments and set the tree out before 6 a.m.