Bagging the wily Christmas tree: Why, where, how to cut your own
Puget Sound growers and local families tell about the cut-your-own Christmas tree tradition, and offer tips.
Special to The Seattle Times
Many varieties from which to choose
Trees that keep the longest indoors are from the genus Abies, also called "true firs." These include:
Grand fir — A Northwest native, reputed to have the strongest aroma of all Christmas trees. It is easily distinguished from other Pacific Northwest firs by its sprays of lustrous needles in two distinct rows. They are usually horizontally spread so that both the upper and lower sides of the branches are clearly visible. The needles are 1 to 1 ½ inches long with glossy dark-green tops and two highly visible white lines of stomata on the undersides.
Noble fir — Another Northwest native, and the top of the line. Good natural branch spacing for ornaments. The needles are roughly 4-sided, over 1 inch long, bluish-green to silver in appearance. Needles are generally twisted upward so that the lower surface of branches are exposed.
Turkish and Nordmann Firs — Originated in Turkey. Narrower trunks, good needle retention. Soft black-green needles are borne on symmetrically arranged branches. Popular Christmas trees in Europe.
Other popular varieties:
Douglas fir — The Northwest's traditional Christmas tree. In nature it is "leggy;" as a Christmas tree, it often has a pruned look. The needles are dark green or blue-green, 1 to 1 ½ inches long, soft to the touch and radiating out in all directions from the branch.
Fraser fir — Needles are ½ to 1 inch long, with a broad circular base, and are usually dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the lower surface.
Norway spruce — Trees have a dark-green crown with a triangular shape. Needles are four-sided, ½ to 1 inch long, and sharp or somewhat blunt at the tip.
Scotch pine — Known for its stiff branches that are well suited for decorating with both light and heavy ornaments. The needles are produced in bundles of two, ranging from slightly over 1 inch to nearly 3 inches. Color ranges from bright green to dark green to bluish tones.
Shasta fir — A hybrid of noble fir and California red fir. Highly desired because of its attractive form and color and ability to keep its needles.
Sitka spruce — Needles are 5/8 to 1 inch long, sharp-pointed, flattened and thin, with two whitish bands on each side. They extend from all sides of branch.
Source: National Christmas Tree Association (www.realchristmastrees.org) and other sources
Keeping it freshWatering tips for your Christmas tree
Talk about a Big Gulp — the convenience store has nothing on your Christmas tree, which will suck up water like a big straw after you separate it from Mother Earth.
"You are keeping it alive," explains Renee Brooks, a research tree physiologist in Corvallis, Ore. Water is pulled through the "tracheids" in the trunk — a series of tubes formed by the dead wood cells. That feeds the needles, keeping the outer ones supple and attached. But once those tracheids dry out or get clogged with sap, the tree will no longer draw water.
Her basic advice: "Cut the bottom off when you get it home and leave [the tree outside] in a reservoir of water for 24 hours to keep it at its freshest." Use a big bucket — it will drink heavily.
"If you cut down your own tree, you can easily keep it from Thanksgiving on," she says. "A properly tended tree could be safe until New Year's."
Her tips on keeping your tree fresh:
• Cut a fresh slice off the base of the trunk when you get it home.
• Plunge it immediately into a large bucket of water.
• Leave it outside for 24 hours after cutting.
• Use a tree stand that holds at least a gallon of water.
• Get the tree in the stand with water within a half-hour of bringing it in the house.
• Don't place the tree near a fireplace, and close any heating vents near the tree.
• Check and refill the water every day.
It must be the magic of Christmas that makes us see trees differently, when we pine to drag one indoors and cover it in sparkles. And for true Christmas tree-huggers, cutting down our own fresh tree is a holiday tradition.
The act is especially meaningful to share with your children, says Ashley Steel, Bellevue mother of Logan, 8 and Zoey, 11. "I want them to understand that it's really a tree. It's not a decoration, like a blowup Santa on the front lawn."
Although Steel's youth didn't include a holiday tree cutting, her husband, Bill Richards, says it was a big part of his family's Christmas. "That's how I grew up, bundling up to go out to the woods, walking around and choosing the perfect tree, and watching my father cut it down," he says. "When it's being cut, that's when the smell comes out."
Carolyn Elliott of Auburn's Trees 'n Bees has been in the tree-farming business 38 years, and she's seen many families begin and perpetuate their tradition. Last year she chatted with the grandmother of a three-generation group. "She said, we're celebrating our thirty-fifth year of coming to your tree farm."
Elliott says it's mostly families with children who make the trek out to the farm rather than the more efficient visit to a neighborhood tree lot.
The Steel-Richards household has been loyal to Christmas Creek Tree Farm since their children were old enough to enjoy the process. It's near North Bend, where Richards works, and "there's Santa there, and huge, delicious cookies, and free hot chocolate and cider," says Steel, "so it becomes a fun family outing as opposed to a shopping trip."
The tree is not the only attraction. "One little girl said 'I want to go out to the farm and see the real Santa,' " recalls Lynn Douglass, co-owner, with her husband, Don, of Christmas Creek. Besides their famous guest, the farm offers hayrides and a warming fireplace in the shop.
It's a scene reproduced at many of the 50 or so Puget Sound-area tree farms, including Trees 'n Bees, where shoppers may be treated to impromptu piano concerts by Elliott's granddaughter.
Walking the trees
The first step in getting your tree is to walk the farm and eye the trees. This can result in much family negotiating and, yes, even bickering.
"Some will alternate, if one likes a tight tree and another an open one," Elliott says. "Other families draw straws. Some will have arguments out in the fields — we stay away from that."
Richards recalls negotiations with his sister over who had the better tree. "You have to compromise with other people in your family," he says, "because they also chose the perfect tree."
Today, his girls are each asked to choose a favorite tree. "There's several iterations — this one's the best, oh, no, it's this one," Richards explains. "And then there's discussion: Are the branches far enough apart that you can hang decorations? Are there enough branches? Everyone buys off on it, and then we cut that one down."
Their girls have become veteran tree choosers, Steel says. Sometimes, they decide on a "Charlie Brown tree" that they think nobody else would want, and "we bring it home and it looks beautiful," she says. "And of course we watch the show."
Size also needs to come into the discussion, says Elliott of Trees 'n Bees.
"Keep in mind that the tree grows a foot after you cut it," she tells shoppers, responding to their perplexed looks by reminding them that "you have to have a tree stand. If you have an eight-foot ceiling, you need a seven-foot tree."
Logistics of the cut-and-carry
Elliott's first advice is to "bring boots and hats and gloves." It will be cold, possibly rainy and wet, and usually, defying her best efforts, the ground will get muddy.
Trees mature enough to cut are tagged with color-coded ribbon or with prices. Some people are surprised at the higher cost of trees on the farm, but Richards says, "I think it's worth it for the experience." Small trees might start at $50 and large trees of very desirable varieties (see sidebar) can easily go for twice that price.
The farm will provide a bow saw to cut down the tree. The d-shaped saw is pretty safe, says Elliott, as long as you don't grab it by the blade or let the kids swing it around.
She advises people to cut the trunk low to the ground, at an angle away from themselves. If the saw gets bound up during cutting, one person can hold the tree and tilt it away from the cut.
After it's down, you need to drag or cart it to the tree- farm staff, who will prepare it for you to take it home.
Most tree farms will "shake" the tree for you, to dislodge any little critters, bugs, dead needles or other things that you wouldn't want to bring into your living room.
Then they will "bale" the tree, wrapping it in twine or netting for easier transport, and may provide twine for you to tie it to your car. This can lead to some head-scratching moments.
"People will tie the tree onto the car without leaving themselves a way to get back into the car," says Elliott. "It happens at least once every year."
She's also seen people roll down the back windows of the car and leave with the tree's crown sticking out one side and the trunk out the other.
She even had a customer wedge the trunk of his tree behind the rear bumper of his Jeep and drive away with it sticking straight up.
Bill Thorness, a Seattle freelance writer, is the author of "Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden." Contact: email@example.com.
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