For many Iowans, decorating their homes with a live Christmas tree serves as an important holiday tradition. While artificial trees can be a time saving alternative, the charm of a cut tree cannot be replicated for some. However, as Aaron Steil, consumer horticulture specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach explains, it is important to follow a few simple guidelines for Christmas tree selection, care and disposal to ensure an enjoyable and safe holiday season.

As Steil explains in an article for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Horticulture and Home Pest News, Christmas trees are available from both cut-your-own tree farms and commercial lots. Pre-cut trees purchased from commercial lots may be local or may be shipped from out of state. For those looking to purchase a local tree, the Iowa Christmas Tree Association website provides a list of Christmas tree farms across the state.

Many species of Christmas tree are available in both local farms and in commercial lots. “Tree species commonly available at tree farms and commercial lots in Iowa include Scotch pine, white pine, red pine, Fraser fir, balsam fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, white spruce and Colorado spruce,” adds Steil. “The species you select will depend on attributes like color, shape, needle retention, aroma and branch stiffness (to hold up heavy ornaments).” Visit Horticultural and Home Pest News for more information on the attributes of these species.

Before selecting a tree, it is important to consider where the tree will be placed within the home. “Be sure to choose a location away from heat sources, such as a fireplace or radiator.  Also, decide on the size (height and width) of the tree you want,” explains Steil. “Remembe, a tree in a field or outdoor lot will not look as tall or wide as it will in your home. Bring a tape measure with you to ensure it will fit.”

While trees from cut-your-own farms are obviously fresh, trees from commercial lots may be cut, shipped and then stored for weeks before arriving in the lot, so it is important to check these trees for freshness. Needles on a fresh tree should be pliable, while those on a dry tree will be brittle. While it is normal for a tree to drop a few needles, heavy needle drop also can be an indication of a dry tree.

After purchasing a tree, it is important to get the tree into water as quickly as possible. Before bringing the tree into the house, remove an inch or more from the bottom of the trunk to facilitate water uptake. “Avoid shaving the sides of the trunk down to fit in the stand as the outer layer of the trunk just under the bark is where most of the water is taken up,” adds Steil.

The most important factor in caring for a cut tree is providing enough water. To ensure a cut tree lives for as long as possible, use a tree stand with a large water reservoir and check water levels frequently, at least once or twice a day. As Steil explains, it is best to use clear, plain water, as additives such as sugar or molasses provide no benefit to the tree.

After the holidays, Christmas trees can be disposed of or recycled in many ways. It is important not to burn Christmas trees. “Dry, evergreen branches literally explode when burned and could cause a house fire.  Also, burning the tree may contribute to the buildup of creosote and lead to a flue fire,” warns Steil.

One creative way to recycle a Christmas tree is to place it in the yard or garden for use by birds and other wildlife. Trees also can be chipped for mulch and pruned boughs can be placed over perennials for winter protection. Otherwise, local government offices typically offer Christmas tree disposal programs either at central collection points or curbside. In Ames, Christmas trees can be dropped off following the holidays for free and will be recycled into chips for city parks.

For more information, visit Christmas Tree FAQs.

Aaron J. Steil
Consumer Horticulture Extension Specialist

Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

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