If you're looking for advice on how to keep a Christmas tree alive, you've probably had your fair share of Christmas tree woes, like most people. Real Christmas trees are a non-negotiable element of Christmas decorating for many of us – there's just something incomparably wonderful about the feel and smell of real trees that not even the most realistic artificial tree can quite match.
However, if your Christmas tree ideas include a real tree, it's worth doing your research on properly caring for one before you bring it home.
How to keep a Christmas tree alive
Understanding how keep a Christmas tree alive will make the difference between a tree that still looks crisp and fresh well into December (and possibly even January), and one that starts dropping its needles soon after you've bought it. Here are the crucial steps for making sure your real Christmas tree lasts.
1. Choose the freshest tree you can
This is probably the single most important step – even with the best care, a Christmas tree that wasn't fresh when you bought it will die in your house pretty soon.
Learning how to choose a Christmas tree is key – in a nutshell, check that its needles aren't falling off and that the branches feel soft and supple, not brittle. Christmas tree expert Mary Dimitrova from Fantastic Services (opens in new tab), adds that the needles should be 'bright and shiny needles, not dry and dull. If you notice any grey sections, that's a sign of dehydration, which means that the tree is not that fresh.'
Dimitrova adds that 'If the trunk is sticky and there is any sap residue the tree is fresh. Also, the tree should be heavy, which means the tree is freshly cut and still contains all the water.'
2. Work out the best position for your tree
You'll need to decide where you tree will go in your home well before you've bought one, because the precise spot will determine the size of tree you're able to get.
Real Christmas trees stay alive for a good couple of weeks inside your house, so you'll want to provide yours with an environment that's as close to what a live tree would need as possible.
And what do Christmas trees like? Plenty of moisture at the root and cool air, ideally out of scorching sunlight. Indoors this translates into a spot as far away from sources of heat as possible. Never position your Christmas tree next to radiators – your tree will dry out and die. Deemer Cass, a horticulturist and Christmas tree expert at Fantastic Gardeners, points out that the same goes for 'stoves, air conditioners, air ducts – basically, anything that generates heat is a no-no.'
3. Decide on the best tree stand
There are several types of tree stands, many of which you can shop at Amazon (opens in new tab), to help set up a Christmas tree properly but the most important factor is whether or not the Christmas tree stand has a container for water or not. It is fine to get one that only holds the tree trunk in order to keep the tree upright, but your tree will not last as long, so only get this type if you are only planning on buying your tree right before Christmas.
If you want your tree to last several weeks, you will need a tree stand that will hold water. Powder-coated steel is best both for durability and for keeping your tree alive longer, as water is less likely to go rancid in a steel container than in a plastic one.
4. Consider a tree-preserving solution
Opinions differ on whether or not it is beneficial to put anything in the water your tree will be standing in. Some people swear by putting a little sugar in the water, or lemon juice, or vinegar. You can also buy a Christmas tree preservative (opens in new tab) solution that will aid the tree's water absorption, although you'll have to put it in as soon as you've got your tree to see any results. A tree that has already begun dying will not be brought back to life by any concoction, homemade or otherwise.
Also bear in mind that if you have pets that like to drink water from the Christmas tree container, you should avoid adding anything to it. Commercially formulated tree preservatives are toxic to pets.
5. Trim the tree trunk before putting the tree in water
According to the RHS (opens in new tab), you should 'cut a couple of inches off the bottom of the tree to make a “fresh cut” and stand the tree in a bucket of water for a couple of days to allow it to draw up water.' Making a fresh cut aids water absorption, and keeping your tree outside for a couple of days will make sure it takes up as much water as possible before you bring it in. This reduces the chances of your tree going into shock and not taking up water if there's a big difference between outdoor and indoor temperatures.
6. Top up with water regularly
This step is essential if you want your real tree to survive indoors. Whether yours is a cut tree, potted tree, or container-grown tree, it will need daily watering. The precise amount of water will vary depending on the size of your tree, but the National Christmas Tree Association (opens in new tab) provides a general guideline: one litre of water per every inch of the tree trunk diameter. In practice, this can work out to be a gallon (4-5 litres) of water a day.
7. Check how your tree is doing, often
A healthy, fresh tree that is cared for properly should remain in good condition for around 12 days – longer if all the conditions have been met for it to thrive. If your tree is dropping needles excessively after only a few days indoors, something isn't right.
Run your hand gently through a branch – if needles are dropping, you may need to move your tree to a cooler spot, or water it more. Dimitrova advises to 'keep the room as cool as possible and move your tree to the darkest spot of the room.'
It may also be a good idea to trim off some of the bottom branches from a tree that's not doing very well – this 'will reduce the number of water-requiring branches.'
8. Move a potted tree outside every once in a while
Yes, moving your tree outside to give it a bit of a 'recharge' is useful, especially if you're planning to keep yours longer than 12 days. Cass advises against keeping a potted tree indoors 'for more than 12 days at a time as it will slowly start dying.' The best thing to do is to 'move your tree outside every 10-12 days for around 24-30 hours. Once that time has passed and the tree has recharged you will be able to once again bring the tree back inside for another week and a half.'
If your tree is container-grown, there's good news – after the holidays, you can move it outdoors permanently. Potted trees that were dug up and placed in a container are best replanted in your garden.
Can you overwater a real Christmas tree?
This depends on whether yours is a cut tree, or a potted tree. With cut trees, according to Dimitrova, 'you can’t overwater your tree, it will absorb only as much as it wants.'
If you have a container-grown or potted tree and water is left standing in the saucer, you are overwatering, and your tree could die from 'trench foot'. Reduce watering tif you see this problem.
Why is my tree not taking up water?
This usually results from an incorrectly made cut on the trunk. According to SF Gate (opens in new tab), 'the cut must be at least ¼ of an inch up the trunk in order to remove the section with the dried sap.' You then have a limited time window, usually around six hours, for your tree to start drawing up water before the cut has resealed with sap. Put your tree in water straight away, or the cut may seal up before you've had the chance to hydrate your tree.