Want to choose a Christmas tree you'll be proud of and that won't be a) mostly bare from waist height upwards, b) wonky or c) half dead by Christmas Eve? Of course you do: your Christmas tree is the most important decoration you'll buy over the festive season, so you'll want it to be the star of the show.
But if you tend to end up with the short, fat tree or the spindly, leaning Christmas tree, perhaps you need a little help before you buy this year's?
Whether you're after an artificial tree or a fresh, real one, we've got some expert advice on what to look for, the best variety to choose, and how to care for your selected seasonal spruce so your Christmas tree is the star of the show (not the understudy).
- Check out our dedicated Christmas page for more Crimbo inspo
1. Should you choose a real or artificial Christmas tree?
This is a decision that largely comes down to personal preference. Some of us can't forego the smell of pine and asymmetry of a real spruce, whereas others would prefer to invest in a no-fuss artificial tree that can be lugged down from the loft year after year.
When it comes to sustainability, this tends to divide people too. Many will argue that being made of plastic, an artificial tree can never be sustainable, however some companies make their trees out of recycled plastics (check out Lomos). There is still the argument about what you do with a plastic tree when it reaches the end of its life, as it inevitably will, after many years of use.
A responsibly-sourced real tree is carbon neutral, taking as much carbon dioxide from the environment as its production and transportation creates. Christmas tree farmers also plant a sapling in the place of every felled tree, and don't forget that a used tree can be recycled. If you're looking for a good green option (in more ways than one) then the suggestion is to buy directly from the grower (if you can)! This means you won't have to add transportation to the seller into the tree's carbon footprint.
An eco-friendly Christmas tree should be farmed in such a way that it has a positive impact on the surrounding environment. Members of the BCTGA have strict guidelines to follow on where they buy their seeds, what pesticides and herbicides to use and how to harvest their trees. Where use of pesticides is unavoidable, farmers will use chemicals early in the year when wildlife and insects haven't moved into the forests.
Only a small percentage of a Christmas tree farm is felled every year. This means that there is a constantly changing but permanent eco-system in which British wildlife can thrive. One condition of a BCTGA membership is that trees can’t be felled if there are animals nesting in them. As all felling occurs close to Christmas, it is very rare that it impacts upon the resident wildlife or the farm production itself.
A real Christmas tree needs to be transported from farm to house, so even if grown locally, it will still have a small carbon footprint; however, they have a 10 to 15 year lifespan, during which time they are absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen.There is an estimated 12,000 hectares of Christmas tree farms providing this natural benefit in the UK.
Also, if you want to avoid needles dropping, a top tip is to check out whether it's British grown. An imported tree will have been out of the ground for longer, so will probably begin to drop its needles earlier.
Another option that's recently become a thing? Renting a real Christmas tree – it comes in a pot so you just have to take care of it while it's in your home; it's then returned after Christmas... until next year.
2. Measure up for your Christmas tree
You probably already know where your Christmas tree will go (same room as every year, right?), but is it the best place? Your Christmas tree is supposed to be the centrepiece of the room where you all gather on Christmas Day, but does that mean it's too close to a fire, blocking an entrance or overwhelming the space? If you ticked 'yes' to one of these questions, it might be worth a rethink.
Once you have settled on a location and before you pick out (or haul the tree from the loft), measure the height, width and depth of the space. Your tree should be at least half a foot shorter than the ceiling to allow clearance for the topper – no one likes a squashed fairy. Allow, too, for space around the tree so that it is not pushed up against the walls or furniture. Slim trees are ideal for narrow spaces, but don't go for anything too spindly, especially if you want an authentic look.
3. Choosing a real Christmas tree
Let's be honest, the smell and authenticity can't be beaten if you want that all round super Christmassy feel in your home. Plus, they can be recycled or seasoned and burnt for fuel so they're a great sustainable option and they're carbon neutral. Expect to be paying up to about £70 for a great quality 8.5 ft tree.
Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana)
Since the 1990s, the Nordmann fir, with its highly acclaimed ‘non-drop’ needles, has become the UK’s bestseller. It remains a more expensive option on account of the time it takes to grow, but with its citrus smell, and lovely soft needles, it is a great option for families with young children. The reliably triangular shape tends to be slightly more open and less dense than Norway spruce, so it is ideal for those who prefer baubles and other hanging decorations aplenty.
Norway spruce (Picea abies)
Although the Norway spruce accounts for just 10 to 15 per cent of UK sales, it remains the ‘traditional’ species for the British Christmas tree. Its triangular shape, dark green needles, gently drooping branches and distinctive ‘pine’ fragrance are the very essence of Christmas, and its dense bushy shape is excellent for decorating. It is also quite cheap when compared to other options. It does tend to shed its needles quite freely, however, particularly as the festive season progresses. Offset this by bringing it inside later than other varieties; keep it well watered and away from direct heat sources.
Blue spruce (Picea pungens)
Related to the Norway spruce, this is one of the most attractive Christmas trees, with a good natural shape, and distinguished by the striking blue-green – sometimes almost electric blue – needles. These are very sharp, however, so take care when handling it. Although its foliage is slower to drop than that of the Norway spruce, it is not a non-drop option. It does have a wonderfully distinctive ‘pine’ scent, and is so attractive that it commands attention even before it has been decorated.
Noble fir (Abies procera)
Introduced into Britain in 1830, noble fir is a native of the forests of Washington and Oregon, where it grows to a great height. Although it is thick stemmed, which can make it difficult to use with a tree stand, it has lovely, well-spaced foliage.
Fraser fir (Abies fraseri)
A new entry to Christmas trees in the UK, the blue-green Fraser fir is very popular in the eastern United States, and its narrower shape makes it ideal for smaller spaces. With dense foliage, it’s not ideal for bauble devotees, but with a minimalist approach, and plain lights, it can make a wonderful centrepiece.
4. How to test if your real Christmas tree is fresh
The trick for knowing if your Christmas tree is fresh is looking out for a healthy, shiny appearance. The needles should be flexible and not fall easily. Check this by dropping lightly on its stump. Evergreens lose needles all year, but if it drops more than a few, it is not fresh. Compare the weight with similar sized trees; good quality trees will be heavier. Aim to buy, or collect, your tree no more than four weeks before Christmas Day, but leave it outdoors until two or three weeks before at least, (if you want to keep it at its maximum freshness).
5. How to maintain a real Christmas tree
Once you have the tree home, cut approximately 1cm to 2cm off the stump using a handsaw, before standing it in a pail of fresh water, in a cool, shaded area. When it is brought indoors, mount the tree in a water-holding stand, and place away from any heat source, such as a radiator.
Once it is unwrapped, allow the branches to settle before decorating them. Keep the container regularly topped up with water, as the tree will consume a surprising amount. This will help it to maintain its sheen and needles.
As with any Christmas tree, delay as long as possible before bringing living trees indoors. Aim to keep them in the house for no longer than 12 days, but be guided by the tree – if it looks unhappy, then put it back outside.
6. How to recycle a real Christmas tree
Most local authorities run a tree recycling service, or members of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association will recycle them free of charge. Alternatively, cut up the wood and season it for at least a year to use as firewood, or chip it to use on garden borders.
7. Re-planting your real Christmas tree
If a live tree to plant afterwards is what you’re looking for, go for a pot-grown version. For this, there are essentially three main types:
These are trees that have been prepared so that they can be dug up, ideally with a full root system. In practice, this is often difficult to do and, because they have no soil around the roots, the trees must be freshly harvested. Bare root trees still need potting up and, although they remain fresher than a cut tree, usually have only a slim chance of re-establishment if planted in the ground after Christmas.
If you see trees described as ‘potted’, this simply means they have been lifted from the ground (usually as bare root stock) and plunged into a pot; the chances of root damage are high, and survival low.
Having spent most, if not their entire, lifespan in a pot, these trees come with a good root system. As long as they are kept cool and the compost damp, they should survive the rigours of Christmas and are the best option if you intend to keep or establish them in the garden. They are usually quite small specimens (seldom more than one metre) and can be more expensive.
After Christmas, pot-grown trees can either be planted out with a very good chance of success, or left to grow on in the pot. If choosing the latter option, re-pot the tree into a larger pot in late winter, using a soil-based John Innes potting compost. This can be done annually, until the tree reaches the maximum size that can be moved comfortably.
If planting the tree in the ground, acclimatise it first in a sheltered spot and keep it well watered. Most Christmas tree species ultimately grow to form very large specimens, frequently reaching a height of about 15m to 20m within 20 years.
8. How to choose the best artificial Christmas tree
When you shop for an artificial tree in person, you can easily judge the look and strength of the product in front of you, but this isn't possible when buying online.
Fortunately, top-quality brands like Balsam Hill will allow you to order samples from their website. This helps you check the actual texture against what you think you see in the picture. If you can't order a sample, always look at a close-up photo and check reviews where available.
Best branches: which type and material?
The very best trees have bristles that are barely distinguishable from real branches. These tend to be made from a material called PE plastic (or polyethylene). The PE can be injection-moulded into needles to mimic the feel and colouration of real foliage.
Cheaper trees are often made from PVC strips. These look more like dark green tinsel to mimic fir-type trees. Once dressed they still make a beautiful centrepiece and offer a pleasing 'full' look.
Mid-range trees tend to be a mixture of PE needles with PVC fir to add density.
Hinged branches are better than hook-on as they can quickly be assembled by merely pulling the branches down into place.
Don't just check the branches. A good tree should have a well disguised trunk (or centre pole). You also want a sturdy stand so go for metal instead of plastic.
If you can, find a tree with a guarantee – there is nothing worse than taking your tree out for its second year and finding yourself assembling a sparse twig.
As with any purchase, buy the best you can afford. A good artificial tree can be expected to last for at least 15 years so it is worth the expense when you work out how the cost is spread.
Expect to pay from around £250 for a high-quality 6ft, unlit tree. Larger trees and the best imitations could cost in excess of £700. This may sound like a large outlay, but a real 6ft tree will cost at least £50 so just think of it as 14 years' worth of real trees (then treat it well and it might last 20).
9. Which style of artificial Christmas tree to go for?
Traditional artificial trees are designed to mimic real trees so will often be named after their authentic counterparts. If you know you prefer your Nordmann fir over your Fraser fir, then that is the basis for your search. To simplify things though, many manufacturers allow you to search by height, shape or 'realism'.
For very traditional schemes, you will most likely want the best real-look tree you can afford. These can also come 'frosted' to appear as though they have just been taken in from a light snow shower.
In contemporary schemes you might be tempted to try something a bit different and this is where the many vibrantly coloured trees come to shine. Black, brilliant white and even neon trees have been popular in previous years. These are perfect for making a statement.
10. Pre-lit or ready to decorate?
Pre-lit trees are really easy to dress, removing what can be the dark art of fairy light placement. They are often built to have inconspicuous wiring which is another benefit.
Some may be concerned that should the lights fail, you have a tree you can't use. Look for a good manufacturer that uses energy-efficient LED lights with a 50,000-hour life. Some will also offer a guarantee on the bulbs and replace them should they blow.
If you want more flexibility, go for an unlit tree so you can add the lights in the formation (and colour) of your choice. In short, if you want the freedom of creativity go unlit, if you want speed choose pre-lit.
11. How to care for your artificial Christmas tree
Keep your tree away from heat sources. When the festive season is over, remove all ornaments, unplug the tree and dust the branches if required. If you do need to vacuum your tree, be sure to use the soft-brush attachment to prevent damage.
Carefully fold the branches and deconstruct your tree. Store it in the original box or bag and keep it somewhere cool and dry. To avoid it getting damp or smelling musty, you can keep it with a container of baking soda, coffee grounds (not used) or silica gel sachets.