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How to Pick the Perfect Christmas Tree

In an "Early Show" Web exclusive, master gardener William Moss shared tips on choosing and taking care of a great, natural Christmas tree.

This is another one of those real vs. fake controversies. Artificial trees are perfect for some people. They come in a bewildering array or colors and forms. Artificial trees don't need watering or pruning. And they can be reused for years. Even with all that (as with most things) I prefer the real ones.

Real trees are available both live cut and living. Live cut Christmas trees are most popular. Most garden centers will have a good selection of firs and pines. Firs have a slight advantage because they are pleasantly scented and their rounded leaves are less prickly than pines. However, well-grown pines can have an appealing fluffy look that firs can't match.

Before heading out to get the tree answer a few questions. How you are going to decorate? Are you using heavy ornaments, lightweight garlands, tall candles, or big lights? Is scent a factor? What about color? Answering these questions now makes the decision much easier when you get to the garden center. Below are a few descriptions. (Special thanks to John the tree man at Gethsemane Gardens for taking me through the lot and giving me a quick refresher course.)

More of Moss' Christmas Tree Tips

Frasier firs are very common. The dark to silvery green tree has a pleasant fragrance. The branches are sturdy for heavy ornaments and hold their needles well. Frasiers are typically sheared into full, pyramidal shapes.

Noble firs are perhaps the most beautiful Christmas tree. Thick green needles on strong sturdy branches give it a statuesque appearance. They have good needle retention and a mild scent.

Bornmueller or Turkish fir is similar to noble fir but is grown and sold in the eastern US.

Concolor or white fir has long, curvy, grayish needles and a strong pleasant smell of citrus. Its open habit makes is good for large ornaments.

Balsam fir has green needles and has a stronger, longer-lasting fragrance than most. Its habit of dropping needles explains its stronger scent.

Nordam fir is similar to balsam fir but a bit fuller with less fragrance and needle drop.

White pines have an open habit and flexible branches. Heavy ornaments will not work on this tree, but the open habit is perfect for lightweight hanging ornaments.

Scotch pines are sheared heavily and have a bushy, pyramidal shape.

Regardless of the type, select fresh trees that have good color and balance. Ask them for a fresh cut at the lot so you don't have to do it. Once you get the tree home be diligent. The first week is the most crucial. Check the water level 3 times (morning, afternoon, and evening) to make sure it's full. If you and your family can't commit to watering don't buy a live tree.

Maintenance tips:
• Use water only. No need for tree preservatives, sugar, 7up, aspirin, or anything else.
• Check water level often.
• Place the tree in a location away from heat vents and radiators.
• If the scent fades, pull some needles off (from the inside branches so it's not visible) to release more fragrance.

Living Christmas trees are another good option. You can enjoy the tree now and plant it later. They serve as a permanent keepsake from Christmas's past. The most common living trees are Colorado blue spruce, Alberta spruce, Leyland cypress, and Austrian pine. They are all tolerant trees, but check with your local garden center to determine which ones are best suited for your area.

Living trees are either potted or balled-and-burlapped (b&b). Choose one that is a manageable size for you. Display it on the porch, patio, or yard until Christmas approaches. Only bring living trees inside for that week. They are going to be thirsty, so place them in a big tub, basin, or wheelbarrow. Filled it with mostly ice and some water to keep the roots as cold as possible for the whole time it's inside.

After Christmas take the tree back outside. In cold climates place the tree in an unheated garage or on the north side of the house until the ground thaws in spring. If possible cover the root ball with mulch and/or soil. In warmer climates feel free to plant the tree. Water when planting and keep well-watered for the first year.

Norfolk pines (not really pines) are also used as living Christmas trees. Throughout most of America Norfolk pines are houseplants and can stay inside all winter.

For traditionalists with the time for maintenance, there is no substitute for real trees, living or cut. Their fragrance and beauty both make and recall happy childhood memories. Merry Christmas.