Keeping the Tree Green

With the rapidly approaching holiday season, we all begin to think thoughts of Thanksgiving dinner - OK, so I realize that many out there, especially in the retail arena, pretty much ignore Thanksgiving - and families and snow and decorating the house. Like it or not, the "season" is upon us, and I hope that you all will find the time to relax a bit, even though the pace seems to want to rapidly accelerate until the end of the year.

But with most of the leaves already on the ground and snow flurries having already visited, there seems to be an unmistakable aura around here... by here, I mean the Mid-West. My family once moved to California for several years while I was in college, and even though it was very cool to live close to the Rose Bowl (Watching the parade in person is incredible), I always missed the change of seasons that is so enjoyable to be a part of.

Christmas tree farm

Lights begin to line the rooftops, city work crews begin to hang decorations on the street lights and lamp posts, and most of the time the local sidewalks and shops are filled with smiling faces - oftentimes despite the biting cold of the approaching winter solstice. And my favorite thing to do is to light a fire in the fireplace and anticipate the taste of that first eggnog as the smoke and embers curl their way up the chimney.

The joy that I have always experienced ever since I was a small boy is the day that I can go and pick out the Christmas tree for the house. I always thought that it was so much fun, even though my father sometimes seemed to play the same seemingly cranky role as the father (played by a young Darren McGavin) in "A Christmas Story". Back then, the lights that we used to trim the tree were absolutely huge and gave off a tremendous amount of heat.

What I never realized or thought about was the ever-present risk of fire resulting from that heat and an evergreen tree that was certainly green but also very dry. I was too young to think about the fact that once cut down, the tree ceased to be alive and would dry out rapidly in the heated and non-humidified air inside our house. Ultimately, any Christmas tree can become a dangerous fire hazard.

Of course my Mom seemed to always get stuck with the task of keeping the tree watered; it therefore stayed as fresh as could be expected. It was a full-time job, since a tree can consume as much as a quart of water a day during the first week indoors! But as I look back, my sense is that the trees were a bit fresher back then. I believe this to be the case because I never remember even looking for a tree until at least a week after Thanksgiving... they simply were not available. Nowadays trees have been more in demand and Christmas tree farming has become really big business.

In fact, about thirty-five million Christmas trees are produced each year and 95 percent are shipped or sold directly from Christmas tree farms. Many trees are often cut in early November - sometimes earlier - and shipped in open trucks, which hastens the rate at which moisture evaporates from the tree. One can also now order fresh-cut trees from the Internet, which helps to insure that the tree will stay fresh longer. But in the event that your family might be more like ours when I grew up, perhaps you can ill-afford to spend a lot on a tree. If that is the case, chances are that it will be drier and more difficult to keep fresh.

Although today's lights are much smaller and give off far less heat, the most important thing to remember is that there always remains the danger of a spark or even the open flame from a nearby candle that will cause a beautifully decorated tree to become an incredibly dangerous fire hazard that can ruin in short order more than just Christmas. According to the U.S. Fire Administration website, more than 33 million American homes include a natural tree in its festivities. Also, a recent article I read stated that "Christmas trees are involved in more than 400 fires annually, resulting in 30 deaths, 90 injuries and more than $17 million in property loss and damage. So what can be done in order to minimize that danger?

Decorated tree

The first thing to do is to be aware that you are taking a dead evergreen tree (which is highly flammable when dry) indoors (where it is extremely dry in the winter), sometimes failing to prepare it properly, wrapping in electrical wires and then forgetting to water it. Is this a disaster waiting to happen or what? Even so, there are ways to minimize the risk and hazard - ask any fire department. The first step is to do your best to make your tree fire resistant. Believe me, I have checked numerous web sites and found that there is no magic potion that you can mix up that will work any better than plain water.

Yep - I have seen many a recipe and commercially available products that "guarantee" freshness. Forget the Karo syrup, the bleach, the 20-Mule Team Borax, the Epsom salt, the vinegar, the Woolite and all of the other secret ingredients. Trust me, every site will tell you that plain water works best. Other than that, here is the short list for keeping that tree as fresh as possible and able to make it to the New Year:

  • A test to make certain that the tree is as fresh as possible is by pulling gently on a few needles. If they don't easily come loose, it is a good sign. You can also grab the stem of the tree about midway up the tree, lift it about 18 inches and hit the butt end sharply on the ground. If a large number of needles shatter away from the tree and fall to the ground... select another tree!
  • As soon as you get a cut tree back home, cut about two inches off the bottom and place the tree in a bucket of water (preferably in the garage so the water won't freeze!) for at least 24 hours... 48 hours or more is better. Make sure that the bucket remains full - the tree could have come from an area hard-hit by drought . But it will drink plenty of water either way... a tree can consume up to a quart of water per inch of trunk diameter per day!
  • After it has had all the water it wants, place the tree in its stand and bring it indoors and fill the stand with water. Check it several times a day, especially in the first few days, when the warmth of the house will have it drinking heavily. That tree can consume gallons of water, and if that bottom end of the tree dries out for just one day, it loses forever the ability to take up any more.
  • There are a few commercially available products that you can spray on the tree to help to slow the rate of evaporation (anti-desiccants and such). Just inquire at your local greenhouse or garden supply store.
  • Sit back, have a glass of water yourself and enjoy your tree!

There are a few other simple rules to follow to keep you holiday season safe and enjoyable, like locating the tree so that all exits from that room remain open. Also, keep the tree as far away as possible from other sources of heat and open flame (such as the fireplace). Make certain to check the cords on the light strings that you own to insure that you don't use cords with frayed or cut wires. Keep a close eye on the family pet... a tree that gets knocked over has a much better chance of breaking bulbs and starting a fire. And by all means, don't leave home with a lighted tree unattended... you are asking for trouble.

That's about it, except for one small issue that may arise for those concerned by the thought of fire. an artificial tree will not completely eliminate the fire hazard. It is, after all, metal. Any anywhere there is metal and electrical wire together in the same place, there is still some risk. Some common sense where either type of tree is concerned goes a long way. And consider what happens after the trees are no longer needed or wanted. The previously living tree can be recycled and used in a multitude of ways; the faux tree that ends up in a landfill will remain there for a very long time! On the bright side? There are 2-3 new trees planted for every Christmas tree harvested and each acre of trees supplies both shelter for wildlife and oxygen for the people of the world.

Merry Christmas and have a happy and safe holiday season!

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Christmas tree