That gorgeous Douglas fir isn’t going to water itself.

By Nicole Sforza and Maggie Seaver
Updated December 09, 2019
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It takes a little effort and some TLC to get a Christmas tree looking ready for guests and photos—but it’s worth every ounce of water (and every scattered pine needle) to keep a live Christmas tree fresh and vibrant through the holidays. From how to choose the right stand to how often to water a Christmas tree, here’s how to care for a live tree that lasts all season

Pick the Perfect Type of Christmas Tree

Your local Christmas tree lots, farm, or nursery may sell only a couple of tree varieties, but if you have a broad choice, go for "true firs," like noble, Fraser, Nordmann, and Turkish, because they’ll last longest (four to six weeks). Trees with the second-longest life span include Douglas fir, Scotch pine, balsam, and grand fir. Spruce trees last only two or three weeks. If you can, shop where cut trees are kept under shady tents or wrapped in burlap—not open to full sun, where they can dry out.

Trim the Trunk

Just as flowers need a fresh cut before being placed in a vase, Christmas tree trunks need a trim in order to help them absorb water. "You’ll want to make a fresh cut to remove about a half-inch-thick disk of wood from the base of the tree trunk before putting it in the stand," says Marsha Grey, the executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board. "You can even ask the tree lot, farm, or store to help you with this task before you take it home."

How to Haul It Home

After the seller cuts the trunk for you, place the tree on the car roof with the bottom facing forward to minimize needle loss. Get the tree in water within four to six hours of a fresh cut. If you’re not putting it up right away, set your tree in a bucket of water in a cool, dark place, like the garage. Ideally you should get your tree in water "as soon as you get it home, and check the water daily to make sure the level doesn’t go below the base of the trunk," Grey says.

Get the Right Kind of Tree Stand

It’s best to use a metal Christmas tree stand, since plastic ones will break over time. As for size, Grey recommends a tree stand that provides one quart of water per one inch of trunk diameter. This will ensure it holds enough water to keep your tree hydrated.

Set Up the Stand First

Before you bring your tree inside, but while the netting is still on, place it in its stand to minimize the mess in your living room. Tighten the bolts about 75 percent, bring the tree in, set it in place, and finish securing. Finally, fill it with water.

Placement and Fire Safety Pointers

It matters where you put your live Christmas tree—not just for looks, but for safety and convenience, too. If you can, keep your tree away from too much direct sunlight or heat exposure, which can dry it out more quickly. And while it's consoling to remember that trees don’t technically start fires, here are some of Grey's top tips for avoiding an accident:

  • Keep your tree away from major sources of heat (radiators, fire places, lamps, stovetops)
  • Inspect your light sets for wear and tear before using on the tree
  • Don’t overload electrical circuits
  • Always turn off your tree lights when leaving the house or going to bed

"As long as you’re keeping the water level consistent and turning off the lights when you go to bed, your tree will stay safe and well hydrated," reassures Grey.​​

Safe and Easy Lighting

The most efficient way to put on and remove Christmas lights is to start at the bottom and continuously weave Christmas lights up toward the top of the tree and back down to the base. LEDs use at least 75 percent less energy than traditional lights and last a whopping 25 times longer. Some people still prefer the glow of old-school varieties, but if you’re ready to make the money-saving change, try Invisilites (like the Warm White 96 LED Invisilite; $28, 1000bulbs.com), tiny bulbs on a wire so thin, it disappears into the tree.

How Often (and How Much) to Water Your Tree

You already know that you should keep a tree away from heat sources (vents, fireplaces, wood stoves), both for fire safety and staying power, but you may not know that a tree needs about a gallon of water every day. Check the water level daily and take note: The trunk’s cut surface should never be exposed to air. Plain tap water is best, so skip the chemicals and the homespun add-ins. Your best bet is to make a habit of it (think: Check in the morning while the coffee’s brewing or every night before heading up to bed).

Stay Sap-Free

Christmas tree care takes a lot of hands-on, up-close-and-personal work, so you may get sticky tree sap on your hands along the way. Grey recommends simply using hand sanitizer to remove it. You can also try baby or olive oil, which help remove sap while moisturizing the skin.

Takedown, Pick-Up, and Clean-Up

"Growing, using, and recycling real Christmas trees is actually good for the environment," says Grey. "Real trees are biodegradable, which means you can check with your local department of public works for information about tree recycling and mulching programs. Many cities and some civic organization also offer curbside tree pick-up in the two weeks following Christmas." Want to take more of a hands-on approach? Consider chopping up your tree and recycling it in your yard waste container, or repurposing as DIY garden mulch.

When tree pick-up day arrives, ladle water out of the stand and use a turkey baster for those last drops. Place a plastic tree bag under the tree skirt as an easier exit strategy. (Try the Christmas-tree removal bag; $5, bronners.com.) When the tree is finally out of the house, sweep up left-behind needles rather than vacuuming, since they can clog the machine.

  • By Nicole Sforza
  • By Maggie Seaver