Christmas Tree

There is really no good time to have a house fire, and while a major fire that claims millions of dollars of property may make the evening news, a single-family house fire is no less of a disaster to that family. While there is no good time to have fire, Christmas is an especially bad time, and so I am writing once again this year about Christmas tree safety.

We are a tree producing area, and many of us want to help support our friends and neighbors by using real trees in our home holiday décor. By far, the biggest deterrent to using a real tree is the threat of fire as they dry out. The very nature of the trees (sappy, high surface area leaves and dense foliage) make for a fast moving and hot fire once a tree combusts. Once you have returned safely home with your Christmas tree, its continued freshness depends upon the type of care you provide.

The tree should have a fresh cut across the bottom, about one inch above the old base. This removes any clogged wood that may not readily absorb water. Next, the tree should be placed in a stand with a large reservoir of water and located in the room. Depending upon the size, species and location of the tree, it may absorb a gallon of water in the first day, so it should be checked frequently and re-watered as necessary. Although some people advocate placing various substances in the water to preserve freshness, we recommend that consumers simply keep the tree well-watered with pure tap water. As long as the tree is able to absorb and transpire water, it is reasonably fire-resistant.

It is important that the tree always be kept watered and not allowed to dry out. If the tree does become dried out, it may not be able to adequately absorb moisture once it is re-watered, and it will shed its needles prematurely. Taking the tree down and cutting about a 1-inch slice off the bottom of the trunk, then replacing the tree in the stand and re-watering will remedy this problem. Although inconvenient, it is the only way to prevent early needle loss. Overall, a good rule of thumb is to treat a green Christmas tree just like a fresh bouquet of cut flowers.

The Christmas tree should be located in a safe place, preferably near a wall or corner where it is not likely to be knocked over. Keeping the tree away from heat sources such as hot air ducts, wood stoves, fireplaces, etc. will help to preserve freshness and lessen fire danger. Similarly, light cords and connections used in decorating the tree should be in good working condition. Lights should always be turned off at bedtime or when leaving for an extended period of time.

Fresh, well-watered Christmas trees do not represent a fire hazard. Trees that are dried out, however, do. In public buildings it is often advisable to spray the trees with a fire retardant. In fact, in many locations this is necessary for insurance purposes. In the home, however, the best fire retardant is to keep the tree supplied with plenty of water.

Living Christmas trees are unique and should definitely receive special care. Since the root balls are often heavy and cumbersome, it is important that they are not mistreated or dropped. Balled and burlapped trees should not be carried by their stems, because the weight of the root ball can exert pressure on the roots and break them. It is best to pick the tree up by the ball itself or to roll the ball along the ground.

Once the tree is home, it should be conditioned before being brought into a heated room. Leaving the tree upright in an unheated barn or garage for a couple of days should be sufficient. After the conditioning, the tree can be brought indoors and placed in a cool location away from direct sunlight. It is even more important with living trees that the location be away from heat sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces, heater vents, etc.

Living Christmas trees will also need water, although not nearly as much as cut trees. Prior to moving the tree inside, the root ball should be moistened and kept in a moist condition while the tree is displayed. The root ball should be placed in a bucket or a large pan to prevent soil and water from staining the floor.

Living Christmas trees are fairly sensitive and should not be kept inside for more than 10 days. Exposure to the warm temperatures may cause the dormant tree to break buds and start to grow, and, of course, this is undesirable. Before removing the tree directly outside, it should be allowed to recondition in the same manner as when it was brought inside. After a couple of days, it should be ready to plant.

If the ground is frozen or if the tree cannot be planted immediately, it should be placed in a sheltered area and the root ball heavily mulched. When planting, the hole should be dug about the depth of the root ball and 1.5 to 2 times the diameter. In heavy clay soil, the hole can even be dug 1 or 2 inches shallower than the root ball. The tree should be placed in the hole, backfilled with the soil removed from the hole, watered, and mulched with straw, bark, sawdust, etc. The tree will remain dormant for the rest of the winter and then will start to grow normally with other vegetation in the spring.

Upcoming Events

Dec. 11--VQA Heifer Take Up, Tri State.

Dec. 16--An Evening with Corbitt Wall, Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, Abingdon, 6:30 p.m., $5 charge per person. Call in by Thursday, Dec. 12.

Jan. 15-17--VA Farm Show, Fishersville.

Jan. 17--Our Great Gator Giveaway Drawing, noon at the VA Farm Show, Fishersville.

Jan. 20--Farm Management Meeting, 6:30 p.m. at Farm Bureau Building, Marion. Topic is BQA Recertification.

Jan. 27-30--VCE Annual Meeting, Hotel Roanoke.

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Dr. Andy Overbay is Smyth County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

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