How to choose, care for and decorate your Christmas tree
If you're setting out to choose and buy your Christmas tree, you might be unsure which type to go for. Here's our guide on how to choose the best Christmas tree species for you - and whether to buy cut or potted - how to keep it healthy and decorate it in style. Photographs Christian Barnett
How do you choose the perfect Christmas tree? It can help to know a little more about the different species of evergreen conifers that are available, so here is your essential guide to the various types of Christmas tree , with some advice on the benefits of each, from scent to needle retention.
We also provide advice on how to get the best from your Christmas tree over the festive season – and beyond, if you have bought a potted or container-grown tree.
Christmas tree types
Blue spruce Picea pungens
NEEDLE RETENTION *
A popular garden conifer from western North America, this spruce is now increasing in popularity as a Christmas tree because of its attractive blue-green foliage. It also has a strong citrus scent, but the plus points are weighted against some very prickly needles, which are hard to pick up. Will grow up to 30m in a soft, conical shape. If container-grown this makes a beautiful garden adornment.
Fraser fir Abies fraseri
NEEDLE RETENTION ***
A little pricey, because of the time it takes to grow, but as with other firs, it has strong needle-holding ability. Dense foliage when young, with strong branches – hence good for decorating – and a slimmer conical shape that fits well in smaller spaces. Dark silvery-green leaves are shortish and needle-like but soft, and have a pleasant fragrance a little like turps. Will grow to around 25m.
Noble fir Abies procera
NEEDLE RETENTION ***
The noble fir is a noble Christmas tree indeed, with more open foliage and needle-like but blunt-tipped leaves, making it good for decorating. The tree also keeps its needles well, has a lovely fragrance and an upswept, conical, symmetrical shape. Hails from North America and grows up to 70m. A lush, glaucous-green in colour. Has a very long tap root, so not likely to be found in a container.
Norway spruce Picea abies
NEEDLE RETENTION *
This is known as the original Christmas tree and one for the traditionalists. Has a mid-green, delicate foliage, with a really ‘Christmassy’ fragrance. The bushy, conical shape creates an attractive, sought-after silhouette but needle retention is not so good. A native of northeast Europe, growing up to 55m.
Nordman fir Abies nordmanniana
NEEDLE RETENTION ***
A popular Christmas tree of dark green, soft foliage, with long, flattened needles. The Nordman fir can grow up to 60m and comes from the mountains of western Asia. It’s known for its strong needle retention and the symmetry of its shape, but can be expensive as it takes twice as long to grow as a spruce. Leaves have a citrus scent when crushed.
Serbian spruce Picea omorika
NEEDLE RETENTION *
One of the newer trees on the market, the Serbian or omorika spruce has dark green colouring and a slimmer, more graceful conical shape than other trees. It is a medium-sized tree, growing up to 35m. The leaves are flattened needles with silver undersides and do not hold wonderfully well, but are soft and bear a pleasant, strong fragrance. Branches are well spaced, which makes deorating easy.
Top tips for choosing the right tree
- Pines tend to hold their needles best, followed by firs and then spruces.
- Freshly cut Christmas trees retain their leaves for longer, so try to buy directly from a grower.
- Check needles and branches. If any are already dry the tree won’t last long.
- If in doubt look for one with the label of the British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association (BCTGA).
- Potted trees will have been grown in the ground, then potted up. Almost inevitably their roots will suffer some damage in the process, so trees like these are unlikely to be successful if replanted.
- Container-grown trees have been grown in their pots, so will be much more successful if transplanted, or moved outside in their container, after the festive season. Firs, particularly the noble, have long roots that make it suitable only for large gardens. If you are looking for suggestions for conifers that you can grow in a pot in the garden all year round and bring in for Christmas to decorate as a Christmas tree, check out our expert's choice of alternative Christmas trees.
- Before decorating, put your cut tree in a dry, cool, shaded spot in a bucket refilled with water daily. Potted or container-grown trees should also be watered. All trees should be kept away from heat if possible.
Planting out a potted Christmas tree in the garden after Christmas
- Potted or container-grown trees should be acclimatised in a garage or porch before planting in more exposed positions.
- Choose a sunny spot to ensure that it grows with an even shape.
- Dig a large square hole. Mulch well and ensure good drainage. Place tree and rootball in hole, loosening roots, and refill with soil, with root collar at ground level. Water well.
How to decorate your Christmas tree
Once you've bought your Christmas tree, you can enjoy decorating it. Here are some helpful hints from Clifton Nurseries, London's oldest nursery and one of its most stylish.
- Get your Christmas lights on first, otherwise your decorations might get tangled up and damaged. If you only buy one thing for your tree, make it lights. They create the wonderful, magical effect of Christmas.
- Mix matt and shiny baubles to create a fuller effect. Place shiny baubles closer to the trunk and matt baubles on the tips of the branches as they do not reflect the light as much.
- Choose your colours according to your room. If your tree is going to stand in a darker area choose lighter, brighter decorations such as golds, silver and white combinations, reds or pinks that will stand out against the colour of the branches. In a lighter, larger room you can afford to be bold with darker colours such as purples and blues.
- Be ruthless with your decorations! If bits are missing or they look shabby it’s best to throw them away.
- Lavish or lean? If you’re going for the look of luxury, pile on as many decorations as possible but keep them co-ordinated. Go for no more than two sizes of bauble and no more than two styles at once. If you’re going for a more contemporary tree, less is more but make it big. Use large glass decorations and less of them, rather than a mass of small glass baubles which will just get lost.
- Make it yourself
One of the most effective decorations is ribbon, tied in big bows at the end of the branches. Fruit and spices are also very pretty; bind three or four walnuts with wire then thread some dried cranberries on to them and fix to the tree. You could also cut satsumas into slices round the middle to reveal the segments and bake them slowly in the oven to create a colourful, natural dried fruit effect when draped along the branches.
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