How Do I Pick a Good Holiday Tree?

Douglas, Noble, Grand or Fraser -- here's a how-to guide from arborist Dennis Tompkins on how to find the best tree for your family, plus tips for taking care of it in your home.

America’s Christmas tree farmers are in full swing to provide a true “real green” product that creates jobs, is grown on plantations in the U.S.A. and is recyclable.  And, yes, the trees will make our homes look and smell festive for a few joyous weeks.

Puget Sound Christmas tree farmers and local retail lots are offering a wide variety of species.  To help select your favorite tree, the characteristics of the more popular species are listed below.

Douglas-fir:  This tree is generally available as a sheared tree and is the most common species found on tree lots.

It has a nice fragrance and a medium-to-good shelf life.  Because of the thick, bushy crowns, they do not lend themselves to large or heavy decorations. 

This species is the easiest to grow because it is relatively problem free.  It requires seven to eight years to mature as a Christmas tree.

Noble fir:  This species is considered the “Cadillac” of Christmas trees.  It grows in a more open pattern, has stout branches, luxurious green needles, a long shelf life and has a nice fragrance.  It is popular with families that have large or heavy ornaments.

It is the most expensive tree because it takes eight to ten years to mature and is the most difficult species to grow. 

Grand fir:  This sheared tree is the most fragrant of the native species.  It has an attractive needle that makes it a popular choice as a flocked tree.

Grand fir trees require eight to nine years to grow and have a medium shelf life.

Fraser fir:  This North Carolina native has strong branches that will hold heavier ornaments.  The needles have a pleasant fragrance and a long shelf life comparable to a noble fir.

Fraser fir trees are difficult to grow because of the many pests that threaten them.  They require eight to 10 years before they are ready for harvest.

Norway and blue spruce trees: These are generally available only at choose-and-cut farms.  They will hold heavy decorations.  Some consumers think they are “child and pet proof” because of the stiff, prickly needles.

Spruces require eight to nine years to mature as Christmas trees and have a medium shelf life.

Where to Find Trees

To enjoy a fun experience with the family, visit a local choose and cut farm.  Locations and tree information can be found on the Puget Sound Christmas Tree Association website, http://pscta.org/.  Many nurseries, stores and charity groups will offer trees at retail lots.

Proper Tree Care

Once home, cut one-quarter inch off the butt and place the tree in a water stand.  The stand should be large enough to hold at least one gallon of water after the tree is placed in it.  Check the water level daily.  A typical six-foot tall tree can drink one gallon of water each day and remain fresh for two to three weeks.

Years of Hard Work

A tree farmer invests many dollars and hard work for six to ten years before earning any return.  Not all trees will be salable.  Some will die while others may be damaged by insects or diseases before they reach harvest size. 

For example, out of 1,000 trees planted, 900 to 950 Douglas-firs may be salable.  However, only 700 to 800 nobles may be marketable because of losses to the above factors.  Therefore, a grower needs to receive more money for nobles than Douglas-firs to make them profitable to grow.

Do Trees Really Cost So Much?

One interesting way to view prices is to look at how much a tree costs and how long it can be enjoyed by a family compared to other activities.

For example, if you pay $30 for a Douglas fir or $60 for a noble, they will bring joy and good smells to your home for two or more weeks.  If you spend $30 to feed a family of four at a fast food establishment or $60 to attend a movie and eat popcorn, the enjoyment may last from one to four hours.

When viewed in that perspective, trees are a pretty good bargain for the time that they bring enjoyment to millions of families.


Dennis Tompkins is a Certified Arborist and Hazard Tree Risk Assessor from the Bonney Lake-Sumner area.  He is also a nationally recognized expert and consultant to the Christmas tree industry.  Contact him at 253 863-7469 or email at dlt@blarg.net. Or visit his website at evergreen-arborist.com.

Jerry Gropp Architect AIA December 02, 2012 at 03:58 PM
A good point indeed! JerryG-
Sonja Bowden December 02, 2012 at 09:00 PM
We don't put up a tree, but if we did, this is the local business we would support: Minter's Earlington Greenhouse and Nursery http://tinyurl.com/cyzjx29 Highest quality plants, friendliest, most knowledgeable customer service , too!
John Anderson December 02, 2012 at 10:15 PM
Decorating a live tree is a great idea. It is best to buy a species native to the Puget Sound area, as it will grow best when you plant it. Grand fir and douglas fir work well--better than noble fir. (Hemlock will probably lose its needles on your carpet.) If you don't have room to plant more trees, Norfolk pine is a good option. They are a beautiful tree and make a great houseplant. Decorate it for the season, then enjoy the green (and the indoor oxygen) all year. This is much easier way to go than bringing a new tree into the house every year.
Dennis Tompkins December 03, 2012 at 09:09 PM
Thank you Patch readers for your comments on the Christmas tree article. I appreciate the different perspectives. Allow me to add one more: Christmas tree growers are involved in a risky enterprise when they have to make decisions as what to plant 6 to 10 years before realizing any return. During that interim, they are faced with many potential pests and weather conditions that may threaten their crop. Their success is based upon making the right decisions as to what consumer tastes will be years in the future, surviving the challenges a grower of any perishable commodity faces, competition from artificial trees, etc. Unfortunately, not all trees will sell and the left over trees are a P.R. problem for the industry. However, they have to be harvested when "mature". I would point out that the fickleness of we consumers causes thousands of tons of fresh foods in super markets to be discarded daily. However, this occurs generally at night when the practice is shielded from our eyes. So these "leftovers", which dwarf the number of excess Christmas trees, are not visible. This is not a criticism of the practice, but that's the way it is because we do not want blemished or spoiled produce on grocery shelves. Hopefully, this added perspective will help those with guilty feelings about cutting our beautiful trees to overcome their concerns.
Lauren Padgett December 04, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Good points, Dennis! It's an interesting perspective I hadn't thought of before...


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