1. Measure your space
It is easy to go overboard with the size of your tree since the trees look smaller in a forest where the sky is the ceiling. Make sure you know the height and width you can fit in your house before heading to the forest, and don’t forget to throw a tape measure in your bag together with a saw, tarp and plenty of rope. And if it’s snowy, a sled will make your life much easier.
2. Make sure you’re getting your tree legally
Never go to a random forest and cut down a tree without permission. Most national forests allow you to harvest Christmas trees, but you must have a permit. You can contact the forest district office nearest to you to obtain a permit, and get information about specific dates you can go get your tree, maps and accessibility.
Most holiday tree permits are issued in November, so if you’re too late with getting one, or it seems like too much of a hassle, you can also go to a Choose-and-Cut-Tree-Farms, where administration and tools are usually provided by the farm operator.
3. Be practical and respectful when choosing the tree
Don’t get greedy, take one tree per tag. Select the tree from overstocked areas and thickets that are at least 200 feet away from main roads, recreation sites and campgrounds. For the fullest bush, look for a clearing that gets enough sun.
The trunk of your tree should be 6 inches or less in diameter, and keep in mind the stand you have back at home - the tree must have a sufficiently long and straight handle to fit in it.
4. Cut with your and the forest’s health in mind
Cutting the tree is easiest as a two person project: the cutter lies on the ground while the helper holds the bottom limbs up. The helper can tug on the tree lightly so the saw kerf remains open and the saw doesn’t bind. Both of you should be wearing sturdy boots, good gloves, and proper head protection - like a forestry helmet or a hard hat.
Make sure to not cut the tree more than 6 inches above ground level, and never ever cut a tall tree just for the top. Just don’t.
5. Transport in a way that doesn’t ruin the tree or your car
Depending if you’re taking the tree home in or outside your car, place tarp over the cargo area, or between the tree and the roof rack. This way, you’ll protect the interior from loose needles and the roof - from scratches. If the tree is going on the roof, place it with the bottom facing forward to minimize needle loss, and secure it with a rope.
6. Be sure to not let your tree dry out
You have about 8 hours after cutting the tree to get it home, as this is how long a fresh tree can go without water. Bringing a tree straight from the cold outside temperature to a warm room causes the tree to dry out, so let the it sit in a bucket of water in a garage or on an unheated patio for at least a day to help it acclimate. Provide the tree with 1 quart of water for every inch in trunk diameter.
7. Set the tree in place
Choose a location away from open flames and heat sources, which may dry the tree out prematurely. Using a small handsaw, cut off about an inch straight across the bottom for better water absorption.
Trim off any branches that could get in the way when placing the tree in the tree stand. If you don’t have a special tree stand, you can go for the old school method of using a bucket filled with small rocks: Put the tree in it, and fill the bucket with rocks around the trunk. Don’t whittle down the bark of the tree - that’s the part that absorbs the most water.
Getting the tree straight can be a hassle and is easier to do with at least two people. One holds the tree stable while the other fixes the base. Stand back to check if the tree is straight as many times as it takes - it’s way easier to fix the angle at this stage rather than with the decorations already on. It is suggested to let the tree just sit in the stand anywhere from an hour to overnight before decorating, so it can „settle“ into its shape.
8. Keep watering your tree
Your tree needs water and LOTS of it. It can drink a full gallon on the first day, and new water almost every day. Use lukewarm, not cold water. You can add a tablespoon of sugar or floral preservative in the water if you wish. Make sure the bottom of the tree is always immersed, otherwise the dried sap will seal the base, and the tree won’t be able to take in any water even when the container is refilled. If that has happened, remove the tree from the stand, and cut an inch off the bottom.
For extra humidity, try running a humidifier in the room or just spray the tree with water, and consider using newer LED bulbs for lights on your tree as they produce less heat and therefore will not be as drying. As an added bonus, they use at least 75 percent less energy than traditional lights and last 25 times longer.
9. When it’s time to dispose of your tree, do so responsibly
Take the tree out before it dries out as it can be a fire hazard. Never burn it in a fireplace or a wood stove. Ladle water out of the stand, and use a turkey baster for the last licks. Lay the tree down on a sheet and remove the stand. Wrap the sheet around it and take the tree outside to the curb for pick up, or take it to a recycling facility. Sweep up as many dropped needles as you can before using your vacuum cleaner, as they can clog it up or even break the machine. Only use your vacuum for what you can’t get with a broom.