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GARDEN MAIDEN: O Tannenbaum — Shopping and caring for a fresh tree

Mom was allergic to evergreen. And though I occasionally longed for a live tree over the years, she spared no expense when it came to having a full, evenly lit, glorious holiday tree, so the tradition of hauling down decorations and getting the tree up over our Thanksgiving break from college suited me just fine as far as traditions go.

Believe it or not, Christmas trees did not become a household celebration until Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were shown on the cover of a magazine handing out gifts from beneath an impeccably decorated indoor evergreen tree, adopting their German heritage publicly to the royal court. Thousands of years before them, Ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures celebrated winter solstice on Dec. 21 or 22 by hanging symbols of everlasting life — green palm rushes and evergreen boughs — across their doors and throughout their homes to bless the return of longer days. Rooted in timeless, sacred honoring of natural cycles sparked with marriage late in life and my birthday, a fresh-cut Christmas tree has become our Koster tradition.

Specifically named conifers, these cone-bearing evergreen trees and shrubs include pines, spruce, yews and firs. Taking up to 10 years to grow a 7-foot tree, a plan for self-supply is fueled as our newlywed live tree vision gets squelched with local tree farms already sold out for the season. Already, stump-studded graveyards mark a few random and sparse 5-footers wavering in the chilly air. But even as pickings narrow and farms get farther from home, tidings of joy connect far-off childish laughter with shoulder-riding screeches of joy as kids and grown-ups alike kindle family connection, fully donned in Christmas sweaters with pets to match in tow.

Tree 101

So just how long will the freshness last? Like the vase life of cut flowers, conifers eventually drop their needles after being cut. Having needles instead of leaves, conifers retain moisture and continually uptake water through their trunk during display. A healthy conifer lasts anywhere from one week to three months as a well-tended cut tree requiring about a gallon of water each week. Norway spruce has the shortest cut life; longest lasting is Fraser fir.

Some needle drop, and even yellowing, might be normal. When selecting your tree, brush the branches and watch for interior browning needles or heavy needle drop. Choose only trees where typical loss near the trunk is nominal. This is why a tree farm will shake your tree after you cut it down.

Shop local

Get to know a tree farmer and support local agriculture. While plenty bark about deforestation, cutting a real tree is surprisingly less harmful than manufacturing artificial trees. Plus, buying goods from a local farmer keeps people doing what they love and brings tradition to our region. And trees are not cut down until they are claimed.

Some tree farms, such as Fisher Christmas Tree Farm in Marseilles, specialize in growing specific conifers. John Fisher focuses on what does best on his ground, Scots pine. Also called Scotch pine, this commonly grown 10-foot giant is known for its excellent water retention even after cutting it down and is treasured for its upward bending branches. Because it rarely sheds it needles, people appreciate its indoor stand.

Like all agriculture commodities, weather and pest pressure can devastate an entire season on a tree farm. Evergreens may take several seasons to recover from needlecast or pine wilt.

“One year, a Nov. 2 sudden deep freeze froze the needles of every last pine and my trees turned totally brown," Fisher said. Nearing retirement and selling less than 200 trees a season these days, Fisher recalls a grove of 3,500 Christmas trees at his upstart 33 years ago. To learn more about prices and availability, visit fisherchristmastrees.com.

Locals missing the permanently closed Boyle Christmas Tree Farm, who publicly announced their retirement from 65 years in business, should check out Holockers Tree Farm in McNabb. This family-owned farm spends time connecting with customers and have both cut-your-own and pre-cut trees available. For more information, call 815-882-2702.

Farm-crafted wreaths and garland along with potting parties to craft your own winter arrangements are worth a rural excursion to Redbud Creek Farm in Sheridan. The farm does not sell Christmas trees but hosts Santa visits, evening shopping, sweet treats and warm fires to make your winter visit to this farm an experience that becomes tradition in itself. For more information, call 815-496-9400.

Share your tree farm experience with me at gardenmaiden.com.

Tree varieties

As you’re cutting down a fresh tree, keep in mind that an evergreen may not show its stress from drought for up to seven seasons. Cutting a tree now may actually save its lovely branches!

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 25 to 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the U.S. every year.

Popular choices for trees include:

Deep green picks: Austrian pine (long needle), Norway spruce, white pine

Blue-green picks: Noble fir (sturdy branches), Fraser fir (great scent, six-week stand)

Strongest fragrance: Balsam fir (slow grower at only 1 foot per year), Concolor fir (distinct citrusy scent)

Strongest branches: Colorado blue spruce (perfect pyramid shape, too!)

Norway spruce is a poplar pick for farmers due to its remarkable ability to adapt to clay and heavy soils. Ideally, in hardiness zones 2 to 7 that get 35 inches of annual rainfall, this evergreen has fibrous, deep spreading roots making it a survivor of high winds and an excellent candidate for minimizing soil erosion. Sometimes dropping its needles within a week of being on display, this variety is best for those of us creating a short and sweet holiday affair. Left to tower in nature for several generations, Norway spruce can reach up to 100 feet in height putting on 2 feet of growth each season. It's an excellent choice for permanent outdoor lit holiday trees.

Green giant arborvitae is a hybrid evergreen that tolerates medium water and some shade. If you like the look of a tall, slender tree, this variety is fast growing, putting on 3 feet of growth each year with optimal care in zones 5 to 8. Unlike some juniper types, this variety's boughs do not yellow during winter months.

Named for resin found in blisters on its bark that was used to treat wounds during the Civil War, Balsam firs are popular for their durable branches and lasting fragrance. For growers, balsam fir is capable of tolerating heavy shade when young and thrives in a wide range of soils, including silt and stony loams.

Concolor fir, or white fir, has soft, blue-green needles that smell like freshly squeezed orange juice when you first bring it in the house.

Flexible branches of feathery long white pine needles are more often used as garland and wreaths than for ornament-bearing holiday trees. Their nearly scentless branches are a top pick for sensitive sniffers, too.

Still a feathery texture, but a bit more capable of holding ornament weight on its nearly perfect conical form, Douglas fir provides dense, small branches encircled with needles spraying in all directions.

HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing tammies@mywebtimes.com; via Twitter,@gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.

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