Meet Mark Cullen

Canada's best known gardening personality, Mark Cullen believes that Canadians of all ages need to play more - preferably in the dirt. A best-selling author with over 400,000 books in print, Mark reaches over one million Canadians every week through various media outlets. He is Home Hardware's horticultural spokesperson and regularly contributes to various magazines, gardening shows and newsletters. With a familiar style that people can relate to, he delivers a message that is compelling, fun, informative and inspirational - all based on his organic approach to gardening. In his spare time Mark enjoys driving his Ford Model A - and of course he loves to garden.

Choose the right Christmas Tree

Just when you thought that life is not at all predictable, I come along with a morsel of information that shatters your illusion.

With Christmas little more than a couple of weeks away we are coming up to THE big weekend for Christmas tree sales. In fact, most Christmas tree sales will occur exactly 2 weekends prior to December 25th.

I know this based on more than a few years in the retail ‘Christmas tree’ business.

Which brings me to the most asked ‘gardening’ question this time of year, which is, “What is the best Christmas tree?”

It is a great question because not all Christmas trees are created (grown) equal and there are new varieties/species offered almost every year. I will get to that in a moment, but first a short speech in defense of the ‘plantation grown’ Christmas tree.

There are sincere but misguided people out there who will tell you that buying a Christmas tree is bad for the environment. The thinking goes like this: why would you cut a perfectly good tree down in the forest when it could continue to serve a purpose left standing there? Wildlife benefits from trees as does the environment (all of our oxygen, after all, is produced by the green living world around us).

IF we cut trees down in the forest for Christmas – trees that otherwise would stand for a long time naturally – I would agree with the above stated argument. But the truth is that no respectable retailers in Canada would sell cut Christmas trees that were cut from a natural stand of evergreen trees. Virtually all of the trees that are available for sale from nurseries, garden centres, retailers, Boy Scouts and church groups are ‘plantation grown’.

The truth about the Christmas tree that you buy:

It takes between 8 and 10 years to grow a good quality Christmas tree.

They are generally grown on marginally productive land to begin with. While growing they provide valuable protection and a home for a wide variety of wildlife including birds, deer, rodents and butterflies. Christmas trees sequester carbon and exhale pure, clean oxygen (like all other trees). They reduce soil erosion and filter air borne pollutants. They are not (generally) fertilized while in the field, and the use of pesticides seldom occurs and when it does, they are used judiciously (Christmas tree growers are not necessarily environmentalists, but the cost of pesticides alone discourages the practice of using them).

Now that we have established the benefits of supporting the Christmas tree growers of Canada (they are a net-export crop by the way), let’s look at the various qualities of the trees that are available:

Canadian Christmas trees: in order of my personal favourites:
Five *’s = very favourite
One * = poor choice.

Fraser Fir *****. Tall, straight, wonderful evergreen scent and above average needle retention. A traditional look. Soft needles: easy on the hands. I will put one of these in my home partly because they are easy to set up. Have you ever put up a Christmas tree that had a crooked trunk? It is a test of anyone’s good will and ‘Christmas spirit’. If I am ever visited by the ghost of Christmas past, I am sure that he will take me to that day in the garage when I tried putting a Scots pine into a 3 legged tree stand. Not a pretty picture.
Cost for a 7 foot: between $45 and $65.

Noble fir *****. Much like the Fraser Fir but with a wonderful silver tone to the underside of the needles.
Cost for a 7 foot: $50 to $90

Balsam ****. Great needle retention, straight trunk, nice scent. A maritime native. Only downside is the distance between branches is rather generous, giving the tree a thinner look than its’ Fir cousins. You will get fewer ornaments on a Balsam, but if the tree has been aggressively pruned on the farm it can thicken up quite nicely. The lower cost may encourage you to look for this one at your local supplier.
Cost for a 7 foot: $35 to $50.

Scots Pine ***. This was the #1 cut Christmas tree a generation ago. It was the tree that my Dad hauled home from the garden centre for our personal use for as many years as I can remember. The greatest advantage of the Scots Pine is that it has long needles that are stiff enough to hold up most any tree ornament. Also, it is densely branched, providing an excellent opportunity to load it up with lights and decorations. However, the trunk of the Scots Pine is seldom straight and never as straight as that of the Fraser Fir. It has reasonable needle retention, a gentle scent that is most intense when you first bring it into the house and the price is lower than any of the more popular trees.
Cost for a 7 foot: $30 to $45.

White spruce **. The very first Christmas tree, which, legend has it, was cut somewhere in Bavaria, Germany about 350 years ago, likely was a spruce of some kind. This gives us the ‘traditional’ shape that most of us associate with the Christmas tree. That is about the limit of features that the White Spruce has to recommend it.
It has poor needle retention, usually has wide gaps between branches (minimizing the opportunity for decorations and lights) and the scent is moderate.
Above all, I steer away from the White Spruce for the fire hazard that results from the dramatic needle drop.
If you live in the country and are cutting a spruce down on your own property, be sure not to bring it indoors until about 5 days before Christmas. And take it back outdoors a couple of days after Christmas. That way the ‘needle drop’ will not cause too much of a problem: like clogging up your vacuum cleaner.
Cost for a 7 foot: Cheap, if you can find them.

A couple of tips when choosing and preparing your tree for indoors:

1. Look for a tree with a straight trunk – anyone that has tried to put a crooked tree in a stand will tell you the same thing.
2. Look for bushiness that suits your space. Look for a tree that is the right height for the room you plan to put it in. You pay for height when you buy a tree – no use cutting off a foot or two!
3. Cut about 2 inches off of the bottom of the trunk the same day that you plan on putting the tree up. This opens up the capillaries in the tree, increasing its ability to take up water.
4. ALWAYS use a stand that holds water and make sure that you keep it topped up. This, more than anything else that you do will help the tree to hold its needles for the longest time possible.
5. When you dispose of your tree, leave it for the municipality to recycle OR place it in the garden, stand and all, until spring. In the mean time it will provide protection for visiting birds. I put mine within 20 ft of bird feeding stations.

Above all, take family and friends out for the tree selection experience and get the Christmas spirit stirred up well ahead of the big day!

Keep your knees dirty,

Mark Cullen