CLEMSON — With the countdown to Christmas upon us, don’t let the clock run out on your tree before the big day arrives.

While traditions vary, no matter when or where your family gets its Christmas tree, there are tricks to ensure it stays fresh and green throughout the holiday season, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Christmas tree agent Mark Arena says.

First, pay attention to the cut of the tree. Pre-cut trees need at least an inch cut off the base after purchase to create a fresh cut that will allow the tree to take water.

“When you get a fresh-cut tree, they’re going to cut the tree fresh off the trunk and they’re going to place it in your car,” said Arena. “Within an hour, you should get the tree home, in the stand and fill the stand with water, and keep the water in the stand constantly full. The difference between getting a fresh-cut tree and a pre-cut tree is the length we cut off the base. With a pre-cut tree that you get at a large box store or a Christmas tree farm, you want to take at least an inch off the base and create a fresh cut that will be able to take up the water.”

Next, make sure to have a stand large enough to hold at least a gallon of water and check the water level every 24 hours.

Christmas trees on the farm

Look for a Christmas tree with a healthy, green appearance and few dead or browning needles. Avoid trees with a wilted look.
Image Credit: Clemson University Public Service and Agriculture

Many stores and tree farms, such as the one Clemson University emeritus faculty member George Kessler has operated near Six Mile since 1971, offer stands in one-, two- and three-gallon models, depending on the size of your tree.

“One of the things we emphasize is to make sure they get the tree promptly in water once they leave this place,” Kessler said. “We tell them they have one hour to have the tree back in water, and if it’s not back in water in that time, they need to re-cut it themselves.”

Additives such as sugar, soda or baking soda don’t enhance the life of a tree. Water is the key.

“The best thing you can do is keep the water base full and let the tree take that fresh water up and over time the tree is actually going to slow down on that water uptake,” Arena said. “So just make sure you keep the water at the bottom of the base and that’s the best thing you can do.”

After buying a tree, take steps to make it as clean as possible prior to bringing it into your house. Many farms offer a vibrating mechanism to remove dead needles. Too many dead needles, however, is a bad sign.

“A simple way to check and see how fresh the tree is, is to bump it on the ground or sidewalk,” Kessler said. “If you get a bunch of needles shedding out of the tree when you do that, you probably better look for another tree.”

Once a tree is cut, it will regulate the amount of water it can take up its base on its own. No need to worry about overwatering.

“The natural sap in the tree will start to close the cells that take up the water,” Arena said. “So watering it through the base of the tree I don’t see how one could overwater it. Some people do get out a misting bottle or a hose and they wet down the trees. There’s not really much water uptake through the foliage once the tree is cut, so we don’t recommend that method, especially if you have electrical cords or other electrical objects on the tree. It’s just not really a safe thing to do: put water with electricity.”

Make sure to keep the tree away from other heat sources, too.

“We also tell customers they need to keep it in a place in the home that is away from ducts, fireplaces and wood stoves,” Kessler said. “The other thing we tell them is to make sure they’re using proper electrical equipment around the trees, something that doesn’t have any shorts. I know a lot of people worry about fires with Christmas trees, but in reality, if you keep it fresh, you’re not going to have a problem with fire.”

If you’ve waited later in the season, trees growing in the ground are more likely to still be fresh; pre-cut trees may not take on water even after making a fresh cut.

“Look for a healthy tree; all the Christmas tree farmers in South Carolina are growing trees in the ground,” Arena said. “That’s my preference because it’s a healthier tree and a local tree and they tend to do better. Just look at the tree and be happy with it. With a Christmas tree, everybody has a different taste and appeal about what they think is a pretty tree.”

For those looking for a local farm, the South Carolina Christmas Tree Association offers a free search engine to find farms within a 50-mile radius by entering your zip code at

“That’s a great resource to find out where the local people are who are selling trees, and I encourage you to buy from the farmers who are putting a lot of hard work and energy into these trees and support our local businesses,” Arena said.

While many municipalities offer pickup service after the Christmas season has passed, there are always plenty of other opportunities for recycling your tree.

“Another option is that wildlife organizations are always looking for trees to make dens for small animals and also for putting in lakes (for fish habitat) and things of this nature,” Kessler said. “Another interesting thing you can do is to take it outside and kind of use it as a bird feeder for a couple of months or until spring comes. It gives the family the chance to still see their tree in use in some fashion right around their house.”