Real Christmas trees – tips for choosing and caring for real firs this December

Everything you need to know about choosing the perfect real Christmas tree - and keeping it alive

Real Christmas tree in living room next to french doors.
(Image credit: Future)

Christmas isn't complete without a beautifully decorated tree sitting centre stage, and if you really want to up the ante this year then a real Christmas tree is the way to go. A real fir tree has a quintessential look and an authentic smell that will fill your home, but you'll need to know all the essential info on picking and caring for a cut tree first. 

For many people choosing a real Christmas tree signals the start of the festive season and becomes a special family tradition. You may have previously preferred to deck your house out with the best artificial Christmas trees, but have been longing for the smell of natural pine to fill your front room. Whether you're a first-timer or an experienced real tree handler, getting to know the ins and out of real Christmas trees is essential seasonal prep for any Christmas tree ideas.

For a real Christmas tree to have a truly magical effect in your home, and to last for the whole festive period, it needs the proper care and attention. Not to mention there are so many different types to choose from, and that's before even getting started on how to decorate a Christmas tree for the festive season.

Living room with real Christmas tree and pink sofa.

(Image credit: Future)

Buying a real Christmas tree: everything you need to know

We've asked the experts for their top tips on choosing and nourishing a real Christmas tree. This guide will help you pick the best tree for your home and maintain it in healthy and hearty condition all the way through to 6th January. 

'If you’re opting for a real Christmas tree, you’re going to want to make sure it remains fresh and healthy throughout the entire festive season,' says Fiona Jenkins, Gardening Expert, MyJobQuote. 'Knowing how to take care of your Christmas tree properly can make the difference between a full and booming Christmas tree and a sad and bare Christmas tree.'

Selecting your Christmas tree

Real christmas tree with lights and presents underneath

(Image credit: Beards & Daisies)

Before we start thinking about Christmas tree trends, it's important to get the basics in place so that you can buy the right Christmas tree for your home. 

'To ensure your Christmas tree is the right size, come equipped with the height, depth and width measurements of the area where you picture your tree at home,' says Marcus Eyles, Horticultural Director, Dobbies Garden Centres. 'Make sure the area has a plug nearby, for your Christmas lights – corners are ideal, as it will keep your tree safe from knocks and bumps.'

'Bringing a tape measure to the store and double checking the dimensions is a good idea to avoid any disappointment and save you a return trip to the store if you find that your tree is too big or small once you get it home.'

Avoid buying a Christmas tree ready-wrapped, as the netting won't give you a clear idea of the exact size and shape of the tree, and may leave you with bent branches. 

‘Trees left in netting also aren’t able to benefit from air circulation and begin to form a micro-climate,' explains expert Craig Roman. 'This means the tree begins to warm up, drop needles and decompose at a much quicker rate.’

To make sure you are getting a British-grown tree that meets strict freshness standards, look for a Grown in Britain logo, a non-profit organisation that champions home-grown forest products and plants.

Know your firs

Real Christmas tree in living room next to french doors.

(Image credit: Future)

There are four main types of real Christmas trees that are commonly brought into the home during the festive season. They are:

  • Nordmann Fir - a well-balanced ‘A’ shape and strong branches covered with glossy needles.
  • Blue Spruce - mixes a good width with a beautiful blue and silver tint, caused by the resin it produces to protect its needles.
  • Norway Spruce - a bushy, classically-shaped tree, packed with short green needles and a lovely pine scent.
  • Fraser Fir - a tall, slim shape and green ‘needle-last’ needles that don’t drop easily, ideal for smaller spaces.

Despite its name, the Norway Spruce is grown throughout Britain and is often considered to be the most traditional Christmas tree. The U.K.'s most popular tree however is the Nordmann Fir because it loses very few needles, meaning your tree will remain green and full, with the right care.

Most garden centres will offer a variety of tree types, and though it's useful to keep in mind the different species, try not to get too hung up on selecting the 'best' one. What's important is whether your love the tree and can visualise it in your home - and that you have the space to accommodate it of course. 

You'll also need to decide between a cut tree and a pot-grown tree, which pretty much do what they say on the tin. 

What to look for in a fir tree

Christmas tree with front door

(Image credit: Future PLC )

When choosing your real Christmas tree, the key is to choose a healthy one - this will have a huge impact on how long it will last in your home, and how good it will look over the festive period.

‘Picking a healthy tree that’s in good condition for the holidays is really important and it will determine how well your tree looks throughout Christmas,' says Chris Bonnet, Founder, GardeningExpress. 'Checking the colour of the tree alone isn’t really good enough in helping you to determine how fresh it is. Some sellers paint their trees so it’s definitely worth doing some other things to check the freshness of the tree.’

Here are a few things you should try and keep in mind when hunting for a healthy festive fir:

  • Check the colour – ‘The first and most obvious thing to check when buying your tree is the colour of it,’ says Chris. ‘Take a good look at the whole tree to check for any grey or brown colouring.’ Ideally, the tree should be a shiny, glossy green.
  • The drop test – ‘Checking the needles of a tree is the best indication as to what sort of condition it’s in and one way to test this is with the drop test,’ advises Chris. ‘Hold the tree a few inches above the ground and drop it; if quite a few needles fall off then the tree is not fresh. Not all trees are the same however - the needles on a Norway Spruce tend to drop more, so the drop test might not be the best indication of how fresh these trees are. An alternative is to run your hands through the branches and see how many fall off. It's common for some of the internal needles to fall off, but the exterior ones should remain intact.’
  • Pick a tree partly in shade – ‘Picking a tree that is already partly in shade means that it won't struggle to adapt when you move it indoors since it’s already been kept away from the sun,’ adds Chris.

Real Christmas trees vs fake trees

christmas tree with gifts

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Other than the gorgeous pine smell and luscious green look, there are plenty of reasons to arrange your presents under a real tree rather than an artificial alternatives:

  1. It's estimated that real trees use 10 times fewer materials and five times less energy than artificial trees.
  2. They are completely biodegradable and can be recycled and composted.
  3. If you buy a British grown tree you can guarantee that you are choosing a more sustainable option with a smaller carbon footprint than an artificial tree.
  4. Real trees are a renewable resource, at least one tree will be planted when one is harvested. At some plantations such as Infinity Christmas Trees they plant two new trees for every one harvested each year.
  5. Christmas tree plantations benefit the environment. The Infinity Christmas Trees plantations alone absorb 900 tonnes of CO2.
  6. Growing real Christmas trees provides jobs in rural areas, where employment can be hard to come by.

'Real Christmas trees are a sustainable, renewable resource with a much smaller carbon footprint than artificial ones. Especially when they are home-grown like ours,' explains Dave Brown, Christmas Tree Specialist, Infinity Christmas Trees.

All of Homebase’s trees are proudly grown right here in the UK and Ireland for up to 12 years on otherwise wasted land. That means less air miles to protect our planet and extra freshness to keep the festivities thriving for longer - a festive win-win,' says David Mitchell, Horticulture Buying Manager, Homebase. 'It would take 10 years of using an artificial tree from new for it to be as eco-friendly as a real tree!'

Bringing your tree home

real christmas tree exterior

(Image credit: Future PLC/ Rachel Whiting)

First steps

'Firstly, take your tree out of the netting and give it a good shake,' says gardening expert Fiona Jenkins. 'It's best to do this on the day that you bring your tree home to prevent any fungus and mould from growing in the damp branches.'

Next, saw off about half an inch (2.5cm) from its base in order to open up its pores – just as you would do with fresh flowers. ‘Sap will have formed at the bottom of the trunk from the first trim in an attempt to heal the tree's wound,’ says Chris Bonnet. ‘Giving it another trim before placing it in water will remove this, allowing for a much better water consumption.’

Place the tree in a bucket of water and keep it outside in a shady, sheltered spot until you’re ready to bring it indoors. Just before you carry it into the house, give it another gentle tap to shed any loose needles.

Once inside, stand your tree in a container that you can top up with water to help it last longer. You'll be surprised by the amount of water it will drink!

How to look after a real Christmas tree

living room with christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC)

One thing that can put people off about buying a real Christmas tree is the worry that it won’t last throughout the season as well as an artificial one. But don’t fret, because we’ve spoken to the experts to find out exactly how to look after a real Christmas tree so that it stays lovely and lush.

Firstly, remember that the earlier you put your tree up, the higher the risk that it won’t look as fresh by the time the 25th rolls around. ‘The first week of December is ideal, and as long as you care for your tree properly, there’s no reason it won’t stay looking fresh,’ says Chris Bonnet.

To make it last as long as possible, treat your tree like you would an expensive bunch of flowers, and be mindful of how day-to-day things might affect it, such as heat and light.

'The main mistake made is placing a tree near heat sources,' says John Lawless, BestHeating. 'You should avoid putting it near radiators and fireplaces as this will prevent it from drying out, looking wilted and shedding its needles.' 

If possible, place the tree somewhere where it can get a few hours of natural light each day, and make sure its base is fully immersed in water. For Christmas lights, opt for LEDs, which won’t dry the branches out as much. ALWAYS remember to turn off your lights before going to bed.

christmas trees lime lace

(Image credit: Future PLC/Lime Lace)

'You should top up the water for your tree every day to keep it looking healthy, plump, and full,' says Fiona. 'It’s best to add at least 500ml of water each day. A real Christmas tree is capable of absorbing around 1-2 litres each day, but a cut tree can remain hydrated on less than that.'

But did you know they drink more than water? The experts have revealed that the secret to keeping your real tree looking healthy is actually full-fat lemonade!

‘You can use florist’s cut flower food, or you can just mix up some sugar water or full-fat lemonade,' says gardening guru David Domoney

'Feeding your tree a little lemonade will give it a sugar boost and support growth,' expands David Mitchell from Homebase.

Ideally, you need to keep your real tree away from any fruit bowls in the home. 'Although they may be a staple during the festive period, fruit gives off ethylene gas which affects plants and trees, making needles drop quicker,' explains Kamalvir Dhillon, B&Q

Finally, make sure the tree is secure in its holder or pot, and avoid whittling the trunk of a tree to fit a stand - this can remove the most active cells from the outside of the trunk and make the tree thirsty.

Real Christmas tree in dining room next to fireplace

(Image credit: Future)

How long do real Christmas trees survive?

'If well looked after, your gorgeous green tree can last up to five weeks – maybe even six if you’re lucky!' says Jo Lambell, Founder, Beards & Daisies.

Healthy cut trees typically last around four weeks, after which you'll have to consider when to take your Christmas tree down. You may wish to take it down in the period between Christmas and New Year, rather than waiting until the last day of advent (6th January).

Real potted trees are slightly different. 'You shouldn’t keep a potted Christmas tree indoors for more than 12 days at a time as it cannot survive the warm temperatures indoors,' says John Lawless, BestHeating. 'Move it outside every few days for a few hours to allow the tree to recharge. Once Christmas is over it’s best to move it outdoors indefinitely so that it can continue to thrive.'

christmas tree

(Image credit: Future PLC/Charlton Island)

What's the best type of Xmas tree?

Nordmann Fir trees are the most popular type of real Christmas trees, known as the 'family' pick. 

'The full, broad conical shape of a Nordmann Fir makes it easy to spread your baubles, decorations and lights along its branches right into the centre of the tree for an extra magical display,' says Marcus from Dobbies. 'With deep luscious green needles and a height perfect for high ceilings, this picturesque tree can’t be beaten.'

'A Nordmann Fir is a great option, as these are low-drop – so you won’t find yourself constantly hoovering up needles', agrees horticultural expert Jo Lambell.

She adds, 'if you’re looking for a long-lasting tree, that’s also sustainable, then I always recommend choosing a potted tree. The bonus with these is that you can pop them outside once the festive season is over and keep the tree happy in your garden until it’s Christmas time again.' 

Now all you need to know is what decorating scheme to go for. Eclectic, neutral or traditional red and green - whatever you choose, it's bound to make an impact.

Thea Babington-Stitt
Assistant Editor

Thea Babington-Stitt is the Assistant Editor for Ideal Home. Thea has been working across some of the UK’s leading interiors titles for nearly 10 years. 

She started working on these magazines and websites after graduating from City University London with a Masters in Magazine Journalism. Before moving to Ideal Home, Thea was News and Features Editor at Homes & Gardens, LivingEtc and Country Homes & Interiors.

With contributions from