Ask the Master Gardener: Plenty to consider when picking a Christmas tree

Most tree lots carry fresh pine, spruce and fir trees. As you can imagine, each variety has its advantages and disadvantages.

A family walking in a Christmas tree lot.
Most Christmas tree lots carry fresh pine, spruce and fir trees. Each variety has its advantages and disadvantages.
Contributed / Metro Newspaper Service
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Dear Master Gardener: We are getting a real Christmas tree this year. What’s the difference between the various trees?

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Answer: Most tree lots carry fresh pine, spruce and fir trees. As you can imagine, each variety has its advantages and disadvantages. You will want to consider not only fragrance but also color, ability to hold lights and heavy ornaments, and price.

Scots pine (also known as Scotch pine) is probably the least expensive. Its needles are 2-3 inches long and its branches are sturdy enough to support fairly heavy ornaments. Pines have the best needle retention. White pine is a bluish-green Minnesota native with very fragrant and delicate, 3- to 4-inch-long needles. It is best decorated with light-weight ornaments. Red pine, also known as Norway pine, another Minnesota native, has stiffer, shorter needles than the white pine and tends to have more space between branches. White spruce, another native, has the shortest needles of all, about a half inch. It is denser than the pine and has an odor that some find mildly unpleasant. Balsam, Fraser and Canaan firs have been among the most popular trees in recent years. They have a beautiful silvery cast and are the most fragrant of all the trees. The Fraser fir has the sturdiest branches and is also the most expensive.

Before you make your final decision, shake a tree or run a hand gently over a branch to test for freshness. If more than a few needles fall off, it is too dry and you need to choose a different tree.

When you get the tree home, cut off a 1-inch piece and immediately submerge the tree in water in a sturdy stand. Make sure that the cut end of the tree is always submerged in water as long as the tree is in the house. You may be surprised to find that the tree will take up a quart of water a day at first, so check it several times a day and keep the stand filled. If the stand goes dry, the cut will seal over, water uptake will stop, and the tree will rapidly dry out. Contrary to folk wisdom, research shows that nothing, such as aspirin or sugar, added to the tree water will make the tree last longer or stay healthier. A real tree requires more work and attention than does an artificial one, but the color, fragrance, and knowledge that you are using a renewable resource bring great satisfaction.


Dear Master Gardener: What houseplants survive low-light conditions?

A Chinese evergreen plant.
Chinese evergreens are one of many types of plants that grow well in low light conditions.
Contributed / Jennifer Knutson

Answer: Low-light conditions mean little to no direct light. This is usually a north window. Here is a list of some low-light plants: Chinese evergreen, cast iron plant, Dieffenbachia, Dracaena, English ivy, pothos, Philodendron, snake plant (Sansevieria), peace lily (Spathiphyllum). arrowhead plant, zee zee plant. These plants don’t dry out quickly, so check the soil before watering. If it’s cool and damp it doesn’t need to be watered yet.

December Gardening Tips

  • The best way to keep icy sidewalks, steps, and driveways safe without damaging nearby plants is to rely primarily on sand, grit or inexpensive clay kitty litter rather than de-icing products. De-icer eventually runs off and accumulates in the soil. The more you use over the winter, the more likely that your grass and plants will be “burned” by the salt.
  • Poinsettias are easy holiday plants to grow. Make sure to get them (and all plants) home without suffering cold damage. Plants should be wrapped well, then transported in a heated vehicle, not left in the car while you do other shopping. Cut the bottom of the foil or other decorative covering (or punch holes in the bottom) so excess water drains out and place your poinsettia in bright, indirect light. Water thoroughly when the soil surface begins to dry. And contrary to popular belief, they are not poisonous. Like other plants in the Euphorbiaceae family, they do have a milky sap that can irritate the skin though.
  • If you haven’t done so already, clean and oil garden tool blades and wooden handles to prolong their lives and appearance.
  • Check on dahlia, calla lily, and canna tubers. Discard tubers that have shriveled significantly, developed soft spots, smell funny, or show any signs of rotting.
  • Check on your produce, such as potatoes or winter squash, that you are storing. If anything has shriveled, developed soft spots, smells funny, or shows any signs of rotting get rid of it. If you have potatoes sprouting, it means they are not being kept cool enough. If they are turning green, they are exposed to too much light.
  • If dust has built up on your houseplants, clean them off with lukewarm water. Don’t use leaf shine products, including “natural” ones such as milk or mayonnaise. They leave residue that attracts more dust. Check for insects, especially on the underside of leaves. 
  • Share the garden season with others by framing your best flower and garden photos or making notecards and giving them as gifts. 
  • Bloom-it-yourself amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus kits make great gifts for those who need some gardening cheer!
  • Monitor your trees and shrubs for damage done by deer and rabbits. Apply repellents and fencing to minimize damage.
  • Throughout the winter months, check your houseplants regularly for signs of insects or disease. Some signs of insect problems include fine webbing, discolored foliage, or shiny, sticky patches on leaves. Wipe insects and dust off of leaves (top and bottom) with a clean, damp cloth.
  • Do not fertilize houseplants at this time of year. Because of low light and poor growing conditions, plants need very few nutrients.
  • Let it snow! Snow insulates and protects plants through winter into spring.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at and I will answer you in the column if space allows.

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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