Christmas trees may have little to do with the religious part of the holiday, but they are a colorful and aromatic way to stave off the blues that come from the dark and chill of December. You bring a piece of the outdoors inside, string it with lights, fill the house with the beautiful scent of balsam and – when selecting and decorating your tree – create family memories.

Few people walk out into the woods and cut down a Christmas tree as they did 100 years ago; there is simply less forest to do so, plus untrimmed trees from the forest would look scraggly given the neatly trimmed, farm-grown trees we have come to expect. So choosing a place to buy your tree can become a part of your tradition. You can buy it from a Christmas tree farm, a local charity, a garden center or a big-box store. Readers of this column are familiar enough with the buy local movement to avoid the last one, I hope.

Jay Cox has been selling Christmas trees for five years at The Old Farm Christmas Place in Cape Elizabeth. Buying a tree at a farm has several advantages, he said.

“It’s kind of an event,” Cox said. “People go out in the field and they cut it down, so they are a little more involved. And it’s as fresh as you can get. If you cut the tree, take it home and get it in water right away, it’s going to last a long time.”

Cox grows only balsams. He plants 2,500 a year and harvests them after seven to nine years, depending on the tree and its location on his lot. He trims and shears his trees, but not severely, and he always offers both fat and thin trees – different strokes for different folks. If a tree hasn’t sold after nine years, he figures it is flawed in some way, so he takes it off the market.

This year, Cox let customers pick their trees as early as Nov. 15. They hop on a wagon, ride through the rows of trees, select one they like and tag it. When Christmas nears and they’re ready to put up their tree, they return to either cut it down themselves or have Cox’s crew do it.

THE GIVING TREE

Buying a tree from a charity helps organizations in your community, and the quality is good.

Scott Irving of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Rotary said his group has been selling Christmas trees in Mill Creek Park since 1962. The organization brings in about 1,950 trees each year and sells almost all of them. The Rotary gets its trees from a Bangor Christmas tree farm connected with Sprague’s Nursery. At one time, the trees came from Canada. That changed when a local Rotary member attended a state Rotary convention and met the Bangor grower, who, so it happened, was also was a Rotary member. The same farm provides trees for Rotary sales in Scarborough and Westbrook, Irving said.

“The reason to buy from us instead of buying from a gas station is that the money is going back into the community,” Irving said. “It’s all done by volunteers.”

Among the charities that benefit from the South Portland tree sales are the Children’s Garden at the Arboretum at Fort Williams (now in the planning stages), two food pantries and Maine Rural Health Network programs.

LIVING OR CUT?

The big advantage of buying your tree at a garden center is choice. In addition to balsams, O’Donal’s and other plant nurseries are likely to offer a range of options: living Christmas trees, Frasier firs, Scotch pines, white pines and other evergreens.

Living Christmas trees were popular in the 1970s and ’80s, when O’Donal’s would sell more than 100 a year, owner Jeff O’Donal said. He now sells fewer than 50 each Christmas season. He attributes the decline to changing perceptions and a better understanding of the amount of work involved. In the 1970s, people thought having a cut tree meant you were killing a tree that otherwise would grow to be a 60-foot giant. These days, the public understands that tree farmers are harvesting a crop in the same way that cabbage farmers do. In addition, a living tree turns out to be a lot of work. To begin, you can keep the tree inside for only about four days.

“After three days, you can’t just put it outside,” O’Donal said. “While inside, it had started to hold water, so if you take it directly outside its cells will crack. You have to reharden it off to get use to the cold.” (The living trees were hardened off naturally when they lived outside and temperatures dropped in the fall, and must be hardened off again with your help by spending time on a porch or in a garage before going out to your yard.)

Moreover, you can’t just dig a hole in your yard to plant your tree in late December. If you didn’t plan ahead, you’re likely out of luck; the ground will be frozen. Finally, you have to remember to keep your soil in a warm place – a cellar or garage – to refill the hole when you plant the tree; otherwise the soil, too, will freeze. O’Donal’s grows most of the balsam firs sold as Christmas trees at his nursery, but O’Donal prefers Frasier firs himself.

“Frasiers have better needle retention, and I like the stiffness of the branch, so they hold ornaments better,” he said.

Because his own land doesn’t have the right kind of soil to grow Frasiers, he buys them – and a few balsams – from a farm in Sangerville.

The fad of Scotch pine Christmas trees peaked in the 1970s, but a few people still ask for them, he said.

No matter what kind of tree you buy or where you buy it, here are a few rules:

For any tree you bought pre-cut, cut an inch off the base before putting the tree in water, and be sure to put it in water within an hour of the cut.

 For the first week the tree is up, water it at least twice a day. It’ll be very thirsty at the start but drink up less water after it has been up for a while.

 Don’t leave the tree up more than three weeks. They get too dry, the needles drop and they can be a fire hazard.

 Finally, my own rule: Spend at least two hours one night listening to holiday music with all the lights off except the ones on the tree. I prefer Aaron Neville, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Cash, but the choice is yours. While singing along, stop to consider all the things for which you are thankful.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]