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(MCT)—Done properly, the quest for a Christmas tree can be a bonding experience, an afternoon of outdoor family fun where you make precious holiday memories for rosy-cheeked children.

Done wrong, you end up with pine needles in your ears, the kids are wind-burned and crying, and, if you’re not careful with that saw, you’ll be asking Santa for a new thumb.

Fear not. Mark Chisholm can help. A third-generation arborist with his family-owned company, he also works as an arboriculture consultant and industry spokesman. Here are some things to consider in your search for holiday magic.

Tools needed: Tape measure, twine, gloves, saw, leaf blower, Santa hat, optional.

Degree of difficulty: Easy

Location, location, location: Know where the tree is going — and not near a heat source nor in a high-traffic area. Get a tape measure and determine how much room is available — and take the tape measure with you to the lot.

“It’s not that big a deal if you’re buying in the 6- or 7-foot range,” Chisholm says. “But if you’re looking at an 8-foot tree, you’re paying for something that might not fit. … Sometimes you fall in love with one and don’t realize it’s 9 feet tall. By the time you put a stand under it and a star on top, it just won’t work.”

Consider the source: Find a lot that donates its proceeds to a local charity. Chisholm points out that charitable tree lots are local businesses, so you’re giving back to the community as well.

Pick a winner: Full, thick trees look great on the lot. It’s not till you try to decorate it that you realize there’s no room for ornaments. So choose a tree that has gaps that you can fill in with decorations. As for the type of tree, it’s a personal choice.

“If you’re in the industry you’ll know certain species last longer, don’t drop their needles,” he says. “Those are the ones shipped most often to lots. They buy trees they know work well.” Douglas firs, Fraser firs, balsams are all good candidates. Type doesn’t matter as much as condition. “It’s more important to find one that looks good and seems to be in great shape.”

Freshness test: Look for natural green, not the green dye that often gets sprayed on before shipment. Run a limb or two through your hand to see if needles stay attached. Pick the tree up a few inches and drop it, letting the stump hit the ground. Watch for a shower of dead needles.

Chisholm says he does these tree checks twice: to trees out front, waiting to be sold right away, and trees in the back, which might have been a later (and thus fresher) shipment. It’s like buying milk at the grocery, he says; the fresher stuff is usually in the back.

Final prep: Before taking it in the house, make a fresh cut at the base to facilitate the uptake of water. And, if you’ve got a leaf blower, use it to dislodge loose needles, insects or anything else that may be lurking. “It’s a nice way to neaten it up before you bring it in,” Chisholm says. “And you’ll get rid of old needles that otherwise would end up on the floor when you pull the tree through the door.”

The National Christmas Tree Association ( has an informative website. Click on Education for facts you can toss out at the office holiday party.

©2012 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services