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Don Kinzler: Real deal wins every year for this gardener

FARGO – The numbers are in, and real Christmas trees have been soundly defeated by artificials with an 83 percent to 17 percent whipping.

But do you know where your artificial tree has been?

America’s artificial Christmas trees were invented when a toilet bowl brush manufacturer created a tree from brush bristles in the 1930s. I guess when our artificial trees wear out, the branches can serve double duty.

Although there are many good reasons for going artificial, real Christmas trees will always hold magic for me. This year, for the first time, Mary and I will forgo a fresh tree due to our house fire that caused our temporary relocation to an apartment. Understandably, real trees are not allowed.

We heard lots of interesting reasons during our years of selling Christmas trees at the greenhouse. Fluffy once climbed inside the branches, and the whole thing tipped. Or toddler Seymour might try cutting his teeth on the branches. Not to mention that only a strong marriage can withstand the trials of setting up a real tree when husband and wife attempt to stabilize it vertically, let alone straight.

Permanent trees are more cost efficient. Americans on average spend $80 to $100 for a tree expected to last 10 years. Fresh trees nationally cost an average of $45 per year.

With the cards stacked against fresh trees, why don’t I just admit defeat, stop promoting them and buy stock in the Chinese companies that manufacture 80 percent of the permanent trees? Probably for the same reason I advocated real flowers and plants last Memorial Day. I never mean to offend anyone, but I can’t go gaga over artificial plants or trees.

Where to shop

Tree sellers fall into three groups: national mass merchandisers, street corner lots and locally owned garden centers.

The price at national merchandisers and home improvement stores is attractive, and we’ve sometimes gotten good trees. But I feel they may be handled in the same fashion as bundles of shingles. I recommend buying at your own risk.

Street corner Christmas tree lots are operated by private retailers and organizations like Boy Scouts and Knights of Columbus. The trees seem to be from fresh sources, and we’ve always been pleased with the quality. There’s usually help to give the trees a twirl so you can view all sides.

Local garden centers and greenhouses should understandably offer great trees because they desire your business all year. With Fargo’s longest history of tree sales, Baker Garden and Gift had just unloaded their trees when I visited into a humid basement-type storage room where you could smell the freshness and moisture. This handling will certainly lengthen the time of quality in the home.


  • Fraser fir is the national favorite. They’re full, symmetrical, straight-trunked, and can last from Thanksgiving until New Year’s. Needles are dark green with blue-silver undersides.
  • Balsam fir is lighter green in color with needles arranged flatly along branches. Perhaps the most fragrant tree, they’ll remain fresh about three weeks indoors, sometimes longer.
  • Noble fir is much like Fraser in longevity, but has a slightly different look, almost like Colorado Spruce but softer.
  • White pine has a distinctive soft look with needles about 4 inches long. Its flexible branches necessitate decorating with lightweight ornaments. Their graceful appearance keeps a steady following, but you won’t see them offered everywhere.
  • Scotch pine has lost favor, although the price is attractive. Three-inch needles are prickly and a crooked trunk is normal.

How to choose, care for trees

Check the branches. The freshest trees will feel moist and pliable. Branches lacking moisture will feel dry and brittle. The freshest trees are heavy for their height.

Once the tree is home, cut an inch from the base and place in water as soon as possible, and never longer than several hours. The water-absorbing surface closes proportionately as time passes.

Exhaustive trials with 7-Up, aspirin, vinegar, sugar and bleach have been done to prolong a tree’s freshness. None has been certifiably proven to work, and some have been shown to have adverse effects. What does work is plenty of room-temperature water that is never allowed to fall below the cut surface. Personally I think commercial tree preservatives have some benefit, but I would steer clear of home brews.

Christmas and nostalgia may go together, but today’s trees are a vast improvement. As a boy in Lisbon, N.D., we bought our trees from the corner Texaco station. When I view photos of our Christmas trees of past, I chuckle at the haphazard branches and loose appearance.

But real or artificial, perfect or not, they all become special with the magic of Christmas.

Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as a North Dakota State Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler’s Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at