Christmas tree shortage means higher prices, smaller selection

Local Christmas tree retailers anticipate brisk sales due to shorter than normal supplies. KOMO photo

A nationwide Christmas tree shortage means fewer trees on many retail lots. While experts insist there should still be enough trees to go around, if you're set on a specific type and height of fresh cut tree, it's best not to wait too long to find it.

"We're definitely much busier this year than we were last year," said Risa Wolfe of Urban Feed and Garden in Seattle. "And people are coming in much earlier. I think maybe, in part, because of the whole tree shortage thing."

Blame the shortage thing on the 2008 recession.

When the economy tanked, Christmas tree growers planted fewer trees- and it takes 8 to 10 years for trees to grow to the most desirable Christmas tree heights.

Whatever tree you pick, make sure it's healthy.

Plant pathalogist Gary Chastagner with the WSU Research and Extension Center says while you're at the lot, shake the tree. Tap the trunk on the ground a few times and look for green needles.

"Brown needles falling out is very common. Most lot operators will shake trees and tap the base so the interior needles fall out. Brown is not an issue. But if you see green needles falling off branches, something's wrong." Chastagner said.

Urban Feed and Garden's Dimitri Lebid says also make sure the trunk bottom is not too short.

"You want to have enough trunk space. I'd say at lest 4 to 6 inches."

In some cases, you'll need to have the lot cut enough lower branches off so that there's plenty of room for the trunk to fit all the way in the tree stand - so it can get enough water.

Inadequate water is a top Christmas tree mistake.

"You definitely need to cut it at least once, just so the water absorbs into the trunk," said Lebid.

According to Chastagner, the fresh cut should be at least 1/4 inch.

And get the tree in water as soon as you get it home. The general rule of thumb is 1 quart of water for every inch of the trunk diameter. So a 4-inch diameter trunk will need 1 full gallon of water in the tree stand. Refill the tree stand daily.

"Because what happens is, if you don't have that water saturating the trunk, the tree drops sap down and it seals the bottom of it and it just won't take water up any more." Wolfe emphasized.

When it comes to the tree stand, don't be misled by the water capacity stated on the label. Chastagner says many labels apply to the amount of the water the stand will hold when it's empty. But the tree trunk will displace a lot of that water. So buy a bigger stand than you think you need.

Chastagner adds that tree preservatives that claim to help keep your tree from drying out are not necessary.

"Tree preservatives have been shown to have minimal effect on the rate of moisture loss," Chastagner said.

As for prices, experts say fresh cut trees this year are running about 5 to 10 percent higher than last year, largely due to the shorter supply.

And this fire safety warning for when you put up the tree at home: keep it away from all heat sources, don't use light strings that are damaged, or have exposed wires. Make sure your lights have authentic UL safety labels, and don't overload your electrical sockets.

The National Christmas Tree Association says even artificial trees have been known to catch fire when electrical sockets are overloaded with too many lights.

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