Fir sure: Expert offers advice about finding, maintaining the perfect Christmas tree

By Matt Masterson - Freeman Staff

Nov. 28, 2014

Ken Ottman stands beside his lot of Christmas trees in Pewaukee. Ottman's family has been in the tree business since his father opened the lot in 1946.  
Matt Masterson/Freeman Staff

PEWAUKEE - Ken Ottman has learned just about everything there is to know about selling and handling Christmas trees in his 55 years on the job.

His father, Herb, got into the tree business in 1946 just after World War II to supplement his paint contracting business during the winter, growing trees on 62 acres of land on the family farm in Door County before cutting and selling them in Milwaukee.

Ken - who now operates First Choice Tree Care year-round - started helping out his father in 1959 and hasn’t looked back since. After moving the tree lot to Pewaukee about 20 years ago, he begins his first season at a new location on Capitol Drive today.  He expects there could be a smaller number of available trees this year thanks to an early snow in addition to record low temperatures last year.

“This last winter was really tough on everyone,” he said. “That cut the harvest for a lot of people. This early winter has really reduced the production. There are people who are just out of business this year.”

His advice to buyers: Get your tree early.

The freshest trees were likely cut during the first week of November, and Ottman said you are better off buying one quickly and leaving it in a shaded area or an unheated garage before you are ready to put it up inside to decorate.

He urges potential buyers to look for greener, healthy trees with soft, pliable needles that don’t fall off and to avoid those with brown spots on the outside - a sure sign of a winter-damaged tree. Straight trees which have been freshly cut are also something to watch out for.

Ottman said buyers should ask their sellers where the trees come from, and lean toward buying one cut close to where it is being sold.

“They aren’t subject to damage from the cold,” he said. “This year if you have some trees from Oregon and you put them up and we have some below (freezing) temperatures, you are going to get needles browning and falling off the trees.”

Once the tree is purchased, Ottman said, a fresh cut must be made at its base, so remove sap and resin which hardens at the base of the stem and prevents it from drawing up any water.

When soaking the tree’s base, Ottman says there is nothing better to use than fresh, clean water. He said to use warm water the first time the tree has been brought in from the cold to thaw the stem, and early on some trees draw up a gallon of water each day.

“Once it ever dries out, then it won’t take up water,” he said. “It is like a rose - once a rose wilts, you can put all the water you want in it - it won’t come back up. You’ll have to re-cut it. (Use) fresh water, nothing in the water, no magic potions to put in it.”

Bleach has historically been recommended as an additive to water for fighting fungal growth, but Ottman said this will only dry out your tree even faster.

While he sells seven types of trees on his lot - including white pine, balsam fir and blue spruce - Ottman said your best bet is a fraser fir, which will keep its needles for up to an entire year.

“It has kind of changed the marketplace for short-needle trees,” he said. “Long-needle trees used to be about 80 percent of what was sold in our marketplace, now they account for 10, maybe. If you don’t know what tree to buy, get a fraser fir because you will be happy with it.”

Looking for a brand new, genuine Christmas tree this winter? Here are some tips and tricks from Ken Ottman to remember when heading to the lot or setting up at home:

* Buy your tree early. The selection is then at its best, as are the trees, which will only grow weaker if left on the lot for too long.

*  Ask your seller where their trees come from. Many lots have trees from Washington, Oregon or other states which may not be suited for the harsh chills of a Wisconsin winter. The closer to home the tree was grown, the fresher it likely is.

*  If it’s brown, set it down. Trees with brown spots are likely damaged from winterburn and are more likely to lose their needles early. Green, soft, pliable needles indicate a healthy tree that’s likely to last.

*  Hold off on setting it up. Once you’ve bought your tree, keep it in a shaded area (like the north side of a house) or inside an unheated garage. Most Wisconsin trees will last throughout December, but if you want your tree looking its best on Christmas, wait until Dec. 15 to set it up.

*  Pure water is the best thing for your tree once it has been set up in your home. No additives, including bleach, will make your tree last any longer than clean water. In fact, many will dry it out faster.

*  Make the cut.  So your tree can soak up the water it needs, make a fresh cut at the base to remove any accumulated resin or sap, preventing the tree from drawing in the water.

*  Never let the bowl of water beneath your tree go dry. This may require up to a gallon of water per day early on, but no water means a wilting tree.