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
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
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
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
* 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
* 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.