If a Christmas tree is on your holiday shopping list, expect higher prices and bigger crowds at the tree lot this year.
While there will be plenty of real trees for everyone looking to buy one, there is a tighter supply this year because of weather issues in various parts of the country, says Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, an industry group. You may encounter slightly higher prices, similar to last year's 4% increase that added about $3 more to the typical bill, he adds.
Thanksgiving falls late this year, which also puts a crunch on the typical buying season. "Expect to see more crowds at the tree farm since the season is crammed into four weeks instead of five," says Sara Vera, a data analyst at Square, the payment processor.
So if you have a particular tree in mind, experts say, you should go tree shopping, or tree chopping, as early as possible. "I'd expect [trees] will sell quickly this year," Hundley says.
Here's how to get a great tree for your budget.
Video by David Fang
Don't expect Black Friday bargains. Based on an analysis of sales from thousands of Christmas tree farmers and sellers across the country, payment processor Square found that tree prices are highest from Black Friday (November 29) through Cyber Monday (December 2). Prices steadily fall the closer it gets to Christmas, says Vera — although the tighter supply makes it risky to wait until the last minute.
Square developed a calculator to estimate the best day to buy your tree, based on where you live, how much money you want to spend, and how long you'd like your tree to last. For example, if you live in the Midwest and want a tree that lasts more than three weeks, Square's calculator estimates that December 4 will be the best day to buy. A tree cost $63.74 that day last year.
Buying a tree that's too big for your space can be an expensive misstep. So before you leave home, pull out your tape measure.
"Make sure you know how much space you have to work with before going tree shopping," Hundley says. "Remember: A Christmas tree outdoors will look much smaller than it will inside your living room."
Finding a tree that's the right size can drain your wallet. "It's no surprise that the taller the tree, the bigger the price tag," Vera says. "Real Christmas trees can take years to grow, and each foot taller is more investment the farmer has to make to sustain the farm and grow the tree."
Many tree farms advertise their prices online, along with information about the types they carry or other amenities that await. If you're buying at other locales like tree lots or big box retailers, try to learn about where the trees are sourced or read reviews from prior buyers.
"Buy your tree from a location and someone who is taking good care of your future tree; in other words, keeping it fresh," Hundley says.
You can confirm quality on site. While you may be on the hunt for a tree that looks great, how it feels is just as important.
Hundley recommends taking off your winter gloves and getting hands-on with the tree. "Feel the foliage with your hands to see if it feels soft and pliable, rather than stiff and dry," he says. The latter indicates the tree may have been cut several weeks ago and hasn't been properly cared for in the interim.
It can be helpful to have some idea of the type of tree you want because some farms have multiple varieties. For example, Bell's Christmas Tree Farm in Accord, New York, has about a dozen types of trees for sale this year.
While half of tree shoppers know exactly what they want each year, the other half is looking for guidance, estimates Brian Bell, one of the farm's owners. "We get a lot of customers who have never cut a tree before, so we're happy to try and answer any questions they might have."
Lori Bell, who helps run the farm along with her husband Brian, asks the following questions to guide first-time buyers:
- Do you have a lot of heavy ornaments to hang?
- How long do you need the tree to last?
- Do you want a soft or stiff needle?
- Do you prefer a more fragrant tree?
Depending on your answers, one variety might be a better value for your needs than another. While spruce trees tend to be a bit more prickly, they have stronger limbs to hold heavier ornaments. Firs, on the other hand, have softer needles and tend to be more fragrant.
At Bell's, all varieties and sizes of trees are the same price: $50. But pricing can vary by variety, according to Square's data. In 2018, a Nordmann Fir sold for $98, on average, whereas the Douglas Fir sold for an average of $53.
"If you're not particular on the type of tree, you can save some significant money at the tree farm or lot," Vera says.
Whether you spend $20 or $100 on a tree, there's more work you need to do at home to get your money's worth. "You make it a great tree by taking care of it," Hundley says.
Once you get home, you'll need to make a fresh cut about a half-inch from the bottom of the tree, according to Michael May, owner of Lazy Acres Farm in Chunky, Mississippi. Then put the tree in water as soon as possible.
"This allows the trunk to start drinking water immediately," May says. "Never allow the water to go below the level of your cut or it will dry out quickly and start to sap over."
And be sure to water your tree daily, because some varieties will drink more than a gallon a day for the first few days. "Don't treat it like another house plant," May says.
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