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Minnesota Christmas tree buying guide

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Hauling a tree
Kate Willems, right, helped her father Steve Willems, center, and mother Renee Willems, left, carry the family's freshly cut Christmas tree back to their car at Revak Nursery in Lakeville on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. The family is from Carver, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Thanksgiving weekend is one of the most popular times between now and Christmas to buy a tree, so we put together some tips for those who plan to get one this year.

Real vs. fake:

Tree growers have long marketed their product as the environmentally friendly option, pointing out all the plastic artificial trees that end up in landfills. Most fake trees are not biodegradable, and you'll likely end up throwing it away at some point. Tree growers acknowledge those seeking real trees are killing a tree, but they say their practices of replanting every year make up for that. Another argument is that the real trees provide habitat for wildlife and beautify the landscape. For those who are very environmentally conscious, a small number of growers have vowed against using herbicides or artificial dyes for their trees. Mother Earth Gardens, an organic garden store in Minneapolis, buys trees from a Wisconsin tree grower who raises a portion of his trees without herbicides. 

Where to buy a real tree: 

Retailers or tree lots: This is where most people buying real trees will go this year. The options seem endless — you can get one at your local hardware or garden store, farmers markets, special lots set up by nonprofit fundraising groups, or temporary lots set up by growers who bring already cut trees into the cities.

Tree farms: There are dozens of farms across Minnesota where you can choose your own tree and cut it down yourself. These farms usually provide the saw and will also shake it out for you and/or bale it, sometimes for an additional fee. The Minnesota Christmas Tree Association has a list of cut-your-own tree farms.

Forests: If you want a truly wild tree there are a few places in the state to find one legally. The Superior National Forest and Chippewa National Forest each year allow people to cut Christmas Trees after paying a $5 permit fee. 

How to choose a good one and take care of it:

It's always good practice to shake a couple branches or gently pull a branch through your fingers to see if needles come flying off. 

Once you've picked your tree, make sure to give the trunk a fresh cut before taking it inside and putting it in water. Trees drink a ton of water in the first 24 hours but slow down after that. You should make sure you're keeping an eye on the water, though, because if a tree sits too long without any it will develop a sap coating on the trunk that prevents it from drinking more water after that. If that happens you have to make another cut in the trunk.

Tree costs:

Greenhouse gas emissions and other future costs aside, fake trees still generally cost less to the consumer — to environmentalists' chagrin. That's because most people will use theirs for years. Checking out discount store circulars and a few online sites, we found you could buy a 6-foot artificial tree for as little as $20. The fancier ones can easily cost more than $100, but if you use it for 10 years that's $10 a year. 

Most real trees will cost $25-$35 for pines and $40-$60 for firs and spruce. Some places charge per foot, so trees larger than 8 feet can cost more. Choose-and-cut farms sometimes offer bargains, especially ones located farther away from the Twin Cities. And if you're OK getting a "Charlie Brown" type tree this year, Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis is selling some balsam firs removed from the Minnesota Northwoods. 

Real tree varieties, pros and cons:

Canaan and balsam firs: These are usually nicely shaped and great for decorating. They sometimes cost a little less than Fraser firs, but you'll definitely pay more than for a pine. These trees have very short needles but watch out — they will be all over your house if your tree gets too dry. Don't plan on keeping this tree for more than four to six weeks.

Fraser fir: Frasers are like the Cadillacs of Christmas trees. They have sturdier branches than the other two common types of fir trees. Demand is higher for them, so best go searching early if your heart's set on one. You'll also probably pay a little more. Frasers have short needles and are usually nicely shaped. 

Spruce: There are several different varieties of spruce trees, but generally their needles are pricklier than firs and pines, perhaps good at keeping curious pets away. Branches are strong. Spruce trees usually are not able to hold their needles as long as other types of Christmas trees, so don't plan on keeping this tree for more than three weeks. Among them, blue spruce is best for needle retention.

White pine: This tree has long, soft needles and branches and can't handle heavy decorations. Most white pines used for Christmas trees are dyed with a food-grade dye because white pines naturally turn a bronze color in the winter.  

Norway pine: This tree has long, dark green needles and sturdy branches. It's Minnesota's state tree, but it appears to be less common on Christmas tree farms of late. It's also known as the red pine because of its reddish bark. Scotch pine: This tree has medium-length needles and good needle retention. Branches are strong. Tree growers trim these in the shape of Christmas trees, but watch out for especially bushy ones that leave little room to hang ornaments. One of the best things about this tree is its bargain price compared to firs and spruce.

Recycling or disposing of your tree:

Most cities will pick up Christmas trees along with the rest of your garbage. If you'd like your tree to be recycled or used for compost, you might need to take an extra step or two. Hennepin and  Ramsey counties have sites where you can drop off your Christmas tree when you're done with it — yes, this means you have to put it back on top of your car or in your trunk, where it will likely make a big mess. 

The other good option for people who want to make sure their tree is recycled but don't want to take it anywhere is putting your tree outside until spring yard waste pickup resumes. Then you can cut it into pieces and put it in yard waste bags. Those who choose that route sometimes put seeds or fruit garlands on their trees to feed birds and critters.