I don't pick a tree from those that are already been "merchandised" or propped up and made to look pretty on the lot. I go grab one from the back, one that isn't even "unpacked" yet. Then i take it home and cut it open and see what I've got. It's like unwrapping your first Christmas present!!
Now for this to work, you need to take some of my tried and true techniques to insure that you don't get some sparse, uneven, crooked, beat-down little Christmas bush.
A little background. When i was in high school, i worked every Christmas at a tree lot. It was Stu Miller's Christmas Trees in Thousand Oaks. Stu Miller has one the largest chain of tree lots in Southern California. He moved a lot of trees and i worked as a "tip boy". Tip boys are the guys who help you carry the tree, put the proper stand on it, and then put it on your car. But when we weren't do that, we'd help unload the fresh trees, open them up, and stand them on the lot. Through this work i developed what some have referred to as my "gift". But to call it a gift is to over dramatize it because i have boiled it down to a few simple tips on how to pick a good tree without opening it.
You can disregard any of these tips and still have a great time "rolling the dice" on your tree because i guarantee you'll enjoy it (and even if you get a lame tree, you'll still love it because it will be like the ugly mutt at the pound that needs some love and you'll gladly give it); but here's what i would look for when you are choosing.
Type: First choose the type. Most lots have a variation of Douglas Fir (more bushy and cheaper) or Noble Fir (more layered and more expensive).
Height: Most lots are organized by height and the shipments come in the same way. All the trees will be laying stacked up in the back. Just go back there and look at the tags near the trunk which will be color coded according to type (make sure you check the type on the tag) and height of the trees. The workers on the lot might not like it that you are back there, but just pretend like you know what you're doing and feel free to drop Stu Miller's name and you'll be fine. Once you're in the right area, it's time to move on to step #3.
Trunk: This is the MOST important part of selecting the right tree and due to the way that the trees will be stacked in back will all the trunks facing the same direction, this will be really easy.
First look at width. You don't want too thick or two skinny. All of the trees you'll be looking at should be same height, so any tree that abnormally thick trunked or thin trunked you want to avoid because it either grew way too fast or way too slow.
Next look at the angle of the cut. It should be flat. If it is angled then there was likely some problem when the cut the tree it the tree will likely be bowed or crooked.
Next look at the shape and branches. From the trunk you can see up a few branches and make sure that there isn't a bend of bow in the base of trunk. Also, make sure that there aren't any knots or abnormally large branches really low on the trunk because they will have to be cut off to fit in the stand. You can always lose a few of the lower branches but if it's too large then it could create large gap or unbalanced look of the tree.
Top: Once you've identified a few good trunks, now walk around to the other side of the pile and check out the tops of the ones you like. This is fairly obvious. You need a good top to hold the tree topper. It needs to be straight without too many branches around it. You don't want it to look like your angel is sitting on the small branches around the top. Keep in mind most tree toppers will sit down 4-8" (depending on the size) so take that into account. Cutting the top is always easy to do so you want to error on the taller side.
Body: Now this is the most difficult part because you don't know what a bound tree looks like when it's undone.
Here's a simple rule. Cylindrical shape is much better than a tree shape. What i mean is you don't want it to look like a tree when it is bound because all the branches will come down and then you'll have a bottom heavy tree and there is no fixing that. It might seem like you're picking a top heavy tree when it's bound, but the more cylindrical shape is where you want to be... trust me.
Next literally spin it around a few times and make sure it feels even. This is crucial because when you spin it you'll see if it's unbalanced because you'll probably drop it. This will also identity any bowing. Also look at it and see if there looks to be any uneven areas.
Weight: Now you're almost done and you've narrowed it down to two trees. Give each one a big bear hug and pick them up. Heft them. You want the heavier of two. This means it has more water in it, and more branches and needles. This will be the healthier of the two trees.
Now proudly throw it on your shoulder and walk up to pay for it and have them put the stand on it. You'll get some strange looks from the folks who have been cutting open and shaking out trees for the last hour when you were in and out in less time than it took to read this review, but be confident!!! You can laugh at them in the parking lot when they are getting needles everywhere and breaking branches while they are wrestling their tree onto their car. You'll can just throw it in the back seat, trunk, roof, or where ever. It's too easy.
These techniques won't fail you. Take your "present" home and place it in the stand in your living room for the unveiling. Play some Christmas music, toast some egg nog, cut it open, and watch your gift open right before your eyes. You'll love the tree!! And don't forget... you can always put the bad side in the corner ;-)
Note: these techniques work at most lots, but i've been doing it for the last few years at Home Depot and i've found their prices to be much more competitive than other places. I'd go right now to buy mine if it weren't raining.
UPDATE: 12/07/10 I just got this year's tree last night. One thing to consider... needles in the house. Now, the unveiling in the living room has a huge dramatic impact, but it also brings a lot of unnecessary needles into house. Have the broom and/or vacuum ready. Unveiling it outside and giving it a quick shake out will reduce the needle problem and still has a nice feeling of "opening the present". For full disclosure... I opened mine outside this year.
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J.R. Johnson (jrjohnson)
If you're looking for some more company related stuff about me... it's on my bio page here. Also, here's a family surf video from our recent wedding. Family = good … more
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