Shelterbelt Program

Choosing A Christmas Tree

By Toso Bozic

Nothing replaces the refreshing scent of a live Christmas tree in your house. Have you considered getting a permit from the Government of Alberta and getting a tree from public lands? This is an outdoor activity where the whole family can have fun. Picking out that perfect tree is a family ritual full of promise and fun — well sometimes there are few arguments about what the best tree is to choose from but overall, it is an extraordinarily good family experience. 

Well over two million trees are harvested as Christmas trees across Canada each year. Many people don’t know but we do have very few Christmas tree growers in Alberta and prairie provinces. The eastern provinces, British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington State are the major suppliers of Christmas trees to Western Canada.  

Tree species selection 

Now when it comes to selecting a tree, you have few choices. I always start with the native balsam fir tree species which is often considered the ‘real’ Christmas tree and many growers grow this species for its special aroma. Balsam fir has a wonderful green colour and smooth needles which are not prickly. The aroma of balsam fir is so distinct and long lasting. Putting ornaments is easy but may not hold good heavy ornaments as small branches may not have strong stiffness as white spruce or pine. There are several other fir trees such as Fraser, Caanan, Korean and maybe Douglas fir which is not fir at all. 

Next choices are a variety of spruce trees. You may choose Colorado blue spruce, white spruce, and black hills spruce trees. All spruce trees have pricky short needles with an incredible ability to keep ornaments hanging well. Your pet may not come close to the Christmas trees due to prickliness. The colour of needles range from whitish blue to blue and dark green colours. 

Lastly you may choose a few varieties of pine species. All pine trees have a needles in bundles of two, three and five. In Alberta, Lodgepole and Scots pine are the most common pine chosen for Christmas tree. Pine trees do not have dense needle crowdedness as fir and spruce, but they are excellent choices as well due to their aroma and long needles. Stiffness of branches are excellent for ornaments. 

How to test freshness 

When cutting your own tree, you know that it’s fresh. When buying a Christmas tree, be sure to conduct a freshness test. Needles need to be shiny, green, and fresh while you grasp a branch between your thumb and forefinger and pull it towards you. If the tree is fresh, no more than five or 10 needles should come off in your hand, unless it is very cold and dry outside, and then a few more needles may come off. This is a good time to check the fragrance of the tree as well. 

Fire Safety 

Another important consideration when having a real Christmas tree in the house is fire safety. It’s a wonderful family tradition but be sure to follow the instructions for keeping the tree watered so that it doesn’t dry out and present a fire hazard. As well, real Christmas trees are 100 per cent reusable and recyclable. Once the needles are off you can chip it or use it in a woodstove or fire pit if the weather permits. 

Some key Christmas Tree Tips

Here are a few tips for choosing and caring for a Christmas tree:

  • Measure the height and width of the area where the tree will be displayed. Tree that is two metres tall will be approximately 1.6 metres wide (7' tall will be 5' 6" wide) at the bottom.
  • Some species have more open foliage, stiffer branches or longer needles – you may want to have an idea of your decorating theme before you pick your tree.
  • Look for a retail lot that keeps its Christmas trees fresh in a protected area.
  • Store the tree in a cool place, out of the wind and rain, until it is ready to be brought indoors. 
  • Place a tree moving bag under your tree, ready to be drawn up around the tree to make the disposal easy in January.
  • Ensure your tree stand is large enough to hold four litres (one gallon) of water as well as the trunk of the tree.
  • When bringing the tree indoors, cut 1 to 2 cm (½ to ¾ of an inch) off the tree stump before placing it in water – the cut must be no more than four hours old, otherwise sap will seal the cut and prevent the water from rising, thus drying out the tree.
  • Avoid putting Christmas tree near direct heating sources such as fireplace, furnace vents or sunny windows. 
  • The first water fill should be with very warm water, enabling the sap to flow readily. As the tree thaws, water will be drawn upwards replenishing the moisture to the extremities. No additives are required.
  • Have a family member top up the water twice daily so the base of the tree never dries out. Your tree will drink several litres of water every day for the first week or two.
  • After the holidays, wrap the entire tree in the moving bag, and bring everything outside, including the stand, which can be easily removed once the tree is outdoors and on its side.

Please note - the 2020 Shelterbelt Program is now closed.

In 2012, the Federal Government announced that it would be ending the PFRA Shelterbelt Program. This shelterbelt program was established to secure the rehabilitation of the drought and soil drifting areas as well as to promote soil conservation in the Provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In 2013, the M.D. of Bonnyville recognized its environmental importance and made a decision to continue with its own shelterbelt program. There are many benefits to planting trees, these include; slowing the wind which promotes moisture (by snow trapping) and decreases soil erosion, reduces wind damage to crops, increases pollinator and wildlife habitats, improves safety in winter travel due to reduced snow drifting and wind icing and finally increases property value through its aesthetics.  We launched our program in 2014 with 6000 seedlings available for sale to M.D. residents; with the popularity of the program we have since increased these numbers to nearly 10,000 seedlings annually.

Our program now includes shelterbelt trees such as: spruce and poplar as well as fruit and berry.