How to buy the best real Christmas tree

02 December 2020

Thinking about buying a living Christmas tree? Read our guide to choosing the best tree, and tips on keeping it green and healthy.



Around 8 million real Christmas trees are sold annually in the UK, but with so many varieties available it can be a bit of a minefield to work out which tree is best for you. We look at how to choose a living Christmas tree, what you should expect to pay and how to look after it to make sure it lasts until the big day.

Potted or cut Christmas tree?

Real Christmas trees in pots have increased in popularity over the past few years as they’re often seen as a greener alternative to cut or artificial trees.

Potted trees are more expensive than their cut equivalent and tend to come in smaller sizes – typically between 2ft to 4ft. Despite paying a premium price, potted living trees can work out more economical over time as they can be kept in their pots and used for many years to come. Alternatively, they can be planted in the garden once the festivities are over.

Cut Christmas trees have been grown in the ground and then been cut at the trunk. They're a good option if you're on a budget and have no space to be storing or planting a potted tree. Some nurseries will even let you cut down your own tree, which could be a nice family tradition.

Which real Christmas tree variety should you buy?

Head to a garden centre, nursery or DIY store and you’ll find a number of different varieties on sale. It’s likely to include the traditional Norway spruce (Picea abies), along with Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), blue spruce (Picea pungens) and Noble fir (Abies procera). Here are some of the most popular or commonly found Christmas trees, for further varieties and images (both needle close-ups and full shapes) check the guide on pickyourownchristmastree.org.uk

Nordmann fir

The Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana) is the most popular Christmas tree in the UK thanks to its needles, which are slow to drop, and you will find the pine needles will usually stay in place even when the branches are dry, although it is less scented than the Norway spruce. Other reliable non-droppers include fraser, noble, Nordmann, lodgepole and white pines.

Noble fir

The noble fir (Abies procera) is one of the best Christmas trees for scent. The noble fir has inch-long silvery needles and short stiff branches, making it good for heavier ornaments too.

Norway spruce

The Norway spruce (Picea abies) is the traditional tree. Pretty shape with sharp, light needles that drop quickly indoors. Spruces and pines are generally cheaper than firs and cost about £10 a foot.Norway spruce is always a good bet for a budget Christmas tree, but you should also consider a lodgepole or white pine.

Douglas fir

The Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) has soft, shiny green needles and is sweetly scented. Holds its needles well. They are one of the most popular trees sold in the US, but are not as commonly sold in the UK.

Scots pine

The Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is a native conifer with long, slightly twisted needles. The Scots pine is a good all-rounder with firm needles, an open shape and it keeps well. It's ideal for planting out in the garden afterwards. For successful planting buy a small tree and ensure the root ball is intact. Keep it as cool as possible and bring it indoors for no longer than ten days. Scots pine is the most popular cut Christmas tree variety sold in the US because of how well it holds its needles.

Serbian spruce

The Serbian spruce (Picea omorika) has a bushy shape and slightly upwards-pointing branches that make hanging decorations easy.

Blue spruce

The blue spruce (Picea pungens Glauca Group) is more expensive than the others, but is extremely showy and a good choice if you’re looking for something more unusual. Decorations look beautiful against the firm blue-green needles of the blue spruce, but you may have difficulty using decorations with small loops as the branches are quite thick. They will, however, support heavy decorations without sagging.

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Choosing your real Christmas tree

The main consideration when choosing your real Christmas tree tree is which one your favourite is. Everyone will have a different preference, so chose one with the shape and colour you like best, and if you're someone who likes to get the tree up early go for a variety that keeps its needles longer. 

The other consideration is size. If you want a tall tree with the wow factor you'll want a cut tree, as potted trees are generally sold smaller. If you want a potted tree but also want the height of a cut tree you can place your potted tree on a small side table with a decorative Christmas tree skirt around the pot. This way your decorations will be easy to admire. The added benefit of this is that the base will be narrower than a large cut tree, so you can easily position your table behind furniture.

When buying a potted tree take your time to find a tree with well positioned branches. It should have a single, central leading branch that points upwards - avoid any with double leading branches or where the top has been removed. The foliage should be green and glossy, and needles shouldn’t come off easily when you run your hand along a branch.

Carefully lift potted trees from their pots to see that they are well rooted - some are lifted from nursery fields leading up to Christmas and have their roots literally rammed into a container. Unfortunately, 25% or more of the root system can lost during lifting and many trees struggle to survive.

It can be harder to choose a cut tree because they will usually be sold wrapped, so check needle quality carefully. If needles are already going brown or shedding they have already started to dry out and will not last long in the home.

How much do living Christmas trees cost?

Cost varies a lot depending on size and species, with prices generally starting at £15-£20 for cut Nordmann Christmas trees around 1.2m/4ft high. Expect to pay a bit more per foot when buying potted trees, with a potted Nordmann costing around £20-£30 for a 1m/3.2ft tree.

Trees around these price points are always available at supermarkets and garden centres in the run up to Christmas.

At the other end of the scale a cut 12ft tree could set you back £150-£250 depending on variety, and you'll have to order these trees specially from stores such as Christmas Trees Delivered and Pines and Needles or finding locally listed nurseries.

If you're someone who leaves putting the tree up until the last minute you might be able to find a good price on leftover unsold stock, although that is a bit of a gamble.

Caring for cut Christmas trees

To ensure your cut Christmas tree lasts for a long time, you need to care for it in the same way as you would a bunch of cut flowers.

When you get it home, cut about 3cm off the bottom using a pruning saw to allow it to take up moisture, then place it in a support stand that has a well in the bottom for adding water.

Fill with water and check daily, topping it up whenever necessary.

Caring for container-grown Christmas trees

Living Christmas trees are hardy plants that are used to life outdoors. They hate central heating so leave them in the garden for as long as possible, then gradually acclimatise them by transferring to a slightly warmer place for a few days, such as a front porch or cool conservatory.

Place the tree in a light position away from fires or radiators, which will cause excessive moisture loss. Slide a saucer under the container and keep plants well watered to avoid premature needle loss. Decorate the tree as normal, but use fairy lights with smaller bulbs – larger bulbs can damage foliage.

Where to position your real tree

Display trees in a cool, light spot and not near a radiator or fire, which will cause excessive loss of moisture.

How long to keep your living tree indoors

Ideally, don’t keep living trees in the house any longer than 12 days, but be guided by the tree. If it looks unhappy, move it back outside.

After Christmas

After Christmas, strip off the decorations from cut trees and take it to your local tip or garden centre collection point, where it will chipped up to make compost or mulch.

Alternatively, check to see whether your council offers a tree collection service.

Container-grown trees have a good chance of establishing in the garden, as long as they have not been kept inside for too long.

Read our guide to recycling living Christmas trees

Keeping your container-grown Christmas tree

Relocating the tree from a warm room to a cold garden will give it a shock, so allow it to re-adjust in a cooler room.

If you have the space you could plant the tree, but remember that conifers can grow very tall. Also, if you plan to use it as a Christmas tree again it’s unlikely to do well if dug up regularly.

For those wanting to reuse the tree in the future, the best solution is to keep it in a container. Each spring, move it into a slightly bigger pot filled with soil-based compost (John Innes No.3) along with some controlled release fertiliser granules.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.