Nothing says “holiday cheer” like packing up the family on a Saturday morning and heading deep into the woods (aka a U-cut Christmas tree farm or the parking lot of a local supermarket), carefully selecting the most majestic of firs (or pines or spruces), hauling it home, dressing it up all pretty and festooning it with lights and then dragging it to the curb four weeks later — only to be vacuuming up needles from your carpet well into March. It’s a cherished pastime that everybody tackles differently, although plenty of Americans actually bypass this ritual altogether and opt for a made-in-China vinyl tree that is resurrected from the garage or basement year after year.

Since we at MNN like to “keep it real,” we thought we’d pass along a few pointers on how to select, care for and dispose of non-artificial Christmas trees to those of you who may be doing “the tree thing” for the first time or making the switch from trees of the lead-shedding, PVC variety to the real deal.

Exact measurements and moist needles

Selecting the perfect Christmas tree either directly from a farm or from a lot isn’t too different from visiting a furniture showroom. It helps to show up prepared (take careful measurements of the space you plan to put your tree in) with a rough idea of what you're willing to spend and what you're looking for in terms of aesthetics. Otherwise, your indecisiveness could cost you an entire afternoon and the patience of whoever is accompanying you.

For both pre-cut and you-cut trees, looks may be deceiving so make sure to subject prospective candidates to a “fresh test.” The Utah State University Forestry Extension recommends breaking needles to make sure that they are moist and fragrant. They should also be tightly attached to the twig … if you brush up against a branch and needles fall off, it’s time to move on. Be on the lookout for discoloration, as well … a healthy tree’s color, naturally, should be a vivid green.

It also helps to shop early as the healthiest and freshest trees sell quickly. But if you do decide to wait, selecting a tree with some loveable imperfections that can be turned toward a wall may result in a discount. And it goes without saying — make sure before you head home that no animals have taken up residence in your final selection.

Pesticide-free pines

Although tree farms may offer trees of different shapes, sizes and species (Douglas and Fraser firs and Scotch pines are among the most popular), most commercial tree farms aren’t like supermarkets that may have a separate produce section offering organic fruits and veggies. However, there are a growing number of trees farms that exclusively grow organic (some USDA-certified) trees that haven’t been treated with agricultural chemicals.

Organic Christmas trees will most likely cost you more, but if bringing home a chemical-free tree is a concern, some lots may also specialize in organic trees.

Trimming time

Once you’ve performed a feng shui evaluation and secured your tree in a space in your home that’s a safe distance from direct sunlight and sources of heat or ventilation and that’s easy to access for watering purposes (fresh trees can absorb a gallon of water a day so if you have rain barrels, use ’em) it’s trimming time.

Start with the lights. LED lights last longer, will reduce drying of the tree and are more energy-efficient than incandescent light strands. Companies like even have Christmas light recycling programs that allow you to send in old incandescent lights for recycling and get a discount on the purchase of new LED lights.

When it comes to ornaments, if you already have a stash, use them. But if you don’t have an existing stockpile of glittering globes, try decorating the tree with ornaments found in nature like berries, pinecones, discarded bird nests, dried flowers and … stale popcorn. There’s no need to spend a fortune on decorations when a tree can look beautiful with items found in your own backyard. And if you’re DIY minded, whip out the glitter and the glue gun and make — and bake — your own ornaments.

Staying alive

Once a Christmas tree is all dressed, pretty and ready to go for the “big day,” it’s important to observe basic Christmas tree maintenance practices to keep it from turning into a 7-foot-tall fire hazard. Remember to always turn off the tree lights when not at home and before going to bed and to check that there is an adequate amount of water in the stand; the water level should never drop below the tree’s base. The tree will also stay healthier in colder temperatures, so it’s a good excuse to practice energy conservation by turning down the thermostat a notch.

And although you might be tempted to feed your tree a tipple of vodka, a cup of sugar, or a few crushed up aspirin to help preserve it, many of these additives can actually dehydrate the tree when added to the water (and can be toxic to pets who take a sip). Water, and plenty of it, should do the trick.

Saying goodbye

Although Jan. 6 is the “official” Christmas tree take-down day, if a tree starts to dry out before then, it should be removed from your home. How to properly and ecologically dispose of one depends on where you live, but most municipalities offer either curbside Christmas tree recycling or mulching programs.

If you can’t bear to say goodbye to your tree, there are many ways to recycle these biodegradable beauties at home including chopping it up and adding it to your compost pile or saving it for firewood, using it as a backyard bird habitat, tossing it into a local pond (get permission first!) and much more. No matter how you decide to dispose of your tree, make sure it’s completely naked with every bit of tinsel removed and ornament stashed away. And don’t bother with a plastic Christmas tree disposal bag. Simply wrap it in an old sheet or tarp when removing it from your home to avoid making a needle-y mess.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

How to choose, care for a real Christmas tree
If you've always had an aluminum or plastic tree, get ready for a treat!