Spruce it up
So you’re behind getting a Christmas tree once again. You could go grab one at a big home improvement store, but there’s something kind of lame about buying one that sits just a stone’s throw from a selection of washing machines and window treatments. This year, go old-school and chop one down yourself—in the forest. Here’s how.
Since you don’t want some landowner chasing you down with a shotgun, find a national forest near you that allows Christmas tree cutting on the U.S. Forest Service’s website, which will also show who to contact for a permit. Often it’s just a matter of going to an office, filling out a form and paying a small fee, which usually ranges between $5 and $20, according Sharon Nygaard-Scott, special forest programs project manager with the National Forest Service. Call ahead to figure out the permit situation as some offices may be closed if you show up on a weekend and others may be sold out for the season. You can try state forests as well.
“If you’re going to cut one that’s out in the forest, cut one that’s out on a ridge or a little bit higher and that way it’s used to being a little bit drier,” says Bill Brian, owner of Broadview Christmas Tree Farm, which grows about 100,000 trees in Highland, Michigan. It will acclimate to being in your living room better and be thus be less likely to dry out. Rules vary, but most national forests say you have to cut a tree that’s no taller than 10 feet and at least 200 feet from main roads, recreation areas and campgrounds. Unless you’re putting it in a hotel lobby, then you’re fine.
Brian recommends a 21-inch bow saw, which has a coarse wood-cutting blade on it. “You can use a chainsaw if you want, but if you want the real experience you have to exercise your arm a little bit.” The stump of the tree you’ll be cutting down will probably be six inches or less in diameter, according to Nygaard-Scott, so even a small utility saw or handsaw will work. And if you’re somewhere snowy, you’ll want to bring a small shovel for scooping away the white stuff. “You don’t want to leave a stump out there,” she says. “You want to cut as low to the ground as possible.”
To make the process a little easier, Brian suggests bringing someone else with you and recommends that one person stand on the opposite side of the tree, grabbing it as high as he can reach and pulling it the direction it would fall as you’re cutting. That pressure from the pulling ensures that your saw doesn’t “bind up,” meaning there will be a bit more wiggle room between the sappy two halves of the stump and your saw won’t get stuck in between. Then, when you’re three quarters of the way through and it starts to really bend, your partner can step away and you can saw the rest of the way through pretty easily and let it fall to the ground. (Shouting “Timber!” is optional.)
Simply dragging it behind you on the forest floor will cost you a lot needles. Instead, bring a plastic sled or a tarp with you that you can use to pull it. Or have two people carry it out, with one at each end. And Nygaard-Scott has another often-overlooked piece of advice that can save you hours of wandering around in the snow: Remember where you parked.
You know how you see Christmas trees on top of cars in commercials and movies? Well, they’re doing it wrong. “You always see the top of the tree to the top of the car. If you’re going fast enough, you’re going to break the branches right off,” says Brian. “It should be the stump to the front of the car because that’s the natural flow of the tree. If you’re going 60, 70 miles down the road, it’s not blowing against the branches, it’s blowing with the branches.”
As soon as you get home you need to get it in water, even if it’s just a bucket in the garage, says Nygaard-Scott. And finally, before you put it up in your stand filled with water, make what’s called a “fresh cut,” slicing another half inch to an inch off the bottom of the stump. “When you cut down the tree, it kind protects itself and it starts running sap which blocks its ability to suck up water,” according to Brian. “If you make a fresh cut you’ll know it’s getting water to the branches and it’ll last much longer.”