Whether you opt for real or artificial, your holiday tree...

Whether you opt for real or artificial, your holiday tree will look festive. Credit: Getty Images/Tetra images RF/TNS/JGI/Jamie Grill

Whether you're a first-time buyer or you've always had one at the center of your festivities, here's how to get the most from your holiday tree.

1. Be sure it's fresh.

If you're shopping for a real tree, you'll want to choose one that was harvested recently. The needles should be green and should flex when you bend them. In addition, the tree shouldn't shed much when you run your fingers over a branch. And, of course, it should have that fresh-tree smell.

2. Prep for transport.

Cutting, baling and tying the tree to your vehicle are standard services (free or for a fee) at tree farms and lots. If it's offered, you may want to opt for the machine shaking, which gets rid of dead needles, spiders and other pests.

Two tactics prevent wind damage on the drive home: First, if your tree isn't baled, wrap it in a tarp or blanket. Second, load it stump-forward.

3. Get set up.

Before you head out to buy a tree, measure your space for height (including stand and topper) and width (keeping distance from heat sources, vents and foot traffic in mind). Then, take your measuring tape when you shop — to ensure you return with a tree that's the perfect fit for your house.

When it comes to choosing a stand, the feature that could mean life or death for your tree is water capacity. (If the trunk-cut dries, it can't soak up water.) Invest in a stand that holds a gallon — and be sure to check the water level regularly.

4. Rethink artificial.

If fear of a fake look has turned you off artificial trees, this may be the year to reconsider. Plastic-molded, custom-colored needles realistically mimic many kinds of trees. When looking for an artificial tree, there are a few points to keep in mind. For instance, tip count equals fullness — but don't be fooled into thinking that a higher number is always better. Trees with longer needles don't require as many tips to appear full. And if you like lots of big decorations, you may want a lower count to accommodate them.

Do you prefer things fast and uniform? Go with a pre-lit tree for tidy, instant illumination. Are you more of a creative who revels in tradition and the tree-lighting event? You probably want the flexibility of DIY lights.

5. Trimming tricks to try.

When it comes to lights, LEDs are best: They emit the same-quality light as incandescents but use far less energy. Strands are predicted to last up to 40 years, and you can connect up to two dozen of them. To ensure you have enough lights, memorize this easy formula: one 100-count string of mini lights per vertical foot of tree. (Increase that number if you love dazzle.)

Another way to add pizzazz to your tree: Rather than hanging ornaments willy-nilly, start deep within the tree branches and work your way out. (Near the trunk is a fine spot for those ornaments you're not as crazy about.) Then space your biggest and best evenly around the tree, filling in with mediums and smalls.

6. Ensure an easy takedown.

When it's time to tuck away the tree and accessories for the year, there are ways to make sure they stay protected, accessible and ready to shine again.

For instance, storing an artificial tree upright and decorated is becoming popular. If you have the indoor space, you can't beat this option for saving time and effort. Carefully wrap a roll of plastic wrap around the tree to hold everything in place, or invest in a stand-up tree bag, which you put under the tree before you decorate it, and remove all your ornaments before storing. Some bags come with extras such as tree-skirt storage and wheels for easy hauling.

When putting away lights, replace any burnt-out bulbs. For easiest retrieval and decorating next year, coil each strand and put it in a resealable plastic bag. Label the bag with the type of lights or where they are used. Nestle the bags in a labeled storage bin.

To keep ornaments safe during the offseason, outfit a storage bin with tension rods for hanging decorations, and put delicate ornaments into egg cartons. Alternatively, wrap each decoration in a coffee filter and place them in small plastic drawers or lidded bins labeled by category (large, small and delicate, for example) so you can unpack them in the order you want.

7. (Where to) take your final boughs.

Most communities have curbside and drop-off options for disposing of a real tree. Some cities also recycle trees into mulch or compost.

There are also ways to repurpose a real tree. Use greenery as winter planter decorations, or turn the whole tree into a bird-feeding station by stringing it with popcorn, berries or pine cones covered with peanut butter and birdseed.

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