What marks the true beginning of the yuletide season? For some, it’s the Black Friday rush. For others, it may be the sight of Coke’s classic Christmas Caravan trucks.

But, at home, the holidays officially kick off when you put up your tree.

While many opt to purchase a pre-cut tree from a lot or a big-box store, others choose to visit a nearby farm and cut down their own. Harvesting your own tree means you know it’s local, and you know it’s fresh: two factors that help ensure it lasts through the holiday.

A New Family Tradition Takes Root

For the Brown family of Gaithersburg, Md., cutting their own tree is a practice that three brothers started the year after their father died.

The Browns had always purchased pre-cut trees, but it simply didn’t feel right that year. According to Matt Brown, who started the annual tradition as a 20-year-old, “Just going down to the roadside, pre-cut stand probably would have felt a little empty without our dad.”

“Going to cut our own tree, even though it was a departure from our normal holiday practice, seemed like a more authentic experience that our dad would have enjoyed,” he explains.

“It felt good for the three of us to hunt for the perfect tree after our dad passed, and good to bring it home for our mom,” adds brother Steve Brown.

They got a white pine—their dad’s favorite.

Years later, Matt now has three kids of his own, and he’s kept the holiday ritual going with them.

Hunting & Harvesting Tips From the Pros

Marshal your team and your gear. Plan to have at least two people for tree duty, plus a third to join if you’re bringing kids who require supervision.

Other items that will come in handy include:

  • Sturdy gloves for grasping the tree
  • A tape measure
  • Rope or twine for transport (some farms provide this)
  • Supply of beverages and snacks for the car trip and walking
  • Tarp for inside the car if you plan to fit a smaller tree in the back
  • Cash if your chosen farm doesn’t accept credit cards
  • Bow saw if the farm doesn’t provide them 

Richard Gass of Family Christmas Tree Farm in El Cajon, Calif., also recommends bringing a piece of cardboard to kneel on when you’re getting under the tree. 

And before heading out, don’t forget to set up your tree stand at home to confirm what size trunk it can handle.

Plan your farm visit. Once you find a local farm, check to see whether they offer tools, twine and extra pairs of hands to help with car-loading.

Check what types of trees they grow, how accessible they are (Matt Brown remembers fording a small stream and snowy roads at one farm—fun if you have four-wheel drive, less so if you don’t), what they charge, and whether they take credit cards.

Then, consider timing. Gass says his farm gets bombarded with visitors for the first two weekends after Thanksgiving. After that, selection might thin out. It also helps to take December’s early sunsets into account, as Steve Brown learned the hard way in their second year of tree-harvesting. “It was dark by the time we cut our tree of choice,” he recalls.

Choose and cut your tree. It helps to think in advance about what type of tree will best suit you and your family. Do you love that evergreen fragrance? Opt for a fir over a pine or spruce. Do you loathe a messy floor? The Scotch pine’s needles won’t drop, even when it’s dry. Do you have lots of heavy ornaments? A Fraser fir—the preferred tree at the White House this season—has branches that can best support them.

The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) has a helpful guide to tree varieties worth cross-checking against your chosen farm’s selection. When you walk through the farm, keep in mind that the trees “may not appear large because of the open environment—and that can fool you,” says Daniel Cassens of Purdue University’s Forestry and Natural Resources department. “Don’t forget to measure the width of your prospective tree as well as the height.”

The NCTA recommends one person saw the tree while a helper lightly tugs from the opposite side. Make a back cut first, then come in from the other side.

Prep the tree properly. Make sure your tree gets a good shake to get rid of dead needles and unwanted insect guests—some farms have mechanized shakers for precisely this purpose. Purdue University’s Forestry and Natural Resources department notes that shaking is especially important for varieties such as the Scotch pine, which has long needles that get lodged within the branches.

Many farms can also bale the tree, wrapping it in netting, for easier transport on the back or top of your car. Cars.com notes that positioning the tree’s trunk toward the front of the car will minimize wind damage to the branches. That said, if you’ll be driving for a long stretch, the wind may dry out the stump end of the tree, so consider protecting it with a damp towel.

Keep it fresh. Get the tree into water as soon as you can. If it sits dry for more than six hours, saw a half-inch off the base before placing it in the stand. Then, be diligent about watering. Plain tap water is fine, according to the NCTA. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter, additives don’t make a difference, and there’s no point in drilling a hole into the base. What does matter? Keeping your tree watered and away from heat sources. Follow through on those two things, and the Christmas tree you harvested should last right through the holidays