Top Tips for Choosing and Dressing Your Christmas Tree

Every year my team and I dress a hundred or more Christmas trees for product reviews, press shows, store displays and special customers, but when it comes to dressing our own trees it’s a different story. Having explored every look going, we find ourselves stymied by choice and just a little nervous about what people might think if our trees aren’t suitably fabulous.

Having the nickname ‘Mr Christmas’ is both a blessing and a curse. Inevitably I end up building on a much loved theme of red, white and silver rather than beginning again with a fresh new look. One day I might take the plunge, but starting from scratch can be a costly business if you are not prepared to get crafty. This year, to my extensive collection of glass, metal and felt decorations, I have decided to add a heavy dose of sparkle with new decorations encrusted in crystals. Dressed well into the branches of a tree, sparkly decorations catch the light beautifully and give my tree a wonderous inner glow.

As someone who’s decorated more trees than most people will in a lifetime, here are my top tips for choosing and decorating a sumptuous, individual Christmas tree that will impress your friends and family.

 

This year we chose a 12' Nordmann fir as our main tree in London
This year we chose a 12′ Nordmann fir as our main tree in London

Choosing Your Christmas Tree

If you prefer a real tree (and I very much do) shop around for the best shape and freshest stock you can find. Some unscrupulous sellers offer trees that were cut several weeks earlier. Once indoors these won’t last long before losing their needles. Christmas trees are grown commercially as a monoculture so are not amazing news for the environment. One grown locally (where feasible) will have a smaller carbon footprint and support local farmers.

Nowadays there are lots of different species of fir and spruce available as freshly cut or pot grown trees: Serbian spruce (Picea omorika, below), noble fir (Abies procera) and Blue Spruce (Picea pungens) are new kids on the block, providing competition for Norway spruce (Picea abies: traditional, beautifully scented but notorious for dropping needles) and ubiquitous non-drop Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana).

 

The Serbian spruce has only recently become available commercially as a Christmas tree

 

There are no official quality standards and gradings for Christmas trees, but if you buy a well priced tree from a reputable retailer you should not encounter any problems. As with all things, you get what you pay for. Resist the temptation to bring your real tree indoorsearly in December unless you are prepared to turn your central heating right down – a couple of weeks in a heated room will severely dehydrate a cut tree. Real trees are perfectly happy to be left outside until you need them, but remove any wrapping or netting if you are planning to keep them outside for any period of time before decorating. Just like us, trees sweat if bundles up too tightly. Once inside, allow the tree’s branches to drop down naturally before launching at it with your tinsel. If you have the right type of stand you can give your tree a drink, although the take-up can be poor if the trunk isn’t freshly sawn. I recommend a Cinco branded stand with an in built water reservoir. Never, ever chop off the top of your tree as the sap will rise and your tree will die from dehydration within days. Cut a length from the base if you must.

Potted trees tend to be smaller trees and are ideal for a tabletop or small room. Yes, they can be planted outside after Christmas if they have been tended correctly but, unless you have a reasonably sized garden, making house room for a full-sized Christmas tree is quite an undertaking. Pot grown trees, whether grown from seedlings in containers or lifted from the open ground and subsequently potted, may never establish a good enough root system to see them through to maturity and will need regular watering for the first year in the garden.

A great source of impartial information and advice on trees and where to buy them from is the website of the British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association (BCTGA).

Artificial trees are an altogether different bag. Until last year I had never allowed one across the threshold of my home, but such is the degree to which they have improved in construction and appearance I am now happy to admit to going faux. Thanks to new materials and manufacturing techniques a good artificial tree will closely imitate God’s own creations. Many factories actually use fresh plant material to make their moulds. Artificial trees come in all shapes and sizes, with ‘slim’, ‘slender’ or ‘pencil’ styles perfectly suited to smaller UK homes.

As with real trees, buy the very best you can afford from a quality retailer. Good independent garden centres, John Lewis and Balsam Hill, an online-only retailer, are all sources I’d recommend for quality, style and realism. Until recently most artificial trees were made from PVC twisted around a wire core in the same way that tinsel is manufactured. These trees are relatively inexpensive, but the PVC, especially if it’s not good quality, has a habit of crushing during storage. PVC’s also not particularly natural in appearance.

John Lewis' Silver Forest Spruce has an irregular outline which is ideal for decorating with glass baubles
John Lewis’ Silver Forest Spruce has an irregular outline which is ideal for decorating with glass baubles

 

Over the last five years a growing number of artificial trees have come onto the market with needles fashioned from PE, a plastic that’s extruded into a mould to create life like sprays of foliage. PE is a more expensive material and the manufacturing process is more laborious, making these trees slightly more expensive. Hence a lot of trees have PE tips on the outside and PVC ones deeper inside the tree. It take a lot to crush branch made from PE and these trees will last you 10-20 years if looked after properly.

 

PE tips have a three dimensional, life-like appearance
PE tips have a three dimensional, life-like appearance

I recommend taking at least 45 minutes to ‘tweak’ a 6′ or 7′ artificial tree in order to obtain the correct shape and outline. When viewed from a couple of metres away, it should not be possible to see through a correctly tweaked tree from front to back, unless it’s style with a deliberately loose silhouette. Manually pull each and every tip up and out to create a natural silhouette.

No one wishes to see the workings of an artificial tree (these rather give the game away) so disguise the metal base using a tree skirt. Wicker ones are especially smart and don’t steal the show. Lack of scent, the main drawback with artificial trees, need put you off no longer. Products such as Scentsicles (below), little compressed paper sticks impregranted with natural pine fragrance, can be hung discretely among the branches and will fool all but your most discerning guests.

Scentsicles are made in the USA from mainly natural ingredients
Scentsicles are made in the USA from mainly natural ingredients

 

Dressing Your Christmas Tree

When it comes to dressing your Christmas tree there is only one rule: there are no rules! It is your tree and anything goes. Whether you like to pile on every bright and beautiful decoration you’ve ever collected, or pare things back to a single colourway, you are at liberty to do so and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. In my opinion the most magical trees are those dressed with decorations that have meaning and value for the people concerned. You only need to look at most restaurant or shopping centre trees to understand how charmless slavish coordination can be.

Once you are happy with the shape of your tree, the first task is to add lights. I spend more time dressing my tree with lights than I do decorating it. Investing time in winding the cable around each branch, going in and out of the tree, is worth every minute, although admittedly it’s a pain when you come to take the tree down in the New Year. If this isn’t a job you relish, many artificial trees are available pre-lit. All but the most old-fashioned light sets (and these still have a place) use long lasting, low voltage LEDs (light emitting diodes) rather than heat-producing filament bulbs. The trend in the UK is away from green-cabled strings towards delicate lights on bare copper wires. These ‘dewdrop’ lights create pretty pin-pricks of soft white light but are a menace to untangle.

Fine copper wire lights are the latest thinking in Christmas lighting
Fine copper wire lights are the latest thinking in Christmas lighting

 

My rule of thumb is to apply about 50 lights per foot of tree for a good display. In the USA, and increasingly in the UK, around 100 lights per foot are recommended to give a dazzling, sparkly effect. LEDS use minimal power, give off little or no heat and last for tens of thousands of hours, making brilliant displays of lighting affordable for everyone. Single sets of 1000 or even 2000 bulbs are available, so you can say goodbye to all those unsightly extension cables and jumbled wires.
Now it’s time to decorate and here the choice really is yours. A tree that has a definitive colour theme will always look more composed than one dressed with an eclectic mix of decorations, but that should not prevent you from being adventurous. I have decorated trees with real pink orchids, birds of paradise (not real) and tropical fruits in the past, and judged another adorned with the principle ingredients of a British Christmas lunch. Both worked in their own insane way, but would not suit everyone and that’s just fine.

Dressing into the tree with a variety of different decorations can create a dramatic effect
Dressing into the tree with a variety of different decorations can create a dramatic effect

 

As a guide, the following approaches to decorating a tree work well:

  1. The monochrome tree: choose a single colour – whatever takes your fancy – and don’t deviate from it. Vary textures only (for example glitter, matt, shiny, holographic) but keep the main colour the same throughout.
  2. The tonal tree: this can be very stylish and much more sophisticated than a monochrome approach. Again, pick a single colour, but decorate with multiple tones and shades of that colour. If you are clever and patient with the placement of decorations you can create an ombré effect from the top to the bottom of the tree, starting with the darkest shade at the base and lightening towards the top.
  3. Metallic with a highlight colour: I have been practising this approach for years. Take a single metallic colour – silver, gold, pewter or copper – and mix with a single highlight colour. Silver works well with ice blue, red and pink; gold can be paired with burgundy or forest green for a classic look and with black or purple for a glamorous take on Christmas; pewter is stunning with teal, bronze or even mustard yellow if you’re prepared to take a risk, and copper, the metallic of the moment, is lovely with cream, black or even lavender.
  4. Multi-coloured: Should you find yourself incapable of exercising any restraint (which is often my problem) then go multi. You will get a more polished result if you can bear to restrict yourself to 3 or 5 shades and play with those. The peacock palette of jade, violet, turquoise, fuchsia and sapphire can be divine, as can ‘old world’ combinations of amber, ruby, emerald and topaz. For a more contemporary look, you can’t go wrong with red, Christmas green and pure white, perhaps with a few clear ornaments thrown in.
A silver-grey tree dressed lightly with white ornaments and dewdrop lights is simple yet festive
A silver-grey tree dressed lightly with white ornaments and dewdrop lights is simple yet festive

 

Whatever your theme (if you’re short of ideas Pinterest and retail websites are a great source of inspiration) I would always offer the following tips:

  1. Use a variety of different trims, garlands and flower or foliage sprays to create texture and interest. It’s not all about glass baubles.
  2. Dress right into the tree, by which I mean place decorations inside the framework of the tree as well as on the outside edge. This will create an illusion of depth and abundance.
  3. Place baubles where they can hang naturally and move freely. This will give your tree more twinkle.
  4. If you have more than one of each bauble (I recommend buying in 6’s as a minimum) then be sure to spread them evenly around your tree to create a professional appearance.
  5. Stand back at regular intervals, taking a sip or two of mulled wine if required (I find it helps), to assess how balanced your tree is looking. Dressing a tree should be a fun job, not one to be rushed.

Decorating a tree en famille offers its own joys and challenges. Being a complete control freak I would suggest a team briefing before you embark on the task, so that everyone understands the result you’re trying to achieve. I find a little judicious rearrangement is often needed post such circumstances!

My own baubles have been collected over many years on my travels around the globe
My own baubles have been collected over many years on my travels around the globe

 

A tree should have a topper to finish it off. Angels and fairies are traditional, but as a buyer of such things I understand how impossible it is to find really beautiful ones. If you do, treasure them. Stars are traditional and easier to find. I detest the tree top ‘explosions’ that one sees in the USA (sorry to my lovely Amercian readers), they completely unbalance a tree and positively make my eyes bleed.

This is a post that I could go on adding to forever, such is my passion for all things festive. Some of you have asked to see my own tree, so here it is in all its glory, below. I hope I have practiced something of what I have preached. I also hope you’ve found my guide to buying and decorating a tree useful. Now I’d love to hear your thoughts and tips on dressing the perfect Christmas tree.

Wishing you all the very best for Christmas and the New Year.

 

The Frustrated Gardener's Christmas Tree, 2015
Plenty of Sparkle: The Frustrated Gardener’s Christmas Tree, 2015