By Michael Davis
The spicy scent of apple cider permeates the air around Bethany Tree Farm's covered outdoor store.
Next to prepackaged bottles of liquid Christmas tree preservatives, a stack of plastic tree stands waits for someone to take them home and clamp them to the trunk of a Fraser fir or a Leyland cypress.
Becky Stensland,her husband Jack, and daughter Kelley, have been coming to this sprawling tree farm in a rural area of Henry County for seven years. Some years, they make up to three trips with different members of the extended family when their relatives need trees.
Last week Becky and Kelley, sipped steaming cups of apple cider as Becky held her Chihuahua named Quesidilla, who was dressed in a matching pink sweater. It's a tradition, Becky said, to pick out a real tree, cut it down and haul it home for the holidays.
"We've never had a fake tree," 14-year-old Kelley said.
The Stenslands have a unique system for picking out the perfect tree. All members of the family show up wearing hats. When one thinks they've found the right tree, their hat goes on top.
"We pick out several and then we come back and narrow it down," Becky said.
Locust Grove resident Robin Lamb's 11-year-old daughter Taylor has her own description of the perfect tree: "Something taller than what she wants."
Everyone has their own ideas about what the creates the perfect tree.
And there's no shortage of options for local residents.
Most people look for symmetrical trees, said Kitty Ahrano, who, along with her husband Carry, started the tree farm 24 years ago.
Choosing and cutting Christmas trees is a tradition in many families, she said. "We have guys who came here to get a tree (when they were young) are now working for us," she said.
That includes her grandson Josh Strickland, who after classes at Union Grove High School, helps out on the farm, shaking trees and wrapping them in plastic netting.
Growing up on a tree farm, the 18-year-old has a few ideas of his own about the perfect tree.
"I like Leyland cypresses because they're faster-growing and they're thick," he said. "They also have advantages because they don't take up a lot of water."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, in conjunction with the state and national Christmas Tree Association, provides recommendations on how to care for your tree, whatever its variety.
The agency recommends not buying a tree that is losing needles, has brittle twigs or a musty smell.
A fresh tree, they said, should not shed a lot of needles if vigorously shaken or dropped on its trunk.
They also recommend not selecting a tree that is too large to be displayed in the chosen area. They add that strong winds can damage a tree in a short period of time. If a tree is transported for more than 15 minutes in the open, it should be wrapped in a tarp or carried in an enclosed camper.
Real trees use about a quart of water per day per inch of the trunk's diameter and the tree stand should hold enough water for about 24 hours. Adequate water prevents the tree from drying and the needles from browning and falling off.
Trees should also be kept away from heat sources like fire places, radiators and television sets and electric decorations should always be unplugged before you leave the house.