We still prefer real to fake, at least when it comes to Christmas trees: 29 million real versus 9 million artificial bought last year, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

But before you consider the pioneering third option presented here - the potted dwarf Christmas tree - hear what Ricky M. Bates, Penn State's expert on the subject, has to say:

Ignore conventional wisdom.

Don't do as you're told and dig a hole to plant it in after Christmas. In fact, don't plant it then at all.

"To maximize the chances your tiny tree will survive," Bates says, "you really need to keep it inside till springtime."

But not

inside

inside. Bates means inside an unheated garage, where winter temperatures range from 25 to 45 degrees. Just leave the container there, water every three weeks or so, and don't worry about light. No window necessary.

Come early spring, you can safely put your baby tree in the ground. "Hands down, this is the best way to get the plant to survive," Bates says.

Many don't survive, of course, either because they were left inside the house too long (two weeks or less is best), were mishandled outside, or tossed outright.

"Now, it seems, people have more money than time," says Ellis Schmidt, who has been selling Christmas trees in Landenberg, Chester County, since 1970. "I'd hate to think after we fussed with these little things they'd be thrown away, but it wouldn't surprise me."

Schmidt typically sells only about a dozen potted Christmas trees, but, he says, "I feel there's a market for them out there. I'd like to do more."

Here's the niche: You buy one large cut tree for the living room and smaller trees for tabletops in the den or children's rooms - or for planters outside.

It's a different concept, one with an added benefit. It might ease that vague guilt you sometimes feel about cutting down a live tree.

But like so much guilt, this is unnecessary. "In spite of what people might think intuitively," says Mark Vodak, Rutgers University forestry specialist, "a cut tree is very environmentally friendly. It's a very renewable resource."

Research shows that growers plant two to four Christmas trees for every one harvested. And remember, these trees are grown specifically for holiday use.

"It's not like we're removing trees from an established forest," Vodak says.

- Virginia A. Smith