How to Select and Care for a Live Christmas Tree
By: Julie Day
Decorating, enjoying, and then planting a living Christmas tree can be a wonderful “green” holiday tradition. Living Christmas trees require a little extra attention to acclimate them indoors and plant them afterwards, but the rewards are well worth it.
In addition to the environmental benefits, living trees are safer than cut ones. They pose less of a fire hazard, and the heavy container makes them difficult to knock over – a plus if you have kids or pets!
Choosing a Live Tree
Living Christmas trees include spruce, cedar, sequoia, fir, cypress, and pine. You can find dwarf varieties that will stay small, or ones that grow up to 70’ tall. If you have trouble finding living trees for sale, visit a choose-and-cut lot and ask if you can dig one instead.
Douglas Fir is popular, with soft needles and plenty of branches for ornaments.
Once you’ve decided on a variety, it’s time to pick out a healthy tree. Keep in mind these tips:
- Determine the mature size and shape of the tree, how fast it grows, and any special care information related to your climate.
- Look for healthy, recently-dug trees, with green needles, flexible branches, and live growth buds. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller when the tree was dug, and avoid last-season or “bargain” trees.
- Make sure that container-grown trees are not rootbound.
- With balled-and-burlapped trees, the root ball should be firm, not falling apart. If the soil is rock-hard, the tree probably hasn’t been watered properly.
- Keep in mind that your tree, once watered, will be very heavy – larger varieties can weigh upwards of 200 pounds! Make sure you have help unloading and setting it up. Smaller container-grown trees are usually lighter and easier to handle.
- Pick up your tree by the root ball or container, never by the trunk. Use a hand truck or rolling plant stand to move your tree, and set it down gently.
This Italian Stone Pine (center) will grow to 70’ tall!
Bringing a Tree Indoors
The biggest concern with living Christmas trees is preserving the tree’s winter dormancy. Sudden exposure to warmth, or prolonged time inside, can cause the tree to start growing, which can be fatal if the tree is then returned to the cold outdoors. To ensure a smooth transition:
- Acclimate your tree to warmer temperatures by storing it in an unheated (but not freezing) garage or enclosed porch for 3-4 days before bringing it inside.
- Keep your tree indoors for no more than 7-10 days.
- While indoors, keep the tree in the coolest spot possible, away from heaters, heat ducts, fireplaces, or stoves.
- Keep the tree in bright indirect light but out of direct sunlight.
Blue Spruce has a lovely color, and it’s firm branches hold ornaments well.
Caring for a Live Tree
While your tree is acclimating to the indoors, inspect it from top to bottom. Remove and destroy any insects or egg clusters you find. One common pest is the gypsy moth, whose eggs are brown and wooly-looking and will be stuck to the stem or branches. You may want to spray the tree with an antiwilt or antidessicant product, such as Wilt Pruf.
- Water the root ball lightly.
- If your tree is balled-and-burlapped, you’ll need to place it in a watertight tub or large planter. Place gravel in the bottom to prevent the tree from sitting in water. Stabilize the tree by placing bricks or other weighty material around the bottom, and pack the remaining space with mulch or straw to hold in moisture.
- If your tree is planted in a container, put a tray or decorative planter under it to catch excess water.
- Keep the roots moist, but not soaked, and never add plant food or fertilizer, which would stimulate growth.
- Decorate your tree as usual, but use miniature or LED lights that don’t put off much heat. Avoid spraying on artificial snow, flocking, or paint products.
Use miniature or LED lights to minimize burning of needles.
Planting a Tree
After you’ve enjoyed your tree indoors, it’s time to move it back to the garage to acclimate to the cold for a few days before planting. In regions with severe winter temperatures, many gardeners dig the hole during the fall, before the ground freezes. The fill dirt is then covered with a tarp or moved to a sheltered area to keep it soft.
The ideal planting site will have full sun, well-drained soil, and should be large enough to accommodate the tree when fully mature. When planting:
- Dig the planting hole the same depth as the root ball, and 2-3 times as wide. If you have chosen a good planting spot, you shouldn’t need to add organic material.
- Remove the container or wrapping, and gently loosen any roots that are growing in a tight circle.
- Place the tree in the hole, making sure it is at the same depth as the soil around the root ball.
- Back fill the planting hole, stopping every few inches to tamp down the soil firmly to remove air pockets.
- Water the tree well, and add several inches of mulch after the ground freezes.
- Add stakes if needed, to hold your tree upright. If severe cold and wind is in your winter forecast, you may want to put up a burlap windscreen to protect your young tree. A windscreen can be easily made by attaching burlap to plant stakes.
The tiny cones on Japanese Cedar make it a unique Christmas tree option.
Caring for a Planted Tree
Your tree should remain dormant until spring. Water occasionally, particularly during a thaw, and check it regularly to see that it is upright and not drying out. In the spring, you should see signs of new growth that lets you know your living tree has begun its new life outdoors!