Care for a Living Christmas Tree

R. L. Rhodes
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A living Christmas tree can brighten your home during the holidays and accent your landscape thereafter. Use these tips to ensure that your tree makes it through the holiday, and into your landscape, unscathed.

If you love the splendor of a brightly arrayed Christmas tree, then what happens afterward is no doubt a serious damper on your New Year’s. The sight of a once grand tree heaped on the curb for collection, its needles brown and drying, certainly does little to extend the Christmas spirit throughout the year. No wonder, then, that many people have turned to a new tradition of using live trees that can be replanted after the holidays.

It’s a lovely idea, but many living Christmas trees end up failing the transition from interior décor to becoming a permanent part of the landscape. If your tree isn’t going to establish itself when you plant it, you might as well have bought a cut tree for all of the effort that you put into it.

Fortunately, establishing a living tree is entirely possible when you’re armed with a little know-how. Use the tips below to help make your new Christmas tradition a lasting memory.

Think Four-Dimensionally

Start out by thinking about how the tree will eventually fit into your landscape. That should inform the sort of tree that you use. Pick a tree that will grow to fit the space you’ve set aside for it, but that isn’t likely to outgrow its niche. Our plant guide can help you figure out the dimensions of most full-grown evergreens. Be sure to also pick a tree that grows well in your zone, preferably one that’s native to your region.

If you have ambitions of celebrating the holidays with a towering behemoth of a tree, you might want to modify your expectations now. A 14-foot Douglas fir may be magnificent, but it isn’t really practical to bring a live one into most homes. For one thing, the root ball would add considerably to the weight of the three — think several hundred pounds for a tree that size. But more importantly, young trees fare better through the stressful transitions your tree will be expected to make.

Indoor Living

A living Christmas tree should be gradually introduced to the warmer climate of your home. Moving it too quickly to a warm environment may prompt it to start growing again, making it vulnerable to damage when you transition back into the cold. Start it off in a sheltered, unheated space, like your garage. After a few days, you can bring it into the house.

During this acclimation phase, you may want to take a good look at your tree to make sure it’s not being used to smuggle any pests into your home. Spraying the branches with an antidessicant may also protect your tree from moisture loss.

Be sure to keep the root ball watered while the tree is indoors. Placing it in a galvanized tub packed with straw or peat moss can help retain moisture. Placing the tree away from vents will also help keep it from drying out. You’ll probably want to take extra precautions to protect your floor, like laying a plastic or vinyl sheet between it and the traditional tree skirt, if you use one.

Timing Is Everything

It seems like the Christmas season starts a little earlier each year, but you don’t have the same flexibility when it comes to a living Christmas tree. The important thing to remember is that, as a living thing, your tree will be subject to the growth patterns of any normal plant. In particular, it responds to changes in temperature, so unless you’re keeping your living room chilled to roughly the same temperature as outdoors, a living tree won’t remain dormant there for long.

That’s important because a tree with active buds will be prone to winter kill when moved back out into the uncontrolled climate of your yard. It’s best, then, to keep a living tree indoors no longer than 10 days, and an even shorter period indoors is even better for the tree. When you’re ready to move it back outdoors, reverse the gradual stages you used to bring it in so that the tree will acclimate to the colder weather before you plant it.

Perhaps the single most important factor to keep in mind is that you’ll be planting this tree in late December — not exactly prime-time for planting. In some areas, the ground may already have frozen by the time you’re ready to plant your tree, so it may be prudent to dig the hole ahead of time and store the soil somewhere more temperate, like the garage. That will save you the effort of trying to dig through icy ground, and let your tree settle its roots into more tolerable soil.

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