living christmas tree Tips

Every year you buy a Christmas tree, bring it home for a few weeks, then leave it out on the sidewalk for the recycling truck.

Seems like a waste, doesn't it? Consider buying a living Christmas tree this year instead of a cut one.

A living Christmas tree is a bit more work, but they do have their pluses: they're not as messy because they won't have as much needle drop.

You may, however, have to make some compromises on size. If you want a 12-foot tree, for example, go for a cut one, because root balls on tall trees are prohibitively large. If you're determined, however, you can make it work. Here's how:

Selecting a Living Christmas Tree

Most living trees are white pines, spruces, and fir.

Generally, what you can buy at your local nursery will be best suited for the growing conditions where you live.

The main difference between a living Christmas tree and a cut tree is that living trees have root balls. Big, heavy root balls.

You'll notice this when you lug it into the living room. These root balls are also an important indicator of tree health. Here's what to look for:

  • Big root ball: A four-foot-tall living Christmas tree should have a root ball at least 18 inches in diameter, preferably larger. The ratio should be 9 inches of root ball for every inch in diameter of the trunk at the base.
  • Secure root ball: Make sure the root ball is firmly attached to the trunk of the tree and doesn't wobble.
  • Few loose needles: Slide your hand over a branch, if you end up with a handful of needles, the root ball has not been kept moist, and the tree is not fresh. Needles should bend, not break.
  • Living branch buds: Look at the tips of the branches. Trees are sheared or pruned each year to give them their Christmas tree shape. If there are no buds at the end of the tips, that means this tree was sheared too late; that means the tree won't grow next year.

Don't Keep a Living Christmas Tree Indoors Too Long

Most trees go dormant in the winter, and Christmas trees are no exception.  If you keep a living tree indoors too long, you run the risk of waking it up. Prolonged warmth might make it think spring is near, and it will begin putting out tender new growth. This is a recipe for disaster if you plan to plant it out in the cold, icy yard.

For a healthier tree:

  • Limit time inside: Many growers advise keeping living trees indoors no longer than three to five days max. If that seems too brief for your family, at least limit its stay to no more than one to two weeks.
  • Water daily: Instead of a tree stand, the living tree will be in a bucket. It may need as much as a gallon of water every day because it's going to be losing a lot of water through transpiration in the warm, dry house. Mist daily.
  • Choose a cool spot: Place the tree in a cool area away from sunny windows, flaming fireplaces, and heat vents.

Preparing the Yard for Your Tree

If you plan to plant the tree in your garden after the holidays, find out how tall and wide that species grows. Unless it's a dwarf species, you probably are not going to want to put it against your house.

Find a place where it won't block views or cause icy spots on sidewalks. You're going to have to live with your decision for a long time.

Prepare a spot for the tree as soon as you bring it home. If you live in a cold area, try to dig the hole before the ground freezes. (Get more tips for transplanting plants here.)

One common error is planting trees too deep. Dig the hole only as deep as the root ball but three to four times as wide.

To help your tree transplant better, store the soil from the hole in your garage or a shed to keep it warm. Line the hole with straw.

Planting Your Christmas Tree in the Yard

Living trees cannot go straight from a warm living room to a frigid garden. Store the tree in a cool shed or garage for two or three weeks to acclimate to cooler temperatures. Continue to water it daily. 

Then transfer the tree to the pre-dug hole. Remove the burlap and plant the tree so that the warmed soil (from the shed, remember?) comes just to the bottom of the trunk. Water thoroughly with lukewarm water. 

Cover the hole with a three-to-four-inch layer of mulch, but be careful not to let the mulch rest against the trunk.

Don't get your hopes too high. Bringing a living tree indoors is a terrible shock to its system - and survival rates are low. But give it a try. Even if the tree doesn't make it, you're no worse off than you would have been with a cut tree. 

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