Live Christmas Trees

Christmas TreeWhat’s not to like about a live Christmas tree? After serving as the center of holiday celebrations, they come to anchor family memories in an honored place in your yard. They’re less a fire hazard when inside the home and once out they provide all the beauty and CO2 reducing benefits, no matter how tiny, to the environment. Planting a living tree, the one your kids were around when they opened their gifts, is a great family activity.

But how many times have you heard this? “We bought a living tree for the holidays but it died after we planted it.” Otherwise successful arborists find getting a living Christmas tree to take a risky proposition. Why? The planting of living Christmas trees happen under two special circumstances. The trees spend a period of time indoors under warm conditions that replicate spring thaw. This signals the tree — prematurely — that it’s time to start the growing season. The second circumstance is winter planting. The middle of winter isn’t the ideal time for putting trees in the ground.

Having a living tree in your home surrounded by presents on Christmas morning and then having it transferred to an honored place in your landscape — for years! — is not an impossibility. But it does take extra special care. Basically, after buying the tree, you store it cold, recreate the conditions of a short winter thaw when you bring it inside, then recondition it to cold and outdoor planting. The other problem is digging the hole. If the ground is solidly frozen, well, even your ice fishing auger won’t be much help.

There’s a number of good sites on the web that discuss the planting of live Christmas trees. We’ve taken most of these suggestions from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension (PDF) of Suffolk County, New York (the county was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Sandy) and the Iowa State Extension and Outreach Service. Probably the best source of information is your local nursery where they can address special needs and the best kinds living trees for your area.

• Plan ahead. Choose a suitable place for your tree, one with full sun, good drainage, and wind protection. Dig your hole early, before the ground freezes (okay, okay; it may be a little late for that in some locales this year). The hole shouldn’t be too deep, not much deeper than the root ball will be and as wide as you can make it, maybe three, four or even five times the width of the root ball. As best possible, keep the soil you take from the hole on a tarp in a place where it won’t freeze, say in your garage or tool shed.

• Choose the healthiest looking tree you can find. Make sure it’s recently dug or grown in a container. Don’t choose a tree that doesn’t do well in your particular area. A three-or-four foot tree is better than a six foot tree. Remember: you have a root ball or container to consider when figuring height. Large trees with their larger root balls are hard to move. (If you must, use a dolly).

• Store the tree in a cool place — your garage or tool shed, a protected place on the patio — before bringing it inside. Gradual temperature changes are best so a garage that’s warmer than the outside but cooler than your living room is ideal. Water the tree as soon as you get it home and keep the root ball moist (not soaking).

• Place the root ball in an extra large garbage sack or wrap it in plastic before setting it up in your living room. Don’t keep the tree indoors too long; a week is about the limit. You don’t want the tree to be fooled into thinking it’s spring! Place it away from heating vents or other locations that will dry it out. Again, keep it watered.

• After the holiday, bring the tree back to the garage or other semi-warm location so that it reconditions to the cold. If this means moving it outside during the day and back inside a porch at night, do it . . . for the good of the tree. A week or so adjustment period should be enough. I’ve known people who attempted to keep the tree in their garage until spring thaw with disastrous results. Theoretically, if it’s in a container and you keep it watered, it should work. But…

• When you’re ready to stick the tree in the ground, take off the plastic wrap (if it was used) remove the burlap or carefully break the soil ball out of the container. Loosen the soil roots to encourage spread and trim any thin, leggy, circling roots. Make sure your tree is planted to the proper depth. Don’t add extra amendments to the soil. They will send the growth signal to the tree. Water the tree well — this will keep the ground from immediately freezing — and mulch it around the entire space to a depth of three inches or more. Be sure to keep mulch away from the tree trunk. Don’t build up a pile of mulch, like a volcano, around the trunk. Mulch that touches the tree risk later rot. Do this task on a relatively warm day as possible.

• Cross fingers and wait until spring.

We’ve given you the barest details of working with living Christmas trees. For more details, go to the websites above and check here and here. And please share your experiences… what do we want to hear in your comments? That we’ve made it sound more difficult than it is.

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