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How to Choose and Care for a Living Christmas Tree

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

A small tabletop living Chritmas tree.

A small tabletop living Chritmas tree.

Many people today are choosing to use sustainable practices. Instead of artificial Christmas trees, which contain materials that could be harmful to the environment, or cut trees that die and are discarded at the curb after the holidays, they are choosing living Christmas trees.

What Are Living Christmas Trees?

Living Christmas trees are trees that are not cut. They are sold at the local nursery and intended to be planted in your yard after the holidays. They are sold two ways, either containerized or ball and burlap. Containerized trees are trees that are growing in large pots. Balled and burlap are trees which have been carefully dug from the ground. A large “ball” of soil that contains the root system of the trees is wrapped in burlap and secured with rope or plastic straps around the trunk.

A living Christmas tree serves are a reminder of a special time as it grows in your yard.

A living Christmas tree serves are a reminder of a special time as it grows in your yard.

Why Choose a Living Christmas Tree?

Some people choose living Christmas trees because they are concerned with pollution and sustainability. Other people use them to mark important events like the purchase of a home or the birth of a child. Each tree in the landscape then has a special meaning for that family in the years to come.

How to Choose Your Tree

Choosing a living Christmas tree takes a little advance planning. First you have to decide where you want to plant it after the holidays. Coniferous trees need full sun so pick a sunny spot. You also have to take into consideration how large your tree will be when it is full grown. I’m sure you have seen those houses which are being eaten by an enormous pine tree that was planted too close to the structure when the homeowners planted it. Give your tree plenty of space for it to grow and stay healthy. Crowding your trees by buildings or other trees can result in diseases or pest infestations that could kill your tree.

Head out to your local nursery in the fall to pick out your tree. If you wait until December, there won’t be as many trees to choose from. Most nurseries are willing to hold your tree until the holidays, so go early for the best selection. They will also be selling only those trees that will grow in your growing zone so you don’t have to worry about whether or not the tree you choose will survive in your climate. They can help you choose a tree that will fit in the space in your yard that you have chosen.

If you live in an area where the ground freezes in the winter, dig the hole where you plan to plant your tree before winter. The hole should be twice as wide as the root ball of your tree. Leave the soil that you have dug out nearby, covered with a tarp to protect it from the weather. You will be using it to fill in the hole when you plant your tree. Fill the hole with leaves or mulch and then mark the hole with a large stake so that no one will fall into it.

It's a good idea to dig a planting hole before the ground freezes.

It's a good idea to dig a planting hole before the ground freezes.

How to Care for Your Tree

When you bring your tree home from the nursery, it will be dormant. Dormant means that the tree is not actively growing. It’s kind of like hibernation for animals. It is how trees and other plants survive the cold winters that would otherwise kill off any new foliage or flowers. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t want your tree to break dormancy. If it breaks dormancy and begins growing in your house during the holiday, it will die when you plant it outdoors in January.

First you want to acclimate the tree to the warmer temperatures indoors. Store your tree for a week in an unheated porch, garage or shed. You will need to check it daily to make sure that the root ball is not drying out. Water it sparingly if the soil starts to dry. The plant may be dormant, but the roots are still very much alive and need water.

After a week, you can bring it indoors. Set it up in a room that is cool or near a cool window. Water as needed using ice cubes, rather than room temperature water. You want to keep the tree and its roots as cold as possible. Another thing that you can do to keep your tree cool is to use light strands that have tiny bulbs on them rather than larger bulbs which will throw off more heat. Only use the lights a few hours a day at most.

Living Christmas trees should only be kept indoors for 7 to 10 days. After that, they will have warmed sufficiently to break dormancy which will cause them to die when you plant them outdoors after the holiday.

Place your living Christmas tree in a cool room or by a cool window.

Place your living Christmas tree in a cool room or by a cool window.

How to Plant Your Tree

After ten days, it will be time to start acclimating your tree to outdoor temperatures again. Move it back into the unheated porch, garage or shed for a week. After a week you can clear out your pre-dug hole and plant your tree.

If your tree is in a container, you need to remove it. Don’t pull on the trunk. Instead tap on the bottom of the container. My own experience is that tapping is not enough to loosen the root ball from the container. What I do is tap the bottom of the container and then (carefully) tip my plant or tree on its side and gently roll the container back and forth on the ground. This will definitely loosen the soil enough so that the tree will come right out. Place it in the center of the hole making sure that the surface of the root ball is even with the edge of the hole. If your hole is too deep, fill it in until the root ball is even with the edge. If your hole is too shallow, you will need to somehow dig it deeper. Fill in the rest of the soil that you dug out in the fall. Tamp it down to get rid of the larger air spaces. It should be firm, but not hard like concrete. Then water well.

If your tree is balled and burlap, it’s actually easier to plant it. If the burlap is plastic, remove it by cutting the rope or tie that is holding it to the trunk and discard it. If the burlap is made from natural jute, you can leave it on. It will decompose naturally in the soil. But you must remove the rope or plastic straps that are holding it to the trunk. If you leave them on, they will strangle the tree and kill it. Carefully lower the root ball into your pre-dug hole. Make sure that the top of the root ball is even with the edge of the hole. Just like a containerized tree, if the hole is too deep, you need to add soil and if it is too shallow, you need to make the hole deeper. Fill in around the root ball with your reserved soil. Tamp it down and water well.

© 2018 Caren White


Caren White (author) on November 29, 2018:

Heidi, I agree but I also like the idea of having a tree growing in my yard as a reminder of a special occasion.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on November 29, 2018:

I love the idea of a living Christmas tree, but it does have its drawbacks due to the special handling. Emphasizes (as you have) the need to think carefully about this purchase and planting. Happy Holidays!