Thinking About a Living Christmas Tree? Know How to Care for One First

Garlands, lights, wreaths and—for many families—Christmas trees are all part of setting the mood for a festive holiday season. And, in recent years, there’s been a growing trend of using live Christmas trees.

Different from the fresh-cut trees found on tree lots or in home improvement centers, living Christmas trees still have their roots; people decorate and showcase them in their homes and then plant the trees in the back yards after the holidays.

What to know about a live tree

The allure of a living Christmas tree, sometimes called a “balled and burlapped” or “container-grown” tree, is that, when properly tended to, it can add to the landscape and live for decades, providing generations of holiday cheer. However, it’s important to understand exactly how much work goes into caring for a live Christmas tree, and establishing it in your landscape, before deciding to purchase one:

  • Since living trees still have their roots, they’re much heavier than cut trees, weighing as much as 100 to 200 pounds for a 5-foot tree, according to Purdue University’s Department of Horticulture.
  • Living trees can only stay inside for a brief period, no more than seven to 10 days depending on your climate, says Purdue.
  • To plant a live tree come January, you’ll need adequate space in your yard. Take into consideration that the type of trees usually used as Christmas trees can grow to between 40 and 60 feet tall, with widespread branches.
  • Not all trees grow equally well in all types of surroundings. Check this list to see what type of tree is best suited to your area.

If, after evaluating your situation, you still want to go ahead and purchase a living Christmas tree, consider these three steps in the process: selecting a tree; tending to the tree inside the home; and planting and tending the tree outside.

How to select a living Christmas tree

It’s best to buy your tree early in the season, so you have a choice of the healthiest trees. Seasonal retail lots, which typically have only offered fresh-cut trees, are beginning to offer live options. There are also special tree farms offering the same. In addition, many garden centers and nurseries sell living trees during the season.

How to make your pick? Be sure the needles are healthy and green; avoid trees that are shedding or have yellowing, brown needles. Also check that the root ball is burlapped (or wrapped in synthetic material) and firm, and remember to treat the root system with extra care after purchase. If necessary, store the tree outside until the holiday. Just remember to keep the roots moist; Clemson University’s cooperative extension recommends covering them with mulch.

How to care for a live tree indoors

Before you bring your tree inside, allow it to gradually adjust to warmer temperatures by moving it to an unheated but sheltered area like a garage for a few days first. Clemson University suggests preparing a waterproof tub with 2 inches of gravel and putting the tree on top of that to keep the roots moist, but not soaked. Place it in a cool area with plenty of natural light and away from drafts. Make sure the root ball is moist at all times.

When decorating, go light on the lights or follow the suggestion of the National Christmas Tree Association and select versions that produce low heat, to prevent needles from drying out. And keep your tree on display indoors for no longer than 10 days (three to five days may be more appropriate in some climates; check with a local university extension office for advice). Housing the tree inside longer may awaken the buds from dormancy and may make them vulnerable once you plant the tree outside, Purdue’s cooperative extension advises.

How to plant and tend your tree outdoors

After a maximum of 10 days, move your tree to an unheated, sheltered location to allow it to acclimate to outside conditions. Choose a spot in your garden that is large enough to accommodate the tree’s growth; has plenty of sunlight and is well-drained. To plant the tree, prepare a hole that’s as deep as the roots and five times wider, Clemson University says.

To avoid the challenge of frozen ground, Purdue University suggests digging the hole in early winter and either bringing the dirt indoors, perhaps keeping it in a bucket in your basement or attic until planting time to prevent it from freezing, or deeply mulching the planting site to keep the ground there warm (making it easier to dig).

Then, remove the burlap around the root ball and any containers or wires. Gradually fill the hole with loose soil from the hole itself, and then water the tree evenly. You can find detailed tree planting instructions here.

Buying a live Christmas tree can be a lot of work — and there’s no guarantee that it will survive once you plant it outside. But many people are drawn to the idea of living Christmas trees, and the lifelong living memory of wonderful family times they can provide!

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