How to care for a living Christmas tree

Instead of buying a cut tree that gets used once, choosing a potted or burlap-bagged living Christmas tree can yield years of enjoyment.

By Derek Markham (@derekmarkham)

For those celebrating Christmas, a live tree can be a beautiful home accessory while serving as a decorating centerpiece for the holiday season. However, considering how short-lived a cut tree is, a more sustainable choice might be to buy a living tree that can either be used year after year, or that can be planted in the yard to supply shade and wildlife habitat, and act as a living windbreak for decades to come.

Although most cut Christmas trees come from a tree farm, where they are grown specifically to be cut down for the holiday season, some families have a tradition of searching out and cutting their own tree on public lands or private property, but either way, once the tree is cut, its days are numbered. Supplying the bottom of the cut tree with fresh water can help slow down the dying process and keep the needles from drying out and dropping off so fast, but with no root system attached, the tree is essentially living on borrowed time after it’s cut. And while there are plenty of uses for cut Christmas trees after the season is over, such as being turned into fish habitat or yard and garden mulch, a living Christmas tree that gets planted in the yard will continue to grow and provide vital ecosystem services and financial benefits for years and years.

If you’re considering buying a living Christmas tree this year, be sure to look for varieties that are well-suited to your local climate, as well as ones that will do well in the specific soil type and level of sun exposure where it will eventually be planted. Even the hardiest and healthiest of trees can struggle to grow when planted in areas that are too shady, too wet, or too warm for them, so picking an appropriate variety is essential to success. And unless you have a large property and can choose from a variety of planting sites, it can be helpful to decide where you’ll plant the tree before you actually buy one, as some locations may not be a good match for certain varieties of tree.

A potted Christmas tree can be kept in its pot and moved outside to live after the holidays, and then brought inside each year for the festivities, but will require a fair bit more care than one that gets planted outside. A potted tree will dry out faster than one in the soil, so regular watering is a necessity, as is periodic re-potting to a larger container to allow for growth, and the fact that the roots are sitting in a pot above ground rather than in the ground may mean that additional protection is required in cold climates.

No matter if you plan to keep your living Christmas tree in a pot year-round, or you’re going to eventually plant it in your yard, you’ll want to allow your new tree to acclimate slowly from outside temperatures to indoor ones, with the general recommendation being to place the tree in an unheated but sheltered location, such as a garage, for a week or two before bringing it into the house. During this time, the roots of the tree should remain damp but not soaking, so periodic watering may be necessary. Ask the tree nursery for their guidance on specific instructions for the variety you choose.

When picking the location for the tree in the home, try to choose a place that isn’t directly exposed to warm air from heaters or vents, or selectively close nearby dampers to avoid large temperature swings in that room. A cooler location is better than a warm one, and one with plenty of natural light is preferred. Remember that a living Christmas tree is much heavier than a cut tree, and that although some people may be able to afford, display, and plant a rather large tree, buying a smaller one allows for more choices of location in the home, and makes it a lot easier to move around and eventually plant outdoors.

Water the living tree regularly (some recommend watering it a little bit every day), and be prepared for dampness or water overflow under the pot by either placing a large saucer underneath it or by wrapping it in plastic. To water the tree slowly so that the soil can absorb it, use ice cubes. Depending on the size of the pot, anywhere from one to three trays of ice cubes can be placed on the surface of the soil, where they will melt and gradually water the tree. Covering the soil with mulch can also help keep it from drying out as quickly.

Decorate a living Christmas tree gently, and take care not to hang heavy ornaments on branches that may get damaged because of the weight. While the older incandescent Christmas lights put out too much heat to string on a living tree, many of today’s cooler LED strands can be used to light the tree, but be sure to plug them in and check the operating temperature before stringing them up.

The general guidelines on keeping a living Christmas tree indoors is to limit it to a week to ten days maximum, after which the tree should be moved back to an unheated yet sheltered transition location for at least a few days. If the ground is frozen, the tree can be moved to an outside location that is sheltered from direct winds until planted permanently. If the ground isn’t frozen, the tree can be planted outdoors as per the specific planting instructions for that variety, and the soil should be well-mulched as protection from the cold and to conserve moisture. For keeping a potted Christmas tree year-round, move it to a more permanent location with plenty of sun after the transition, where it can also benefit from a heavy mulch.

If you don’t own your yard, or don’t have a location suitable for planting a living Christmas tree, you can still buy and enjoy one during the holidays if your friends, family, or community organization has a place to plant it afterward and will accept your donation. And if you’re not tied to the idea of getting a more traditional conifer as your living Christmas tree, there are other varieties of trees that could be used as such, and that can live year-round indoors, such as the Norfolk Pine, or you can just decorate apineapple and call it a day.

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