How to Choose and Care for a Living Christmas Tree

How to Choose and Care for a Living Christmas Tree
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Having a real tree in your home for Christmas is simply incomparable to setting up an artificial one. You just cannot mimic that fresh, crisp smell and the look of a real tree brings so many more feelings of traditional, old timey goodness. If you don’t want an artificial tree this year, and you don’t want to chop down a live one, try bringing a living tree inside for the festivities and letting this beautiful specimen continue to thrive as you celebrate the holidays.

Choosing the Right Tree

Choosing the right tree

The first thing you’ll need to decide on is which species of evergreen to go with for your living Christmas tree. You can pick from many different varieties of pine, fir, spruce, cypress, juniper, hemlock, or redwood. You’ll want to ensure you’re choosing a type of tree that can comfortably grow outdoors in your area year round, as you’ll eventually be moving this ornamental Christmas piece outside to carry out the rest of its days. When purchasing a tree, check the plant’s tag to see its hardiness range of which USDA zones it can survive in.

Most tall evergreen trees develop a root system that gets too large to be contained in a pot for an extended period of time, or they simply get too tall to be allowed to remain indoors. There are a few species, however, that don’t actually need to be moved outdoors after the holiday season. The Norfolk Island pine and the dwarf Alberta spruce can both easily be grown indoors year round as a houseplant and you won’t need to move it outside once the decorations come down. Provide these trees with plenty of full sun and turn them about a quarter turn every week to ensure even light exposure. Make sure they get ample water throughout the year, especially in the summer months, and trim any broken or dead limbs as needed. With proper care, these types of plants can become a permanent fixture in your indoor garden and can be decorated yearly when the temperature drops and Christmas music starts up.

Grow Your Own

Grow your own

You can grow your very own living Christmas tree right from a seed, or you can skip that step and purchase a small sapling from your local nursery. Growing your own tree can take quite a few years, but if you’re willing to invest the time and energy, you’ll be rewarded with a Christmas tree grown by your very own hand. A potted evergreen can be brought in every year for the holiday season and placed back outdoors when Christmas is over. Once they get over 5 feet tall they will need to be provided with a permanent home in the ground as their roots system becomes too demanding for the confines of a container.

Raising an evergreen within a container can be quite a bit of work, as they require a great deal of water for their ravenously thirsty roots. As your sapling grows larger, you’ll need to repot it to give the roots more space to expand. It’s possible to plant your tree into the ground and then dig it up when it’s time to bring it indoors but this may reduce the lifespan of your tree as it’s very disruptive to the root system. Whether in a pot or in the ground, leave your tree outside until as close to Christmas as possible and only keep it indoors for about 10-12 days. After that, get it back outside into its natural space.

Buy a Pre-Grown Tree

Buy a pre-grown tree

You don’t need to go through years of raising your tree from a tiny sapling just to enjoy the experience of a living Christmas tree. Buy a pre-grown tree and allow it to live outdoors in its container until it’s time to bring it inside for the festivities. Unless you’ve purchased a species that does well indoors, like the Norfolk Island pine or the dwarf Alberta spruce, you’ll need to move it back outside within 10-12 days and eventually transplant it into the ground. 

Ball and burlap

You can buy living trees in two different ways. Field-grown trees, also known as ball and burlap, are grown on a lot, harvested, then sold. During the harvest, some of the tree’s roots are usually damaged, which could affect the health of your tree. Container grown trees, on the other hand, will have their entire root system left intact and will generally take to transplanting much more readily. If you’re looking for a bigger tree, however, you’ll most likely need to go with the ball and burlap option as container grown trees are more limited on how large they can be grown.

When selecting your tree, keep in mind that a smaller tree will be less expensive and much easier to maneuver within your house. They’ll keep growing when you transplant them outside, so don’t be turned off of smaller tree if you’re hoping for a large tree to add to your yard. Run your hand through the branches when tree shopping and ensure there aren’t a ton of needles dropping off the tree. The root ball should not be loose and the trunk should not move back and forth independently of the root ball. It’s important to select a healthy tree to ensure the transplanting stage goes as smoothly as possible after the holidays.

Caring for a Living Tree Indoors

As previously mentioned, your tree should only remain indoors for 10-12 days. Before bringing it indoors you’ll need to give it a couple of days to acclimatize to warmer temperatures. Place it in an enclosed space, like your garage or on a covered porch, before bringing it in to your much warmer home. Once inside, put your tree in a sunny spot but keep the root ball shaded and moist. The space your tree is in should not be overly warm or dry, and it should be placed far from any fireplaces, stoves, heaters, or vents. Using a humidifier near your tree can be very helpful in preventing it from drying out. 

If you’ve purchased a burlapped tree, place the root ball in a container and fill the container with mulch to help the roots retain moisture. Water your tree daily, but not to a point where the roots will become soggy. The roots of an evergreen tree are greedy, and your tree is in a much warmer environment than it’s used to. It’s going to require a regular supply of water to avoid drying out.

Transplanting After the Holidays

Transplanting

When the holidays are over it will be time to bring your tree back out into nature. You can give it another couple of days in an enclosed space to allow it to acclimatize back to the cooler weather. If you live in an especially cold climate and there’s a chance the ground will be frozen, be sure to dig the hole you’ll plant your tree into in advance. You can store the removed soil in your garage or underneath a tarp to prevent it from freezing. The hole should be only as deep as the root ball, but twice as wide to allow the roots to spread out. Mix a little compost in with the soil you’re adding back to give the roots some much needed extra nutrients. 

If you’re transplanting from a pot you can simply slide the plant out of the pot and then loosen the root ball a little. Depending on the size of your tree, this may be a 2-3 person job. If transplanting from burlap, natural burlap can be left in the ground under your plant as long as it’s pulled away from the roots enough to give them room to expand. Any mesh wire, treated burlap, or artificial burlap should be removed entirely. 

Add some mulch over the soil, such as shredded bark or wood chips, to keep the roots concealed, the soil moist, and area free from nutrient stealing grasses and weeds. Give your newly transplanted tree plenty of water within the first year or so as the root system becomes established.

Cherish Your New Tree

Unless you have a massive yard and you plan on planting a forest in it, you may not want to have a living Christmas tree every year. It can be something special you do every few years, which actually makes the experience even more extraordinary. To create the most beautiful memories, get a living Christmas tree for the years marking the most special occasions. Your first year of marriage, your baby’s first Christmas, or the first year in a new house. Then, when you transplant your tree outside, you’ll be able to look at if forever and reminisce about that significant milestone and the wonderful Christmas you celebrated that year.

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