christmas tree How To...

Decorate With a Live Christmas Tree

live Christmas treeReady to try something a little different this year? How about a live Christmas tree? Not only are they beautiful, they’re an environmentally friendly alternative to the typical cut (and dead) tree. But live trees take a little more effort and care if you want them to survive the holidays. Here’s how to ensure your live tree provides not only a beautiful decorative accent for your holiday festivities, but creates a focal point in the garden for many years to come.

  • Buy a tree that will adapt well to your climate. Don’t assume just because it’s sold in your area that it will grow there.
  • Live trees are often sold balled and burlapped, although some are potted up or grown in containers. All will work fine as a Christmas tree.
  • Live trees are very heavy. A six foot tall balled and burlapped tree will weigh as much as 250 pounds. Be sure you have help moving it (a dolly works well).
  • Leave your tree outside for three or four days in an unheated, sheltered area (e.g., garage, enclosed porch) out of the wind and sun. Don’t let it freeze. This process is necessary to slowly acclimatize the tree to warmer temperatures and avoid a sudden growth spurt when it’s brought inside.
  • Check the tree for insects and insect egg masses.  A friend of mine once found her gorgeous live tree, carefully placed in the living room, covered with shimmering gossamer threads. It was absolutely beautiful but the tiny spiders cascading down the tree were not welcome holiday guests!
  • Place the tree in a cool location in your home, away from heating ducts, fireplaces, or radiators.
  • Put the tree in a large pot or tub (nothing with drainage holes!). If necessary, stabilize the tree with rocks, bricks, or mulch. If the tree is balled and burlapped, do not remove the burlap or twine/strapping.
  • Keep the root ball moist but not soggy. Unlike a cut tree, you probably do not need to water the tree every day. Mulch packed around the root ball will help keep a balled and burlapped root ball moist. Do not add fertilizer or any nutrients to the water.
  • Decorate the tree with care so as to not damage any branches. If you use lights, use LED lights that don’t give off heat.
  • Keep the tree inside for no more than 10 days (some experts suggest only 4 days).
  • After Christmas, place the tree back outside in a sheltered location for a few days to allow it to acclimatize to the cooler temperatures.
  • At this point you can plant the tree.  If the ground isn’t frozen, dig a hole about twice as wide as the root ball and 1” – 2” shallower than the root ball is tall.  If you were planning ahead, you would have dug the planting hole while temperatures were more moderate and saved the soil in a protected location so that it doesn’t freeze (a wheelbarrow works well for this).
  • If the ground is frozen and you can’t dig a planting hole, place the tree in a protected area and carefully pack straw, bags of leaves, or mulch around the root ball to prevent it from freezing. Make sure you keep the root ball moist until the tree can be planted.
  • If the tree is in a pot, carefully remove the pot before planting. For a balled and burlapped tree, remove any jute twine around the tree trunk (if the twine is nylon, remove it all), cut off the wire basket (if there is one), and pull back the top 1/3 of the burlap before placing the root ball in the planting hole (keep the root ball intact).
  • Back fill with the soil you removed from the planting hole and water thoroughly (but don’t flood the planting hole, particularly if the ground is frozen as this can create a ball of ice in the root ball). Mulch heavily to prevent the root ball from freezing.
  • If you can, stake the tree to stop it from rocking back and forth in the ground over the winter.

Note: Some nurseries recommend spraying your live tree with an antidessicant or antiwilt product to minimize needle loss. If you choose to do this, do it while the tree is still outside acclimatizing.