Living Trees

By Chandra Orr

July 18, 2013 5 min read

Not even the best faux greenery can compete with the lush boughs and subtle scent of living pines and firs. With proper care, living Christmas trees can offer this enjoyment long after the last present is opened and the ornaments are put back in storage.

Whether potted and returned indoors year after year or planted in the yard, a living tree offers more bang for your holiday buck than cut trees -- plus there's no wrangling with the tree stand, cleaning up fallen needles or hauling it to the trash once the season is over.

Starting in November, you can find small- and mid-sized potted trees at your local supermarket floral department, big box retailer or home improvement superstore. Look for trees with sturdy yet flexible branches and dense, green needles. Plants with drooping branches, overly dry branches or shedding needles might perk up with a bit of water and sunlight, but there is no guarantee.

Also, be certain that the pine or fir you choose will tolerate your climate, and keep an eye on the final growth size. If you have a small yard, skip white pines and Austrian pines, which get quite large, and opt for something more manageable.

Living Christmas trees aren't well-adapted to life indoors, so they require a little TLC once you get them home. Put them on display near a window, where they can get plenty of natural light, and check the soil often. Water when the soil feels dry. Be sure to remove any decorative foil or plastic before watering to allow for proper drainage.

Also, be mindful of external heat sources, which can cause undue stress and dryness. Keep the tree away from heat ducts and fireplaces, and limit the use of warm incandescent holiday lights. Instead, opt for LEDs, which are cooler to the touch.

Plan to keep the tree indoors for no more than two weeks. Once the holidays are over, quickly relocate the pine to the patio or deck until you're ready to put it in the ground.

Smaller, slow-growing pines, such as the dwarf Alberta spruce, can be repotted in larger containers and remain there for several years before going in the ground. In the summer they look stunning as an accent plant on a patio or deck, and come Christmas time, they're easily moved indoors to take center stage among the holiday decor.

Larger pines and firs will need a permanent home in the yard once the growing season arrives. Choose a sunny location with ample drainage and plenty of room to grow. Depending on the species, that little 3-foot Christmas tree could become a 20-foot giant with an equally expansive room system in just five to 10 years, so plan accordingly. Give a wide berth to buildings, sidewalks and underground structures like wells and septic systems.

To plant the tree:

--Dig a hole twice as wide and twice as deep as the tree's root ball.

--Partially refill the hole with topsoil so the base of the tree sits slightly higher than ground level. The goal is have the best soil close to the plant's roots, so consider mixing in a bit of fresh topsoil from a nursery or greenhouse.

--Remove the tree from its original container. If the roots are pot bound, gently straighten and uncoil any roots circling the container, taking care not to disturb the root ball.

--Place the tree in the hole and gradually add soil to fill, tamping the soil gently with the shovel handle as you go. Don't stomp on the soil or otherwise compact it; just be certain that all the major gaps are filled. The soil will fill into the smaller nooks and crevices on its own over time.

--Once the hole is completely filled in, water thoroughly. You may need to add a bit more topsoil as the ground settles in around the tree.

--When finished, top the surrounding area with a thick layer of mulch to help prevent weeds and aid in moisture retention.

For the most part, pines are fairly hearty and self-sufficient, but keep an eye on your tree during the first growing season. Be sure it stays well watered during dry spells, add additional mulch as necessary and skip the fertilizer for the first year. Give the plant time to settle in to its new home, or you could risk shocking it with the added nitrogen.

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