How to Choose, Care for, and Plant a Live Christmas Tree
Are you planning to purchase a live Christmas tree this year and need to know how to properly care for it? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss discusses the selection, care, and planting needs of an evergreen tree in winter.
Have you decided on a live Christmas tree this year? To ensure this sentimental and sustainable Christmas tree lasts, you must know how to care for it properly. A live tree will become a treasured member of your landscape, holding sweet memories of holidays past.
Christmas trees have always been a source of debate in my family. I recall my mother adamantly proclaiming when I was in High School that she would never have a fake tree. Fast forward about ten years, and Mom was firmly rooted on the artificial tree team.
My dad, on the other hand, has always lobbied for a live tree. I don’t mean a cut tree, although I am a proponent of live tree farms and the sustainability aspect of their businesses. But no, Dad likes a tree with a nice-sized root ball at the bottom. In fact, my first Christmas tree is still growing in his backyard, forty-something years later.
Live trees also perform all the tasks other plants do in the home, such as absorbing carbon dioxide and cleaning the air inside your home. After the holidays, they can be planted in the garden to be enjoyed for decades and for some varieties, centuries to come. Let’s dig into how to care for your live Christmas tree!
How to Choose a Live Tree
There are quite a number of different tree species that work well as live Christmas trees. The main types popular for this purpose include several types of pine, fir, spruce, and juniper trees. The number one factor in choosing a live tree is whether or not it will survive in your climate zone.
Some of the more popular live trees include:
- Arizona Cypress (Cupressus arizonica) – Zones 7-9
- Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) – Zones 3-6
- Colorado Blue Spruce (Picea pungens Engelm.) – Zones 3-7
- Colorado Green Spruce (Picea pungens) – Zones 2-7
- Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) – Zones 4-8
- Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana L.) – Zones 2-9
- Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) – Zones 4-7
- Korean Fir (Abies koreana) – Zones 5-7
- Leyland Cypress (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) – Zones 6-10
- Noble Fir (Abies procera Rehd.) – Zones 5-6
- Nordman Fir (Abies nordmanniana) – Zones 4-7
- Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) – Zones 10-11
- Norway Spruce (Picea abies) – Zones 3-7
- Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) – Zones 3-7
- Spanish Fir (Abies pinsapo) – Zones 6-7
- Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana (Mil.)) – Zones 4-8
- White Fir (Abies concolor (Gord. and Glend.) Hildebr.) – Zones 3-7
- White Pine (Pinus strobus L.) – Zones 3-7
- White Spruce (Picea glauca (Moench) Voss) – Zones 2-6
Once you know which trees will thrive in your climate, there are a few other factors to consider when selecting a tree. This goes for both cut and live trees, as the desirable characteristics remain the same whether or not the tree has been cut.
This is likely the most important factor in choosing a live Christmas tree. One of the greatest benefits of a live tree over a cut tree is that the tree is still alive while it is inside your home. As long as it is cared for properly, it should retain its needles fairly well. However, some trees are superior when it comes to retaining their needles.
Fir trees are well known for having excellent needle retention. In both cut and live trees, a fir tree will hold onto its needles for a long time, and the needles are sturdy, making them easy to decorate without inadvertently stripping the branches.
Scotch pines are another excellent choice in terms of needle retention. They have longer, softer needles than a fir, so they are a great option if you prefer a tree with a soft, fluffy appearance. If you are leaning toward spruce, look to white spruce for the best needle retention.
The classic Christmas tree is a pyramidal-shaped evergreen and usually a conifer, typically with short, dense, stiff needles. If this is the look you want, you can’t go wrong with a Colorado green spruce. It has short, deep green needles, and its lightly upturned branches are uniform and dense.
Norfolk Island pines are a wonderful choice for a more modern, whimsical tree. They have more flexible branches and are not great for hanging heavy ornaments on, but if you like a minimalist look and a tree that will make a great houseplant, this is a great option.
Scotch pine is a great choice if you love long needles for a lush and fluffy look. White pine also has soft, long needles that grow in clusters and a bluish-green color. Nordman fir is very plump and dark green with rounded needles, making decorating less painful.
One of the best things about live Christmas trees is the wonderful aroma that they fill the home with. While a cut tree will still retain some of its fragrance, nothing can rival a live tree in terms of the wonderful, resinous perfume.
Not all common Christmas tree types have a nice smell, though. Some actually smell rather unpleasant but have other positive qualities. If fragrance is not your priority, Spruce trees are beautiful and long-lasting, with sturdy branches that stand up well to decorating.
If you look forward all year to that magical Christmas tree scent in your home, I highly recommend a fir. Specifically, the balsam fir is considered to be the most fragrant and most pleasant-smelling for Christmas. Fir trees have a distinctive and classic scent commonly replicated by popular candle companies in their holiday scents.
Junipers have unconventional foliage, but they smell delightful, with notes of citrus and cedar and undercurrents of the gin made from their berries. Their feathery branches and unique foliage make a gorgeous tree, but their branches tend to be soft, so if you decorate heavily, this is not ideal.
If you are sensitive to scents or are an allergy sufferer, Leyland cypress is perfect. It produces no sap and has no distinctive or noteworthy aroma. It has light, feathery branches and makes a beautiful focal point in the home and the garden.
This character trait is important for me and my fellow heavy decorators. While I love a sleek, minimalist tree in stunningly coordinated decor, mine is a conglomeration of five generations of ornaments.
From the charming little Scottie dog ornament that graced my great-grandmother’s tree to the magical fingerprint snowmen brought home by my middle child, my tree has to hold up under the weight of some very sentimental ornamentation. I also like to use both white and colored lights so that I can switch between the two or use them at the same time.
Not all types can withstand this kind of stress. The potted Norfolk Island pine that my minimalist, Mid-Century Modern loving brother hangs a string of lights and a few festive knick knacks on would simply collapse at the sight of my ornament collection. I need a sturdy tree with nice, stiff branches.
Obviously, if you need a tree that will stand up to heavy decorating, a cypress or juniper is not the right choice. These lovely species are best left to our sleek, modern contemporaries. If, like myself, you are a true maximalist, a spruce or a fir is the way to go. These trees are known for their stiff, sturdy, upward-facing branches.
How to Care for a Live Tree
Once you’ve selected the right species for your climate and personal preferences, giving your tree the right provisions is important to keep it looking beautiful throughout the holiday season until planting time.
How Long Can It Live Indoors?
This area has a fair amount of controversy, with some folks feeling quite adamantly that a live tree should be kept indoors for the shortest time span possible. Others may argue that when given the proper care, a live tree should last much longer indoors as long as it gets the proper care.
Here is the thing about live trees. They are dormant during the year’s colder months, so those used to cold climates (provided your climate is cold as well) should spend no more than a week indoors. Any longer, and they may break dormancy and have less chance of survival outdoors.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all situations. Norfolk Island pines can live indoors indefinitely. If you live in a warmer climate and your chosen tree can thrive in that environment, you can get away with keeping it indoors for a longer period.
If, however, you live in a climate that experiences a hard freeze in the winter months, you want to get that tree back outside expeditiously. Aim for no more than a week indoors to give it the best chance of survival.
Keep your live tree outdoors, but protected, for any length of time that you have it before bringing it indoors. This is a perfect opportunity to have a decorated tree on a covered porch or in a screen room. As long as the temperature remains low, you can decorate it in an outdoor living space and enjoy it this way for weeks.
Aim for having your tree indoors for no more than a week, and this is the absolute most. Except for the warmer climates we previously discussed, the longer it is indoors, the lower its chances are of thriving once you take it back outside.
Transitioning your tree from the outdoors to the indoors is an important step that should not be overlooked. You don’t want to shock your tree by bringing it from a 25°F night directly into your 68°F living room. That will cause shock and cause your plant to certainly exit dormancy.
You want the transition indoors to feel like a little warm spell so the tree doesn’t spring into action the way that it should in the springtime. Bringing it close to the house and giving it a slight warm-up before coming indoors will help keep your tree dormant and accustomed to the cold. You don’t want it to produce any new foliage at this time because new foliage is tender and can be easily damaged when reintroduced to the cold.
If you have a covered porch, you can bring your tree into this space a week before bringing it indoors. A garage, shed, or unheated greenhouse are other appropriate transitional places. You can repeat this process when reintroducing it to the cold, but it is less important than it is now.
Before bringing your tree into the house, spray the needles with a solution of pine oil and water. The spray acts as an anti-transpirant, blocking the pores or stomata, which is how it breathes.
Because the tree is dormant, it won’t require as much water as it would during a growth period, but most common trees that are kept as Christmas trees like to stay moist.
Expect to water on a daily basis. The soil should always stay moist, and a decent-sized large tree can soak up a lot of water in a 24-hour period. It’s best to keep it in a container with no drainage to avoid floor damage. If water drains into the container and remains for 30 minutes or more, scale back on watering.
Do not fertilize. Fertilizers may cause the tree to break dormancy and induce new growth, which is more vulnerable to frost. You want to avoid waking it from dormancy as much as possible.
The ideal temperature situation for a live tree is to stay as cool as possible. You want it to stay dormant throughout this process, and bringing it indoors is tricky. If you can tolerate it, aim to keep your home at 65°F or cooler while the tree is indoors.
There are some workarounds to this issue in terms of placement. Consider placing it in the coolest part of the home and in an area close to a large window. Keeping your tree as cool as possible will keep it happily dormant.
The advent of LED Christmas lights has probably saved more than a handful of live trees from certain deaths in recent years. Heat can cause them to re-enter a growth phase and go to bud. It is important to avoid anything that will heat up your tree.
Conventional, incandescent Christmas lights get quite warm and create that situation where your tree thinks that spring has sprung and goes into action, only to be shocked by the re-entry into the cold outdoors. LED lights don’t heat up, so they are the preferred lighting method.
Planting Your Tree
Planting your live tree takes some advanced preparation. This is especially true of planting zones where the ground freezes early in the year. You want to give it the best chance of survival, which means planting in the ground as early as possible. This way, it will remain dormant naturally until the weather warms and the tree re-enters a growth cycle.
Prep the Ground for Planting
It is very difficult to dig a tree-sized hole when the ground is frozen, so those in cold climates must decide the planting location well ahead of time and get the space ready to put the tree in the ground after the holiday.
Before the ground freezes, dig a hole that is as deep and twice as wide as the root ball of your tree. This creates loose soil around the roots, which makes it easier for the plant to spread its roots and get established quickly. For quick digging, consider a drill-powered auger.
Store the soil from the hole in a place where it won’t freeze so you have an easier time using it to backfill later. The alternative to this is to backfill the hole with commercially purchased garden soil. If your soil composition is poor, this is not a bad idea. Most species commonly kept as Christmas trees prefer rich, acidic soil.
After digging the hole and storing the soil, fill the hole with straw or a bag of dead leaves. This helps retain the size and shape of the hole until you can plant. You can also cover the hole with plywood as a safety precaution.
Prep for Planting
Transition the tree back into the cold as you transitioned it indoors. Move it into a garage, shed, or other covered outdoor space about two to three days before planting.
This helps to prevent shock and mimics a natural warming and cooling of the weather. Water the root ball thoroughly on the day of planting, allowing it to absorb all it needs.
Remove the burlap or container from the root ball on the planting day and place the root ball in the pre-prepared hole. The top of the root ball should sit just above the surrounding soil. The soil will naturally settle, and you want that root ball to end up at the level of the soil and not below it.
After making any adjustments, position your tree in the hole, looking at it from all sides to make sure that it is planted straight and the most attractive side is facing in the direction you will look at most often.
Backfill the hole with your preserved soil, tamping it down with your shovel or foot so that it is firm but not compacted. You want the soil to be free of air pockets but not so dense that it inhibits growth in the spring.
After backfilling, water the ground thoroughly. Make sure to really soak the ground around the tree, as well. Apply a thick layer of mulch around the trunk, leaving an open area just around the base. The mulch will help regulate the soil’s temperature and prevent fluctuations.
Care After Planting
Keep your tree watered like any other perennial planted in the spring. This is especially important during warm spells when the ground begins to thaw. Evergreens like a lot of moisture and commonly grow in areas where the ground stays moist year-round.
During its first year, continue to water regularly. Water deeply when you do to encourage deep root growth. When the ground thaws and the weather warms in the spring, fertilize your tree using a complete fertilizer with an analysis of 10-8-15.
If your soil is acidic enough and contains adequate nutrients, your tree should not require further fertilization. It is easy to over-fertilize an evergreen. Avoid the urge to fertilize in the summer. Remember that tender new growth is not as well protected against freezing weather, even for evergreens.
Live Christmas trees are beautiful and more heavily fragrant than cut ones. They are easier to transport, and there is no frustration or balancing act of positioning them with a stand. In addition to making a stunning statement for the holiday, a live tree will bring a lifetime of nostalgia and beauty to your yard.