How to Plant Your Live Christmas Tree
Are you bringing home a live Christmas tree this year? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will tell you how to plant your tree and bring beauty to your garden for a lifetime.
Purchasing and planting a live Christmas tree is an exciting endeavor. Live trees are great for the environment, smell fantastic, and evoke a lifetime of sweet holiday memories in the garden. This sentimental plant can grace your yard for years and even lifetimes.
As a child, my father always insisted on a live tree, and they still stand in his backyard more than four decades later. Naturally, they are no longer the compact pyramids in our living room. Instead, these towering firs and spruce trees cast an imposing figure in the landscape and provide homes for birds and other woodland creatures.
Choosing the right type is essential to buying a live tree for the holiday, as is the care you give it leading up to planting time. Equally as important, or even more vital, is knowing when and how to plant it after the holiday has passed. Here are some easy steps to follow to ensure your tree lives to become a towering evergreen.
In many climate zones, December brings a hard freeze if it hasn’t happened before that point. It is important to consider when the ground freezes in your climate zone so that you can prepare to plant your Christmas tree as soon as the holiday is over.
In warmer climates, zones 8 and up, for instance, the ground may never freeze, and your soil may be workable during winter. In cooler climates, you need to prep your planting area before you are ready to plant.
Check some reliable sources to determine when your area will likely experience a hard freeze, and pay close attention to the forecast for any surprise cold fronts. Once the cold sets in, digging a hole to plant a large tree will be very difficult.
Choose a Location
Before you pull out that shovel, make sure you have chosen the proper spot for your live tree to grow into its mature form. Many varieties commonly sold as live Christmas trees are young and will mature into much larger trees over time, so they need to be planted in a spot where they have room to grow.
Choose a spot that will accommodate your tree as it grows larger. Consider the other plants around the area and how they may be affected as your evergreen begins to cast a significant shadow. Leave yourself some space from buildings as well. Large trees have large root systems, and a sizeable tree can damage a home’s foundation.
A towering evergreen may work better in a less prominent location than more ornamental and compact trees. An evergreen always makes a great foundational plant for the landscape and a wonderful backdrop for other, more ornamental plants.
Prepare a Spot Early
Now that you know where to plant your Christmas tree, it’s time to prepare the site. This is where timing and temperature enter the equation. You want to accomplish this task before the ground freezes too much to make headway with your auger, shovel, or post-hole digger, the last being what my husband uses when I need a sizeable hole to plant something in.
Test and Amend the Soil
Many desirable live Christmas trees have specific soil needs. They like moisture but well-drained soil, and most prefer slightly acidic soil. Soil that is too alkaline will not break down the nutrients in a way your tree can utilize.
An occasional soil test is a valuable tool for any gardener. It is good to be aware of the nutrients in your soil, the pH, and the soil composition. If your soil is alkaline or lacks nutrients, you may need to do some amending.
However, remember that while you can amend the hole you’ve dug, you can’t amend the ground around that hole as easily. The tree’s roots will eventually spread outside the space you amended, and that’s to be expected. If you can provide optimal conditions to fuel the tree’s initial growth, it buys some time for the tree to adapt to your native soil.
Dig the Hole
If you know the size of the root ball that your tree will come with, you can be more precise with this step. If not, no worries; just dig a little larger than you anticipate, and you will be able to adjust the hole depth at planting time.
When planting your Christmas tree, dig a hole as deep and twice as wide as the tree’s root ball. You don’t need to plant your tree any deeper than the surface of the ground around it, so no need to dig deeper. Digging a hole wider than the root ball will give you some wiggle room for positioning and give the tree some loose soil that will go easy on the newly forming roots.
If possible, make your hole square instead of round, particularly if you have clay-rich soil. A round hole can act much like a nursery pot in harder soil, and the roots will be more prone to circle. However, in a square hole, the roots reach a corner and are less likely to spiral; their growth will be directed outward instead of in a circle.
Store the Soil
Because the hole will be considerably wider than the root ball of your tree, you will need to backfill the hole when planting your tree. When you dig, save the removed soil in a space where it won’t freeze so you can use it to backfill after planting.
A garage or shed is a good place to store soil. You can put it in a trash bag or other large container and set it aside until you are ready to plant.
Fill the Hole and Cover It
Fill the hole with some straw or mulch to maintain the shape in case of rain. Make sure to use something that won’t freeze and become impossible to remove when the time comes.
Then, if you are concerned that someone could get hurt or fall into the hole, it’s a good idea to cover it with plywood. This will also help to prevent the ground from freezing, depending on the climate.
Keep Your Tree Hydrated
Ensure that while your tree is in its container or burlap, you keep it nice and hydrated. Pine and other evergreen trees can use up a lot of water.
Only bring your tree into the house for a week at the most, and place it in a cool spot, if possible, away from any heating appliances or vents. Most live trees need the cooler winter weather to remain dormant.
Transition Your Tree to the Outdoors
The objective is to not “wake the tree up” or bring it out of dormancy. It is a good idea to take a few days to transition the tree on either side of bringing it indoors.
A good way to do this is to bring the tree into a covered porch area, the garage, or an unheated greenhouse for a few days before bringing it indoors. This will create a more gradual warming, the way that temperature might naturally fluctuate throughout the winter.
Bringing the tree directly into the warmth could trigger it to return to an active growth stage. New growth is vulnerable to the cold, which makes the entire tree more vulnerable. You want to keep that tree from letting down its defenses. Repeat this process when you move your tree back outside to avoid shocking it with sudden, cold conditions.
Plant Your Tree
When you are ready to plant your Christmas tree, uncover and empty the hole you have saved. The root ball should sit slightly (two or three inches) above the surrounding earth. There is likely to be some settling. If you need to raise the tree up, fill the hole in slightly with the soil that you saved from digging the hole.
Position the tree in the direction that you prefer. While the shape of most evergreens changes as they mature, they will retain a pyramidal shape for the next several years, so make sure you like the side facing toward the most high-traffic area of the garden.
Backfill the hole around the root ball and tamp down the soil with a shovel or your foot to eliminate air bubbles that could potentially result in cold damage to the young roots. Finish up with a nice thick layer of mulch to insulate the roots. Water thoroughly after planting.
Your tree will need extra care the first year after planting. Winter is not the ideal time to plant a tree, so the first few months are the most important for the tree to survive and get established.
Keep your tree watered regularly during spring and throughout the summer as well. It is also important to water during any warm spells. Any time there is a chance for the soil to thaw, your tree will want water. Evergreens use a lot of moisture, which is most imperative during the first year. Continue to water your tree, and water it deeply throughout the coming year.
Resist the urge to fertilize until the ground thaws for good in spring. You don’t want to encourage new growth until it is warm enough for the new growth to survive. When you fertilize, which only needs to be once a year in spring, use a 10-8-15 complete fertilizer.
As long as your soil is slightly acidic, your tree shouldn’t need added nutrients. Over time, the needles dropped by the tree will help to increase the soil’s acidity, but you may need to amend the soil to give your tree a good start.
With a little TLC, your live Christmas tree should bring joy and nostalgia for a lifetime. A stunning evergreen is a beautiful sight in the winter garden and a welcome home for birds and other wildlife. Most of these trees produce cones or fruit that help to feed overwintering birds and create a wonderful backdrop for other plants in your landscape.