Decorating the family Christmas tree is among Claire Younker Moe's fondest childhood memories. But as an adult, the tradition held less allure. "It's not that I'm 'Bah, humbug,'" Claire says. "I just can't get into spending all that money on a dead tree." Many years she went without. But then she had a son and felt guilty about denying him such memories of his own.
An Evergreen Tradition
So Claire and her husband devised a new seasonal strategy: They buy a live tree to trim indoors, and after the ornaments are packed away they plant it on their three acres on Bainbridge Island, Washington. "It's an old farm," Claire says, "so trees are limited. This way, we are helping re-tree the property. And we'll have it for years to come."
For starting or continuing a family tradition, a live tree offers a distinct advantage over the cut variety. "You can look at it every year and think, 'Remember when we did that?'" says This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook. "It's fun for kids because you can point to it and say, 'That's your tree.' You can't do that when the tree's ground into wood chips."
Is It Better to Get a Live Christmas Tree?
A live tree offers practical benefits, too. It is fresher, so it's more fragrant. It's not as tippy as a cut tree in a stand (though it can take time to level the root ball in a container). And in later years, the planted tree can extend holiday cheer outdoors when strung with all-weather lights or edible garlands for birds to nibble.
Live trees do come with limitations, though. They can cost twice as much as cut ones. If you like decorating long before Christmas, the tree can't be central to your scheme because it won't weather much more than a week indoors. It requires more muscle to get in and out of the house—a 6-footer with its root ball can weigh up to 250 pounds. And if you live in a region that experiences a hard freeze in winter, you'll need to plan ahead so you have a place to plant the tree after the holidays.
But these are all minor inconveniences when you consider that once the tree is in the ground, it adds value to your landscape and serves as a reminder of your family's yuletide fun. Read on to learn what to do now, come Christmas, and after the holidays with help from Roger Cook.
Shop for Your Live Tree
To get the best selection, head to the nursery around Thanksgiving—well ahead of the late-December rush. Most nurseries will tag your specimen and hold it for you until it's time to bring it home. To figure out how big a tree you can handle, measure the ceiling height in the room where you plan to put it. Factor in the size of the tree plus its root ball, as well as the height of an ornament on top and whether the container sits off the ground. Also, check the tree's projected growth to make sure it won't get too big for the space you're considering in your yard.
To ensure that your planted tree thrives long past the holidays, choose a species suited to your climate. Your local nursery will give the best advice, since growing conditions vary even within regions. One of Roger's top picks for the Northeast is a Fraser fir (like the one shown here), because the native tree has good needle retention, a nice aroma, and a striking bluish-silver color on the underside of the branches.
Native species in other regions include Douglas fir in the Northwest, Arizona cypress in the Southwest, and Virginia pine down South. Compare conifers with a natural shape with denser ones that are pruned to look like the Christmas trees you see on greeting cards.
Look at the tree from several angles to check for bald spots and crooks in the trunk. Then, run your hands over the needles. If some brown ones near the trunk drop, that's fine. "Evergreens naturally shed needles in the fall," says Roger. But if those on the ends of the branches fall off, pick another tree. "This can be a sign of disease, insect damage, or that it's dried out."
Pick a Planting Spot
You can plant a live Christmas tree. A well-sited tree can provide privacy from close-by neighbors or help screen against winter winds. Roger chose a spot near the driveway for this tree so it could help shield views of parked cars from the front entry. Since most conifers favor sun, you'll want to pick a bright area, but be mindful of the tree's proximity to other plantings. A white spruce, for example, can grow to more than 90 feet, shading nearby shrubs and flowers. Allow a buffer zone of several feet between the tree's size at maturity and the house and surrounding hardscape elements, as limbs could one day brush against rooftops and roots could push up pavers.
Prep the Hole
Because most live trees are field-grown, with roots and soil wrapped in burlap, dig a hole that's between 9 and 12 inches deep—the typical height of the root ball. Any deeper, and loosened soil can compact and cause the tree to sink. The diameter of the hole should be about 4 feet, or at least twice that of the ball, so roots can easily spread. In the frozen Northeast, Roger shovels the soil onto a tarp and backfills the hole with leaves to insulate its earthen walls. He then covers the hole with the soil-topped tarp, and lays a second tarp on top. More insulating—and tarp-hiding—leaves cap the "soil sandwich." If your area doesn't experience a hard freeze, simply excavate after the holidays, following the same guidelines for digging the hole.
Transport Your Tree
When you pick up the tree from the nursery, grab the nylon strings tied around the burlap-wrapped root ball, or hold on to the ball itself to hoist it into your vehicle. Just don't lift it by the trunk, which can cause the roots to tear away from the tree. To keep branches from breaking on the road, wrap them loosely with twine. Once the tree is safely on the ground outside the house, remove the protective covering and shake the branches so loose needles fall. Then spray the tree with a natural antidesiccant, such as one made from pine resin, to minimize moisture loss through the needles.
Put it in a Container
An inexpensive plastic pot works fine, but it's not much to look at; a wicker laundry basket or galvanized-steel washtub lends a little more character. Whatever style you choose, make sure the container is waterproof, or fitted with a liner to prevent leaks, and that it's just slightly larger than the root ball, as a snug fit will help maintain proper moisture levels. To waterproof the wooden crate used here, Roger stapled two layers of thick plastic sheeting inside. Then, with the root ball still wrapped in burlap, he set the tree in the crate and filled gaps around the ball with wood chips to level and steady the tree.
Cart it Inside
To move the potted tree, pivot and scoot the container onto a hand truck. Once inside the house, Roger suggests switching to an improvised sled: an upside-down carpet remnant. The pile slides easily over hardwood floors, prevents scratches, and can be left in place under the container.
Position the tree near a window, where it will stay cooler, and away from heat sources like a fireplace or HVAC vents. It's also a good idea to avoid decorating with large lights, which give off a lot of heat; strings of tiny twinklers or LEDs are a better choice. The tree will need water daily, which it'll absorb through the burlap. The roots must stay moist but should not be in standing water. When in doubt, poke a finger into the soil to test for moisture.
Move the Tree Outside
Your tree's total indoor stay should be no more than 10 days. Any longer and the house's warm, dry air will fool it into thinking spring has sprung, and it will put out new growth. Those tender shoots will die back in wintry conditions, stunting the tree's future development. In cold-weather regions, transition the tree to the outdoors by moving it into a cool shed or garage for a day or two to give it time to acclimate. In balmier climates, you can move the tree directly to the hole.
With the tree in the hole, remove the nylon strings that truss its root ball. Then cut away as much of the surrounding burlap as you can to prevent the material from wicking up water and causing the roots to dry out. Fill in around the base using the stockpiled soil until earth covers the trunk up to the same point it did originally in the field. "You can see this mark by looking for color changes on the bark," says Roger. Water well, spray the needles once more with antidessicant, and cap the soil with a 3-inch layer of insulating mulch. To help the tree establish itself in its new environs, Roger recommends regular irrigation over the next few years during the growing seasons, adding, "With just a little follow-up care, your tree should last for many Christmases to come."