Decorate a Living Christmas Tree This Year
Trim it now, plant it later, and watch it grow through the years
For Vicki Evarts and her family in Concord, Massachusetts, it wouldn't be Christmas without the massive 8-foot, cut Colorado blue spruce standing majestically in the living room, swathed in the popcorn-and-cranberry chains that she and her children string together. But last December, she and her husband, Tom, started another tradition: They put a live, 4-foot Fraser fir in their home's foyer as a secondary decoration, then planted it in their backyard after Christmas. "We placed it right next to the kids' playhouse," says Vicki. The Evartses are following suit again this year, so that eventually, each of their three daughters—ages 7, 10, and 11—will have her own tree to decorate outdoors.
While building memories, the family is establishing an evergreen legacy that will give pleasure for many years to come. Using landscape plants bought at a nursery or tree farm in lieu of a typical cut tree, or, like the Evartses, in addition to one, is a growing yuletide trend. Nationwide, 5 to 7 percent of the 32.4 million trees sold last holiday season were living varieties, estimates the National Christmas Tree Association. And while the idea has been around for more than a decade, live evergreens have become even more popular in recent years, thanks largely to the marketing efforts of growers and home-garden centers. "For a little more money than a cut Christmas tree, you're getting a valuable landscape product," says Steve Mannhard, an Alabama tree farmer whose holiday sales have grown fivefold in the last six years. Of the 1,000 living trees he sells annually at Christmastime, most are Leyland cypresses, which run about $49 wholesale for a 6½-foot tree in a container.
The trend originated with environmental advocates seeking an alternative to the cycle of raising, cutting, trucking, and discarding commercially grown trees. And while even live-tree proponents acknowledge that some of the ecological benefits are more perceived than real—cut trees are a crop, and farmers replant what they harvest—as Christmas trees, living varieties offer several advantages. First, they eliminate the sometimes frustrating task of attaching a cut tree to a wobbly stand. Instead, the soil-filled container or burlap-wrapped root ball, set inside a tub or pot, keeps the tree firmly upright. Second, the process of transplanting adds a special dimension to the holiday, especially for kids. Once in the ground, the trees provide year-round benefits: ornamental beauty that's low-maintenance, a natural screen against wind and neighbors, and cover and food for wildlife.
At a nursery, The Victory Garden's Kip Anderson examines balled-and-burlapped evergreens that can be used as landscape plants after Christmas. He looks for needles that appear bright and springy and checks that the roots are well watered.
CHOOSING A TREE AND A LOCATION
For those who are fond of a traditional towering cut pine or balsam, a live tree may require some compromises, says Kip Anderson, the gardener on the PBS television show The Victory Garden. Anderson chose the Evartses' Fraser fir, at a cost of about $82, and helped them plant it (see next page). For starters, he says, think small. Living trees are heavy—a 6-foot variety in a 15-gallon container of soil weighs about 200 pounds. "Any bigger and you'd need a crane to get it into your living room," he says. He likes 4-foot species, which are easier to deal with. He also recommends that landscape evergreens spend no more than a week or so indoors—and preferably in a fairly cool room. "If you keep your house at seventy-five degrees, you're going to have a problem," he says. "The tree will think it's April or May and it could break dormancy; when that happens, it starts to produce new growth buds that won't survive outside in late December. That will kill the tree."
Depending on where you live, putting the new tree in the ground also poses some challenges. "It's just not a good time of year to be planting a tree in the North," says grower Mannhard. "But it can be done by planning ahead and digging the hole in November, before the ground freezes." You won't know exactly how big your tree's root ball will be, says Anderson, "but if you dig a hole about two feet in diameter and eighteen inches deep, you should be fine for a four-foot tree."
Anderson advises choosing a location carefully: Typical Christmas tree varieties such as white spruce and Colorado blue spruce can grow to 60 feet, blocking views and shading out gardens—something he's observed firsthand as two 4-foot spruce varieties planted at the Victory Garden 25 Christmases ago have now matured into 40-footers. "A good spot is along a property line, away from the house," he says. And be sure to pick a type of tree that's appropriate for your climate. Spruces and firs are well suited to the wintry Northeast; better choices in mild climates are certain varieties of cypress, cedar, and pine. Be aware that while firm-needle varieties such as spruces and Fraser firs are naturally pyramidal, those with softer needles, including white pines and Douglas firs, may have been pruned to perfect Christmas-tree shape, but characteristically take on a more irregular form in maturity. A reliable nursery will offer advice, as well as reference books and pictures of full-grown trees.
This year, the Evartses are choosing between a white spruce and a Colorado blue. "I really like the scent of a spruce," says Vicki. "Hopefully, we'll be appreciating this tree for a long time."