Plant a Living Christmas Tree After the Holiday Season
Keep your tree around for the long haul with a pro's tips for planting it in your yard
A faux Christmas tree that you can pack away after each holiday season is a huge convenience. But, there's at least one more reason to opt for a real tree than the fresh scent. Read up on the benefits of choosing a live Christmas tree. Then click through to see Kip Anderson, the gardener on the PBS's The Victory Garden, turn a seasonal focal point into a handsome new planting.
A week before Thanksgiving, Kip Anderson arrives at the Evartses' home in Concord, Massachusetts, shovel in hand. He digs a hole roughly 2 feet in diameter and 18 inches deep, in preparation for the 4-foot tree that will eventually be planted there. Anderson puts the removed soil in plastic buckets and hauls it into the garage, where it won't freeze. As a planting rule of thumb, the hole should be dug about the depth of the root ball and 1.5 to 2 times the diameter. "If you know the size of your tree," says Anderson, "don't be afraid to dig a bigger hole. It can't hurt."
After he's finished digging, he insulates the hole to keep its walls from freezing by stuffing it with a plastic bag full of fallen leaves. The last step of November preparation is a safety precaution: covering the hole with a sturdy board to prevent the possibility of someone tripping or tumbling in.
Just before Christmas, Anderson visits a local nursery. The store is offering three species of living evergreens: white spruce, Colorado blue spruce, and Fraser fir. He examines the trees for freshness; they should have a healthy green appearance and the needles should be flexible and not come off in the hand as you gently stroke a branch. In addition, the root ball should be well watered. Anderson reads labels to verify the species of trees and their appropriate growing conditions. Finally, he choooses a 4-foot Fraser fir, prized for its robust fragrance and silvery green needles. The tree's burlap-wrapped root ball indicates it was grown in the ground and dug up for transport, as opposed to being a container-grown variety. Either works fine as a Christmas tree.
Setting up a living Christmas tree is as simple as carrying it indoors and keeping it watered daily. To help the tree retain moisture, before bringing it in the house Anderson sprays the needles with an organic solution of pine oil suspended in water. The anti-transpirant treatment partially blocks the microscopic pores, called stomata, through which the tree "exhales." Both container-grown and balled-and-burlapped varieties need to be placed in watertight vessels or on large saucers in a cool location away from heat sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces, and heating vents. A decorative basket or fabric wrap completes the setup.
A week after Christmas, Anderson moves the tree to the garage before transferring it to the planting hole. Keeping it here for a day or two helps the fir acclimate to the cold. The yard is now frozen solid, but under its protective cover of leaves, the hold is still workable. He cuts away the wire basket around the root ball, loosens the burlap, and positions the tree in the hole. "You want the point where the root ball meets the trunk to be slightly higher than the natural grade, because there will be some settling," he says.
Next Anderson shovels in the saved backfill. "Tamp it in well with the end of your shovel; if air gets in during winter, it will literally freeze-dry the roots," he cautions. He waters well—"really soak it down"—and then mulches with the ground bark. "The mulch helps avoid wide fluctuations in soil temperature and conserves moisture," he says. "And, in the same manner as with a shrub or tree planted in the spring, it should be watered regularly thereafter." Ignoring the biting cold this brisk January day, he stands back to admire his work. "In five years," he says proudly, "this should be an eight-foot tree."