Enjoy your evergreen indoors for the holidays, then let it add beauty to your landscape for decades. Use these tips to successfully make the transition.

By Megan Hughes
Updated November 18, 2020

There's something about a cut live Christmas tree that feels instantly festive. But once the holidays are over, you're left with a needle-shedding dead plant to toss out. Another option is to decorate with a potted tree that you can stash your gifts under, and then plant out in your yard once you've removed all the tinsel and baubles. Then, your living Christmas tree will provide beauty for years to come in your landscape, as well as food and shelter for birds and other wildlife for years to come. Timing and plant selection are key to successfully transitioning your Tannenbaum to the outdoors. Here's what you need to know to ensure your tree ends up being the gift that keeps on giving.

watering evergreen tree at base with sprayer hose
Credit: Jay Wilde

What to Look for When Buying Potted Christmas Trees

Give your landscape a tree that will survive the conditions where you live. First, know your Hardiness Zone, and make sure to choose a tree or shrub that is hardy in your Zone. If you live in Zone 5, for example, choose a tree with a hardiness rating of 5 or below. A tree that is hardy to Zone 6 will likely not survive winters in your area. It is common for garden centers, florists, and home improvement stores to offer living Christmas trees that are not hardy in your region. Double-check the plant tag for hardiness.

Mature size and growth habit are also important considerations. The plant tag will tell you the mature size of the species. A small yard may not have space for a 30-foot-tall and 15-foot-wide fir tree, but a 12- foot-tall and 4-foot-wide dwarf Alberta spruce might be a perfect fit. Some living Christmas trees have a strong upright growth habit while others spread out as well as growing taller. Make sure the mature shape of the tree pairs well with your yard.

Finally, decide where you are going to plant your living Christmas tree and take a look at the growing conditions. Is the site in full sun or part shade? Is the soil well-drained or boggy? Is the site exposed to drying north winds? The unique growing conditions of your planting site come together to create a set of criteria that will determine if your living Christmas tree will thrive.

Best Living Christmas Trees by Region

Northeast: Serbian spruce, Norway spruce, white spruce, Fraser fir, balsam fir, and white fir all do well in the cool climate of the Northeast. In far regions of the Northeast, choose a planting location that is protected from harsh winter winds.

South: Eastern red cedar, Leyland cypress, Virginia pine, and varieties of Arizona cypress such as ‘Blue Ice’ and ‘Caroline Sapphire’ are well-suited to coastal and lowland regions of the areas of the South. These trees tolerate warm climates and a wide variety of planting sites. Plan to prune these evergreens annually to maintain a pyramidal shape. Or don't prune and allow them to take on a more rounded appearance.

Midwest: Norway spruce, concolor fir, white pine, balsam fir, Black Hills spruce, pyramidal arborvitae, and Canadian hemlock are good species of living Christmas trees in the Midwest. Hardiness varies greatly across the region so it's especially important to select a species that can survive in your Zone. Plus, not only are cold winter temperatures problematic for some species, but heat and humidity can be equally challenging.

Southwest: Arizona cypress, Leyland cypress, pyramidal varieties of juniper, Scotch pine, limber pine, and bristlecone pine all grow well in the hot, dry conditions of the Southwest. These easy-care evergreens are suitable to any type of soil.

Pacific Northwest: White pine, blue spruce, pyramidal junipers and arborvitaes, and Arizona cypress all grow well in the Pacific Northwest. Growing conditions vary greatly across the region so make sure to check Hardiness Zones before you make your selection and that the species you want can thrive with the soil moisture available in your yard.

Purchasing Pointers

Go for container-grown. Living Christmas trees are often available at garden centers and home improvement stores in plastic containers. Trees are occasionally sold balled-and-burlapped, too, meaning their root balls are wrapped in burlap instead of placed in a pot. Container-grown plants are easier to handle than balled-and-burlapped plants, which can weigh hundreds of pounds. While balled-and-burlapped plants often have a higher transplant success rate, a container-grown plant will be easier to transport and move in and out of your home.

Check roots. Gently pull the tree out of its container and examine the roots before purchase. A few roots should be visible on the edge of the soil ball. The roots should not be densely circling the soil ball. A dense mat of circling roots indicate the tree has been in the pot too long and will not transplant into the landscape well.

Delay purchase until just before Christmas. Living Christmas trees should be in the house no more than 7 to 10 days. According to Emma Erier of the University of New Hampshire, the dry, warm air in homes causes trees to break their winter dormancy, making it impossible to move it back outside without causing injury due to cold.

Tips for Decorating With Potted Christmas Trees

Transition with care. In cold weather areas, slowly transition a living Christmas tree inside by placing it in an unheated garage or porch for a few days before moving it inside. Keep the soil around the tree moist. The idea is to gradually get your tree used to warmer temps because very large swings in temperature can stress the plant.

Water regularly. Once the tree is in the house, care for it like you would a houseplant advises Erier. Water the tree when the top inch of soil is dry. Check soil moisture every other day or so as the tree will dry quickly indoors.

Place tree away from heat sources. Be mindful of vents, woodstoves, and fireplaces. These will all cause a living tree to lose moisture quickly. Also, use only LED or low-temperature lights on the tree.

How to Move Your Living Christmas Tree Outside

Remember that living trees should only be kept inside for about a week. Move the tree outside as soon as possible. What comes next depends on the weather conditions of where you live.

Cold climates: Don’t plan to plant your living tree right after the holiday in Zones 6 and lower. The tree is unlikely to survive the cold temperatures and drying winter winds. Instead, place it in an unheated garage or porch and water it regularly until it can be planted outside in early spring.

Warm climates: Winter is often a good time to plant new trees in Zones 7 and above. Let your local climate be your guide. If the conditions are exceptionally cold and harsh after the holiday, delay planting and shelter your tree in a protected outdoor location, such as a garage or porch. Be sure to water it regularly. When the planting conditions improve, plant your new tree and water it in well. Spread a 3-inch-thick layer of mulch over the root zone and continue to water it regularly during the first growing season.

Comments (1)

November 14, 2018
Where would one be able to buy a real potted fir tree in NYC?