It can be tough to say good-bye to the holidays, especially on that dreary day when you take the tree down. Why not mitigate the melancholy with a plantable Christmas tree? When you grow your own Christmas tree, you can look forward to years of enjoying the memories of a special holiday—living memories, because your tree will continue to grow and flourish in your yard. And you get extra value, too. While living Christmas trees cost a little more than cut trees, they soon grow to become a valuable part of your landscape.
If you live where winters are mild, you can buy an evergreen tree pretty much anytime. If you live in a colder climate, you may need to plan ahead. While some retailers have begun selling living Christmas trees in December, a much better selection of species and sizes is availble earlier in the season. That's when nurseries offer sales to pare down their inventory. So if this is the year you want to commemorate an event with special significance, consider shopping for your Christmas tree in, well, fall.
Living Christmas trees are sold two ways: container-grown or balled-and-burlapped. Container-grown are easier to handle, while balled-and-burlapped specimens are generally larger. For convenience, you might want to go with a smaller Christmas tree than you're used to. It will be less expensive, easier to transport and set up, and simpler to plant (don't worry—once it's planted, it will soon catch up!).
Choosing what Christmas tree to plant comes down to personal preference and availability. Pines grow in a wide range of climates from North to South. Firs are often grown in the Northwest, while spruces are well-suited to the mountains and Midwest. There's plenty of overlap, so you're not necessarily limited to one genus or species just because you live in a certain part of the country.
Make sure to pick a species that is hardy in your area (the plant tag will give a winter hardiness range of USDA Zones where plants survive) and has no major pests or diseases. For instance, Austrian and Scotch pines were once popular landscape plants but are now avoided because they're prone to serious pest and disease issues.
Once you've selected a species, run your hands through the needles. If any drop off, look for another tree. Also, make sure the root ball is solid and without cracks, particulary with balled-and-burlapped specimens. Furthermore, the stem of the tree should not move independently of the root ball. When you bring your tree home, put it in a sunny spot but keep the root ball shaded, cool, and moist. Don't let the roots bake in the sun.
As the holidays approach, it will be tempting to set up the tree early. Don't. A living Christmas tree should be indoors for no more than 10 days.* And even then, you should take precautions. Set up the tree in a cool room with plenty of light. Keep the tree away from fireplaces, vents, radiators, and any other heat sources. A humidifier is helpful, especially if your house tends toward the dry side. If you have a balled-and-burlapped tree, place it in a large pot for stability and looks. Be sure to place a tray or saucer underneath the pot to catch excess water. Water the root ball daily.
*There is an exception: Some large retailers are now promoting Norfolk island pine (Araucaria heteraphylla) as a living Christmas tree. Norfolk island pine is grown as a houseplant in most areas of the country and therefore not limited in the time it spends indoors.
At some point, you'll want to dig a hole for the tree. In cold climates where the soil freezes, you may need to do this well before Christmas and store the soil under a tarp in a garage or shed. The hole should be just as deep as the root ball but twice as wide. Be sure to cover the hole with something sturdy—and mark it well—until the tree is planted to prevent someone from twisting an ankle.
When you're ready to plant, remove the tree from its container. If it's a balled-and-burlapped tree, cut the twine, remove the metal basket used for support, and carefully pull back the burlap. A shiny artificial burlap must be removed because it's not biodegradeable. Natural burlap can be removed (if you can do so without damaging the root ball) or pushed low in the hole before backfilling (it will disintegrate over time). When backfilling, use the same soil you excavated from the hole. Optional: You can mix in a small amount of compost to encourage roots to migrate into the backfill.
Mulch the tree with shredded bark or wood chips, starting a couple inches from the trunk and extending to the drip line, or outer extent of the canopy. Form the mulch into a saucer to direct water to the roots, and keep the tree well watered until the ground freezes. The first year will be the most critical for watering. Plan on giving the tree 5 gallons of water per week. A simple way to do this: Place a 5-gallon plastic bucket—with two small holes drilled on one side—next to the trunk to slowly release the water within the mulched root zone.
Growing Christmas trees is a fun family activity that will tug at both sentimental and environmental heartstrings. Don't be surprised if you find it so rewarding that you repeat it next year!