The sweet, tangy smell of an evergreen tree is one of my favorite elements of the winter holidays. Pine, spruce, and fir trees all bring outdoor cheer and delightful scents into your home. However, instead of chopping down a tree and sticking it in a container of water, I prefer to keep a living Christmas tree around during the holiday season.
Bringing in a live tree during the holidays is an old tradition that began with the Ancient Romans who used evergreen boughs as a symbol that summer would return and green plants would grow again.
Besides bringing some outdoor charm indoors, purchasing a live tree is an eco-friendly decision.
Instead of using lots of plastic or killing a live one, you can re-use your Christmas tree and enjoy it for years to come. By replanting your Christmas tree, you’re adding decor to your landscape, providing food and shelter for songbirds, and helping create more oxygen for the planet.
If you want to have a live Christmas tree indoors during the holidays that you can move outside when you’re done, you need to learn how to keep it happy. Taking proper care of your holiday tree will ensure that it will survive being in the house and later moved to a good location outside.
This article will tell you the best trees for your climate and how to care for them during the holiday season.
Why Living Trees?
So why should you choose a live tree? For one, artificial trees are worse for the environment than cut or potted trees. They require lots of plastic, which isn’t biodegradable – and the production of which creates carbon emissions. Living trees are also safer because they don’t dry out and create a fire hazard like cut trees.
Then, of course, there’s the smell. You really can’t beat the scent of pine for creating the holiday spirit.
If you want, you can even keep your tree in a container and re-use it year after year, so you can save some serious cash. If you decide to cut your own tree from a national forest or your own property, you’re saving money and helping the environment.
Living Christmas Tree Varieties
Decide beforehand what type of tree you want to get and research evergreens that grow in your area. Your tree won’t survive if you choose the prettiest option, only to find out it likes the sunny south and you live in New England.
When purchasing a potted tree make sure it is not root-bound. You can do this by checking the holes at the bottom of the container to see if roots are coming out. Also, check the top of the soil to make sure you don’t see any swollen roots.
The National Christmas Tree Association has several recommendations for live Christmas trees. Some good options are:
1. White Pine
The state tree of Maine and Michigan, this northern beauty gets 80-feet tall and is the largest pine in the US. It has soft, flexible needles that are green with blueish background. The needles are 2-5-inches long and they have good needle retention.
White pine doesn’t have as much aroma as other evergreens. They aren’t ideal if you have heavy ornaments to hang. Plant in fertile, moist soil. Common in zones 3-8 in wooded areas and the Appalachian mountains.
2. White Spruce
The white spruce is a hardy tree and has short, strong needles that are a pretty bluish-green and smell good on the tree. The branches are strong enough for heavy ornaments.
The downside is that some people feel that the odor becomes sour when the needles fall and get crushed. White spruce is definitely a cold-weather tree and thrives in zones 3-4.
3. Fraser Fir
The Fraser fir is a favorite for tree buffs and red squirrels. The seeds on the mature trees are popular wildlife food. The branches naturally turn slightly upward. They have good needle retention and form. The dark blue-green needles have a lovely evergreen scent.
Fraser fir is native to the southeast and is common in Virginia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. They’re slow growers and do well in slightly acidic, rocky soil in zones 5-7.
4. Colorado Blue Spruce
A stunning specimen tree that is often planted in front yards where it can be appreciated. They grow slowly to a whopping 100-feet and can live 700 years.
It has great needle retention and will handle heavy ornaments. Outside, it’s a popular tree for songbirds to nest in. Colorado blue spruce is native to the western Rocky Mountain states at elevations of 6,000-11,000-feet in zones 2-7.
Some people find the smell of the crushed needles has an unpleasant odor.
5. Douglas Fir
One of the most popular Christmas trees out there, the Douglas fir is also a great landscaping plant. They’re adaptable to a wide range of soils. The soft needles are dark green in color and short in length. They radiate in all directions from the branch, which gives the tree a full almost fluffy appearance.
The needles have a sweet, pleasing fragrance.
The Douglas fir is native to the west coast states of California, Oregon, Washington, and up into Alaska.
6. Scotch Pine
A common Christmas tree that is hardy and easy to replant outside. The needles have excellent retention and are bright green.
The Scotch pine is actually not native and in some states is considered invasive. It is native to Europe and Asia. It is easily adaptable and will grow in zones 3-7.
7. Arizona Cyprus
With a delightful smell and pretty pale green needles, this evergreen has been increasing in popularity. It grows quickly and transplants well.
Arizona cypress naturalizes well in the southwest and likes sandy/rocky soil. It’s one of the few evergreens that is drought tolerant.
Getting Your Hands on a Living Tree
There are several good options for obtaining a living Christmas tree. You can dig up your own tree or purchase them from the store, either potted or wrapped in burlap. You can even try growing your own. Here are the benefits of each option.
1. Ball and Burlap
A ball and burlap tree is one that has been grown in the ground until it reaches a predetermined size. Then, the nursery digs up the tree and places it with soil in a burlap cloth wrap. The burlap is held in place by a string at the top. This is considered a short term solution and the nursery plans to sell the tree quickly.
2. Potted Trees
Potted trees are plants in a plastic container filled with soil. These are more of a long term solution and may be used as a container plant or something to plant outside. Sometimes people move their potted trees inside and out with the seasons.
3. Dig Your Own
Another option to buying a tree is to dig one yourself. There is nothing like going out into your woods and picking your own tree. As a child, we used to take one of our horses out into the woods to help haul out the tree.
This works well if you have a wooded area on your property and want to relocate an evergreen to a more focal point in the yard. If you decide to head onto public land to find a tree, be sure to see if you need a permit.
After choosing your tree take some string and wrap it around the lower section of the tree. This way you keep those branches out of your way and don’t break them inadvertently. Plan on digging a root ball that is about 12-inches in circumference for a 4-feet tree.
Use a spade shovel to dig the dirt back from the intended root ball. You will be cutting through some of the roots. That’s ok. When you dig down about a foot cut back under your root ball. After your tree is free from the ground, slide it onto a piece of burlap. Tie up the corners and transport the tree back to your house.
4. Buy Local
To get a healthy tree that is perfect for your growing area, buy from a local tree farm. Many of the trees you see at big stores and roadside lots have come from out of state. They may have traveled a long way and been exposed to winds in transport. This dries out and damages the tree.
Christmas trees are grown in every state in the US even Alaska and Hawaii, so you can find one grown in your area.
- Look for a healthy green tree without brown or gray needles.
- Look for a tree that has been placed in a shady cool location.
- Run a few of the branches gently through your hands. If you have needles in your hands keep walking. The tree is already too dry.
Prepare the Hole
Prepare the hole in the fall before you start getting hard frosts. It’s important to pre-dig your hole and add amendments to the soil beforehand – especially so if you live in a cold climate.
Having the appropriate size hole and good soil will help your tree settle in. Dig a hole a few inches wider and deeper than the tree. You can prepare fill soil beforehand and let it sit next to the hole covered by a tarp. You can also put it in a bag placed in a cool area, such as a garage so that it does not freeze.
Transition the Tree
If you have a tree that has been outdoors, it can help to transition it when you bring it inside. This is particularly true if you have a potted tree that you move in and outdoors every year.
Move the tree to a protected area like a patio for a day or two, then move indoors for the night and back outdoors during the day for a week. You can also move the tree into the garage for a few days instead. This helps reduce shock.
Keep the Tree Happy While Indoors
If you take good care of your tree it can last for a month in the house. However, care must be taken to keep your tree healthy. It’s far too easy to bring a live plant indoors and then kill it because you don’t give it the conditions it needs to survive.
Place your tree in a cool area that’s away from heat sources. This helps reduce shock and helps prevent the tree from drying out. Speaking of drying out, our homes are generally drier than the outdoors, so use a humidifier to add moisture to the room.
If you use a ball and burlap tree, lower the entire thing into a container. Untie the burlap so that the top of the soil is exposed, though you can leave the wrap in place.
Carefully monitor the tree’s water level. Indoor plants have much less room for mistakes when it comes to moisture. Don’t let your tree become too dry or too wet. Be sure to check the specific needs of your tree variety.
Your plant has probably been sitting in the sunshine all season long, so it’s going to be surprised by how much less light it will be getting. Try to put your tree near a south-facing window if you can, and rotate it if possible once or twice while it’s inside.
That said, a month without direct light won’t kill a healthy tree. I kept my tree in a dark corner one year and it was totally fine, particularly since it wasn’t the active growing season for my variety.
When you have a living Christmas tree, you need to put some thought into the decorations you use. Too many lights produce heat, which can dry out your tree. LED lights are a better option because they stay cool.
Tinsel is another decor you may want to limit. Not only is tinsel not eco-friendly it can harm the family pet or wildlife if they ingest it.
You may also have to put some moss around the base of your tree. Reindeer moss looks festive and it helps keep the moisture level of your plant’s soil stable.
Space ornaments so that you don’t have too many on one branch. You don’t want the branches to bend or get broken.
Harden Off After the Holidays
When it’s time to plant your living Christmas tree outdoors, reverse the process of moving the tree inside. Move it outside into the shade during the day for a few days, or give it a few days in the garage, patio or shed to acclimate to the outdoor weather conditions. Then, gradually move it back into a sunny spot.
If you plan on putting your tree into a permanent spot after you’re done with it, wait until it is hardened off and then lower it into your pre-dug hole. Fill in around the tree with garden soil – you may need to purchase some if your ground is frozen.
When planting a potted tree outside carefully remove it from the container. If the plant is root bound you may need to pull the roots gently to loosen them so they grow in the right direction after planting.
When planting a ball and burlap tree, remove the string and burlap carefully. Leave the soil around the tree. Place the tree in its soil ball inside your hole.
Another option is to keep the tree in its container or sack until the spring thaw. Just make sure to give the tree some water and that the roots are protected with some insulation. There’s no need to fertilize during the winter.
Having a live Christmas tree is so much more than an eco-friendly decision. When you replant your tree you are adding beauty to your landscape and preserving a wonderful memory of that holiday.
I know every time I pass one of the trees that I used for Christmas and then planted outside, I’m reminded of the holiday traditions that we enjoyed.