Home Gardening Center Tip Sheet: Caring for and Planting a Live Christmas Tree

By Sonia Uyterhoeven

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Caring for and Planting a Live Christmas Tree

Qualities of an Ideal Christmas Tree

- Good needle retention
- Full, symmetrical shape
- Strong limbs to support ornaments and lights
- Pliable branches that regain shape after being transported

Selecting a Tree

Firs and pines do best indoors while hemlocks and spruces are notorious for dropping their needles. Keeping evergreens well-watered and away from heat sources is essential regardless of the species. Here is a list to help you select a Christmas tree.

- Balsam fir (Abies balsamea) - the most common cut tree
- Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) - excellent cut tree, very fragrant
- Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) - suitable cut tree
- White fir (Abies concolor) - good for planting
- Scotch/Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) - works well as both cut and planted specimen

All of the above have good needle retention and a nice shape for a Christmas tree. White pines (Pinus strobus) have good needle retention, but have slender branches that are difficult to hang ornaments on. Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Glauca’) and Norway spruce (Picea abies) are beautiful additions to your landscape; however, the Norway spruce has poor needle retention and all spruces have sharp, dense needles that present challenges when decorating and setting up your tree. Nonetheless, the Colorado blue spruce is still a favorite tree in many household due to its beautiful blue, waxy sheen.

How to Choose and Care for a Cut Christmas Tree

- Measure the area where you will put your tree before you buy it. Christmas trees should be one foot shorter than ceiling height to compensate for the height of the stand.
- Buy your tree early before it dries out in the open tree lot.
- Try bending a needle; it should be flexible.
- Shake the tree or gently lift it by the trunk and drop down. Only a few needles should fall off a fresh tree.
- Choose a tree that is grown in your own region. This will ensure that it has not had a long journey where it will dry out. Many people order their Christmas trees via mail order from select farms. With these specialized orders, the tree is cut and shipped immediately ensuring that the customer receives a fresh and healthy specimen.
- Store your tree in a cool, shady place (for example your garage or shed) for a few days before you bring it inside. This transitional period is important to help the tree adjust to the warm house.
- When you are ready to bring the tree into your home, cut 1/2 inch off the stem and place in water. After the trunk is out of water for four hours a dried seal forms, which prevents water absorption.
- Place the tree in a clean stand and check water daily. A freshly cut tree will absorb up to a gallon of water on the first day.
- Place the tree in a cool part of the room away from heat sources. Keep it away from televisions, heat vents, and fireplaces.

How to Plant a Live Christmas Tree

Here are some tips to keep in mind if you will be planting your live Christmas tree outside. (You can also buy a balled and burlapped or containerized tree tthat can be planted outdoors after the holiday season is over.) Live trees will generally come with planting instructions.

- Dig the hole for your tree before the ground is frozen. In the New York City-metro area you should do this by middle to late November. Place the soil that you remove from the hole in your garage, basement, or other protected area to keep it from freezing.
- Before planting your tree outside, the tree will have to go through another transitional period. If you move your tree from the warm house directly outside into freezing temperatures, it will not survive the shock. Place in an unheated garage or shed for several days before planting. Live Christmas trees should not stay inside longer than a week to ten days.
- If your tree comes wrapped in burlap, place it in a large container or tub that is wide and not too deep. If necessary, stabilize the tree in the tub using rocks or bricks. Cut the top of the burlap and roll it down the side of the root ball, laying the burlap on the ground around the hole. If it is possible to remove burlap completely without breaking the root ball apart, then do so.
- When planting your Christmas tree, the top of the root ball should be level with the ground, or just slightly above (1-2 inches is fine). Be careful not to bury the root flare (where the trunk flares out at ground level). This is the fastest way to damage or kill a tree.
- Water the newly planted Christmas tree and apply mulch--a 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch will be ideal. Do not pile the mulch up around the trunk of the tree. Direct contact of the mulch with the trunk can result in pest and disease problems.
- When planting, one option is to add some compost into the soilas an amendment. This is not essential. In spring you can go out and top dress the soil with compost to give the stressed tree some additional nutrients. Fertilizing during the first year is not essential. You are trying to encourage root growth and not top growth. If you do fertilize, wait until new growth appears in the spring and the feed with an organic fertilizer (low numbers).
- The most important practice during the first year of the tree’s life is to make sure that you are conscientious about watering. Newly planted trees generally need an inch of water a week during their first few years to help get them established. This can either come from rainfall or a generous watering.
- Live trees will generally come with planting instructions.

Important Reminders

Ninety-eight percent of Christmas trees are grown on plantations and are not harvested from forests. Do not feel guilty about buying a cut Christmas tree, you are helping to sustain a farming industry--it is just like any other crop. Also, many municipalities collect used evergreen trees and recycle the material, using them for compost. Check with local sanitation departments for collection and/or drop-off days.

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Generous support for the Home Gardening Center has been provided by Kenneth and Ellen Roman.