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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Living Christmas trees need T.L.C.

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: December 12, 2017

christmas tree with lights

Living Christmas trees are those that are sold to be used for indoor decoration during the holiday season and planted outdoors later, to add beauty to the landscape for many years to come. At this time of the year, many nurseries and garden centers have species of evergreen trees suitable for the Midwest growing either in containers or "balled-and-burlapped" for use as living Christmas trees.

Unfortunately, unless a living Christmas tree is handled properly, it likely will experience the same ultimate fate as a cut tree. Since living trees are more expensive than cut trees, improper handling results in a waste of money. However, with appropriate care, the added cost of a living tree can be amortized over years of time as it provides beauty to the home landscape.

Those who choose to purchase a living tree rather than a cut tree for ecological reasons should remember that cut Christmas trees for sale at this time of the year most likely were grown on a Christmas tree farm. Often, the latter is characterized by land not well-suited for other agricultural purposes. Thus, Christmas trees can become a renewable cash crop on marginal land, not unlike the way corn and soybeans are produced on more productive land. While growing in these sites, the tress provide habitat for wildlife and tend to control soil erosion.

Christmas tree farms are outgrowths of the reforestation concept practiced by large companies that produce trees commercially for lumber and other wood products. It requires about seven or eight years to produce the average-sized pine Christmas tree. Spruce trees take several more years to become large enough to harvest. During this period the trees are fertilized, weeded, pruned, sheared and prepared for holiday use. After harvest, seedlings are planted in the vacated spots and the process is repeated.

For those who want to keep a Christmas tree indoors for several weeks, a cut tree is best. Living trees deteriorate in cold hardiness and vigor when exposed to the warm temperatures and low humidity typical of the average home in December. To optimize the chances for survival upon being planted outdoors, living trees should not remain indoors for more than three to five days. During that time, care must be taken to make sure the tree is located away from hot air vents, stoves, fireplaces or any appliance that is hot. The latter holds true for the placement of cut trees as well.

When decorating a living tree, use small, cooler-burning lights rather than large, hot bulbs, since the latter might damage the tree's needles. LED lights are ideal. Also, keep the tree in a cool room or lower the temperature of the room in which the tree is located, when not in use.

When the living Christmas tree is brought home, make sure the growing medium in its container or the soil in its balled-and-burlapped root ball is moist. Balled-and-burlapped trees can be watered more easily if they are placed in a shallow container or pan. Put a small amount of water in the bottom of the container and allow the soil ball to absorb it. Avoid handling the soil ball if it becomes overly wet. If the soil ball is frozen when the tree is purchased and brought home, allow it to thaw gradually in a cool room.

During its short, indoor sojourn as the family Christmas tree, the living tree should be kept adequately watered. Covering the soil ball with a sheet of plastic can help prevent rapid drying and reduce the frequency of watering. The plastic can be easily hidden from view by the Christmas tree's skirt and will not detract from the beauty of the tree.

As mentioned above, a living tree will begin to lose cold hardiness once it is placed in the home. Therefore, after its useful life as a Christmas tree is over, do not move it directly outdoors. This especially is important if the weather is very cold and windy at the time. Instead, move it to an unheated garage or cool, but sheltered, location for at least one week. This will allow the tree to reacclimatize to colder temperatures.

Plant the tree into its permanent location when there is a break in the cold weather and a few mild days are forecast. Proper site selection is important for the tree to thrive. Therefore, locating a permanent spot for the tree is important before purchasing it. Preparing the hole in advance of the holiday season before the ground has frozen helps make planting easier. Also, it is a good idea to bring some "fill soil" indoors after the hole is dug in order to have unfrozen soil to refill the hole.

Even with the best of care, expect some branch tips to die back or some needles to turn brown during the tree's first year in the landscape. However, with a bit of T.L.C., the tree should recover and provide many years of pleasure and pleasant memories of the 2017 holidays.

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REVISED: February 21, 2017