HOW TO SELECT AND CARE FOR A LIVE, POTTED CHRISTMAS TREE

December 03, 2022

HOW TO SELECT AND CARE FOR A LIVE, POTTED CHRISTMAS TREE

A real Christmas tree is a marvel to behold. The lights come on as the wintry world goes dark, filling the room with warmth and sparkle. The smell of pine resin wafts through the air, eliciting memories of Christmases past. Yup, it’s a marvel.

When the tree is also alive and thriving—not cut and dying—it delivers even more magic. Picture forest bathing in your own living room, albeit on a minuscule scale, with a boosted immune system and a mood set to sunny. And the magic doesn’t stop once the tree is moved outdoors. A living tree promotes cleaner air as it beautifies the landscape and provides support for all sorts of wildlife. It’s hard to ask for more.

But a living tree will ask for a few things in return, and providing them won’t always be easy—especially if you live in a wintry climate and the great outdoors amounts to a four by six-foot balcony. Do you have what it takes to bring home a living tree, care for it over the holidays, and provide a permanent space for it afterwards? It’s a big ask, but we’re here to walk you through the steps.

DECIDE IF A LIVING TREE IS RIGHT FOR YOU

The Benefits 

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Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash

In addition to boosting your health and that of the environment, a living tree comes with a few additional perks that are worth considering when you’re weighing the pros and cons.

  • It doesn’t require a tree stand. If you’ve ever struggled with tree stands that leak, fail to hold sufficient reservoirs of water, and lack the structural integrity to stabilize a sizable conifer, this perk will fill you with genuine joy. 

  • It won’t dry out—at least not with proper watering during the short time it’s indoors. That means you can pretty much rule out the slippery carpet of conifer needles on the floor and the clogged vacuum cleaner hose.

  • It reduces fire hazards. By mid-to-late December, a cut tree will begin take on the appearance of a giant torch on the verge of self-combusting. Not so the living tree. Its boughs remain soft and pliable, its color a healthy green, and its needles firmly attached. Healthy green glow trumps tree rigor mortis every time.

  • It limits exposure to allergens. Keeping a tree indoors for a few days, versus a few weeks, reduces allergy symptoms. Yes, Christmas Tree Syndrome is an actual thing, brought on by exposure to tree mold. Unsurprisingly, mold spore concentrations increase in warm, cozy homes, and where there’s mold, allergies will surely follow.

The Downside

Bringing a conifer indoors comes with significant challenges. Here’s what you’ll need to consider before committing to a living tree. 

  • Living trees are heavy. A 6-foot conifer, including pot, soil, and mulch, can weigh between 250 to 300 pounds. Even smaller trees weigh enough to require extra muscle or special devices to help move them.


    Solution: Commandeer muscular family members to help lift. Rent or buy a hand truck or pot lifter.

  • Living trees are expensive, often double the cost of a cut tree. To the initial outlay, add the cost of a large pot if you’ve planning to keep your tree in a container permanently, and the cost of a hand truck or pot lifter if needed.

    Solution: Buy a smaller tree and keep it containerized for yearly use. A dwarf Alberta spruce, for example, will grow happily in a container and top out at 6 feet when mature.  As a bonus, its potted presence is a year-round asset to your outdoor living space.
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  • A living tree is usually smaller than the average cut tree found on a lot. If you’re accustomed to an 8-foot tree, you may have to adjust your standards and keep some of your decorations boxed. Most living trees are a diminutive 4 to 5 feet.

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    Solution: Remind yourself that a small tree is a lot easier to lift and that you’re doing your part to reduce the rate of climate change. 

  • A living tree won’t be indoors long enough to play a full-time starring role in your Christmas décor plans.

    Solution: Find substitute decorations to fill in before your tree arrives, and consider making an event out of its arrival. In Europe, decorating takes place just before Christmas and the tree is revealed on Christmas Eve. Who doesn’t love a big buildup followed by a dramatic reveal?

PLAN A HOME FOR YOUR TREE

Scoping out the ideal outdoor spot for your tree is essential to its survival, whether you plant it in the ground or keep it containerized. Yup, it’s a pain, especially when Christmas preparations already threaten to obliterate your leisure time. It’s essential, though. Before you can select the ideal species, you’ll need to know where and how it will live.

Choose Your Post-Holiday Planting Option

Choosing an option that’s best for you (and your tree) has a lot to do with climate and available space—you can either plant it in the ground, in which case you’ll need to decide on a size that fits your landscape, or plant it in a container. Either way, size matters.

  • Planting your tree in the garden. If you’re able, prepare the hole now and save the soil on a tarp for backfilling later. Otherwise, you’ll have to count on workable soil in late December/early January, iffy, at best. Alternatively, find a good spot to overwinter your tree and plant it the following spring.

  • Keeping your tree containerized. Choose a sheltered spot out of the wind. You can always reposition it once winter releases its icy grip, but a young tree needs protection from harsh winter weather for the first year. 

SELECT A LIVING TREE

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Photo by Loren Cutler on Unsplash

Now that you’ve decided a living tree is right for you and have prepared the site—or at least considered a suitable location—it’s time for the fun part: selecting the living tree.

Know Your Zone

  • Select a species suited to your climate. You’ll need to know your USDA Growing Zone, and bring along your reading glasses to take a closer look at the tree tags. The staff at your local nursery can offer advice on growing in local conditions, so don’t be afraid to ask. 

  • If your tree will live in a container, select a tree that is two zones below your hardiness zone. If you live in Zone 5, for example, your tree should be hardy to Zones 1 through 3.

Look for Container-Grown not Containerized Trees

  • There are two main types of trees: container-grown and containerized. Container-grown means the tree began life in the container and has always lived there. Containerized trees start in the ground and are lifted from nursery fields in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

  • Containerized trees typically lose 25% of their root system during lifting and many will struggle to survive once transplanted. Bringing the tree indoors over the holidays will further add to the stress, compromising the tree’s longevity. Not an auspicious start. 

  • Container-grown trees are more expensive, but they have a higher survival rate because their roots are intact. Trees that are balled and burlapped (B&B) are another option. They weigh more than container-grown trees, but adapt well when planted outdoors. 

Select a Healthy Tree

  • Look for trees with a balanced shape, no bald spots, a central lead branch, and a straight trunk.

  • Run your hands across the boughs and watch for lost needles. Some needles will fall since trees naturally shed when the weather turns cold. If the tree loses too many, though, it’s an indication that the tree is not healthy or is too dry. Choose another.

  • Take a closer look at the root ball by removing the tree from its container. Don’t pull the tree by its trunk. Instead, remove the root ball by grasping the tree firmly near the base and twisting gently or whacking the side of the container. If necessary, lay the pot on its side to aid in removal. The tree should be well rooted, have an intact root ball, and show no evidence of circling roots. Girdling roots are a common cause of tree death.

  • The nursery staff might cast admonishing glances in your direction, but purchasing a healthy tree is worth a few minutes of awkwardness. A healthy tree with an intact root ball will have an easier time establishing.

Spotlight Trees

 Container Tree: Dwarf Alberta Spruce

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If you’re looking for the perfect container tree, look no further than the dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca 'Conica'). Its iconic Christmas tree shape, small stature, and bright green needles make it the go-to choice for potted Christmas trees.

  • The Dwarf Alberta Spruce is widely available at garden centers and retail stores, and it’s hardy in Zones 2 through 6, depending on the cultivar.

  • Its diminutive stature means fewer container changes as it grows. Choose a miniature variety, like Tiny Tower (Picea glauca conica 'MonRon’), that reaches a maximum height of 4 to 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It’s hardy in Zones 3 to 8.

  • Choose from a variety of sizes. Buy a smaller tree if price is an issue or pick a mature tree for a full-on Christmas effect this year and in years to come. 

  • Once it’s outdoors, the Dwarf Alberta Spruce, unlike many conifers, will tolerate part shade and live comfortably under a canopy of larger trees. They often dry out and develop brown needles, so choose a spot with eastern or northern exposure and give it plenty of water. Use a potting soil blended for acid-loving plants and cover the soil with bark mulch to retain moisture. 

Landscape Tree: Balsam Fir

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The Balsam Fir is native to the cold climate of the Northeast and is a medium-sized conifer. Its conical shape, strong aroma, and good needle retention make it popular as a Christmas tree. You’ll need to consider a few other things before deciding. 

  • Balsam Firs have a strong presence in the landscape with their symmetrical church-spire crown, dark green needles, and dark purple barrel-shaped cones.

  • Balsam Fir is found in central and eastern Canada, south to Wisconsin, and east to New York, and grows about 40 to 50 feet tall. It’s relatively short lived—usually about 80 years—although it can live as long as 200 years.

  • The bark on young trees is full of resin blisters, so stay clear of the trunk while it’s indoors.

  • When you’re planting it out after Christmas, remember to give it plenty of moisture for good needle retention. You’ll need to watch for the balsam woolly aphid in the warmer months.

Transport Your Tree

Whatever tree species you decide to buy, you’ll have to get it home and indoors.

  • At the nursery, lift the container or burlap-wrapped root ball to transfer the tree to your car. Avoid lifting your tree by its trunk as it may damage the root system.  You may also want to wrap the branches with twine or throw a blanket around the tree to prevent branches from breaking during the trip home.

  • Remove the tree from your car and take off any twine or protective covering. Shake the tree to remove any mold, dirt, or loose needles.

  • If possible, acclimatize the tree by leaving it in a naturally lit, cool place for a few days—even longer if it’s particularly cold outside. A garage or shed will do nicely. 

  • Use a hand truck or pot lifter to move the container or burlap-wrapped root ball indoors. Once inside use a heavy cloth or furniture movers to slide it across the floor. Make sure you place the tree in a waterproof container before moving.

  • For a B&B tree, place the wrapped root ball in a waterproof container and level using stones or wood chips. Choose a container that’s close in size to the root ball to limit the amount of stabilizing material.

INDOOR CARE

With the heavy lifting behind you, it’s time to find the perfect indoor spot for your tree and get ready to keep it healthy over the holidays.

  • The main goal is to prevent the tree from thinking it’s spring and sending out new growth. New shoots will die when exposed to wintry outdoor weather, and your tree's long-term health may suffer.

  • Find a cool place, away from any heat sources including fireplaces, vents, and stoves. Near a window is a natural choice. Not only does it add to your outdoor display, but it’s also cool and provides lots of natural light.

  • If possible, avoid decorating the tree with large lights that give off a lot of heat that will dry it out. If you can’t afford to purchase LEDs, then limit the time spent lit.

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  • The tree will need daily doses of water. For gradual watering, place about 20 or 30 ice cubes on top of the soil—the roots need moisture but should not be standing in water. 

  • The shorter the indoor stay, the better, but plan on about a week. Two or three days is best, and 10 is the absolute max. 

MOVE THE TREE OUTDOORS

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Conifers are easy to maintain once established, but getting them to the established stage takes some work.  Careful planting, followed by careful management through the crucial first winter play key roles in long-term health. In cold regions, transitioning your tree in a cool garage or shed for a few days helps it establish later. 

When it’s ready for planting out, follow the directions below or skip to the steps for year-round container growing.

Planting the Tree in the Ground

You’ve already selected the perfect spot, now it’s time to prep the hole if you haven’t already done so. If you haven’t prepared the hole and the soil is now frozen, skip to the directions for keeping your tree in a container until spring-planting season arrives.

  • The best time to plant is on a dry, overcast day when the ground is moist but not waterlogged or frozen. However, few among us will have the luxury of choosing the perfect day in late December, especially with the pressure on to get the tree in the ground. Indeed, many of us will have to settle for a day devoid of blizzard-like conditions.

  • Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball so the roots can spread easily into the surrounding soil. For the correct depth, measure from the bottom of the root ball to the trunk flare. The trunk flare is where the trunk and roots meet, and is usually distinguished by color changes in the bark.

  • If planting a container grown tree, water it well to hydrate the roots and make it easier to remove from the pot. Firmly tap the pot along the rim to loosen the root ball. Once loose, tip the container on its side.

  • If you didn’t check the root ball at the nursery, check now for circling roots and loosen by hand or with a hand-held cultivator. 

  • For B&B trees, keep the root ball intact, but cut away the burlap and nylon string, exposing the trunk and top of the soil. You can bury compostable burlap, but not plastic or coated burlap. If in doubt, remove the burlap and handle the root ball carefully to prevent breakage.

  • Plant the tree so that the trunk flare is above ground and higher than the top of the soil. If there is any soil above the trunk flare, brush it off. 

  • Backfill the hole and create a well around the trunk by building up soil so water pools around the center. For the best results, apply a 3-inch layer of insulating mulch around the base of the tree.

  • Water the tree thoroughly and keep an eye on soil moisture throughout the winter. In zones with a snowy season, you won’t need to water until early spring unless the weather is unusually mild. But remember that photosynthesis continues throughout the winter and the tree will need either sufficient stores of water or additional watering to prevent needles from turning brown.

Preparing the Tree to Live in a Container 

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Overwintering container plants is challenging for even the most seasoned gardeners. The keys to survivability include maintaining winter dormancy, protecting roots from freezing, and selecting trees that are 2 zones below your USDA Growing Zone. While the location of your container will affect your unique growing conditions, there are some general guidelines.

  • Use weather-resistant containers for year-round growing. Wood and metal work well in areas that experience a hard frost and frequent freeze-thaw cycles. Make sure your tree has room to grow for at least a few years. If you used the nursery container over Christmas, transplant to a larger pot, placing insulating material like leaves and Styrofoam around the edges. Thicker pots will keep the soil warmer.

  • Plant the container before Christmas, if possible, to allow the roots time to adjust to a new pot before moving outdoors. Trees with healthy roots are able to harden off faster and better tolerate the sudden shift in temperature.  Use prepared potting soil, organic if possible, formulated for acid-loving trees.

  • Water well before placing the container outdoors in a sheltered area in contact with the earth. For balcony growing, set the container on raised blocks. Mulch around the container and on top of the soil. You can screen with burlap, but don’t wrap it directly around the tree as it may damage buds.

  • Winter rain and snow will take care of watering your new tree. But if it’s exceptionally mild and dry, water as needed.

  • For extra protection, place the container in a large wooden box and mulch around it. Your municipality may make free woodchips available, or you can use leaves or other insulating material. Another option is to place your tree in an unheated garage or shed with lots of natural light.

  • Throughout its lifecycle, the tree will need to be re-evaluated and repotted every few years. Even dwarf varieties will need repotting every 3 to 5 years.

PLAN FOR NEXT CHRISTMAS

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Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

  • If your tree is in a permanent container and is growing happily, you can bring it indoors the following Christmas. The tree will still be stressed by the drastic temperature swings, but it should continue to thrive if the stay indoors is short.

  • Digging up a landscape tree is not a good idea. It will damage the roots and threaten the tree’s survival. It’s already served you well for one Christmas, why not leave it in the landscape and decorate with weather-resistant lights and ornaments, like popcorn garlands and suet balls for the birds. 

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If you have any tips for growing conifers in containers and in the garden, please leave them in the comment section below. We’d love to hear from you!





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