Caring for and Planting Live Christmas Trees

Holidays are all about traditions, especially the Christmas holiday. One Christmas tradition that some families observe is to purchase live Christmas trees that can be planted in their yard once the holidays are over.

Although it is more costly to purchase live Christmas trees than it is to purchase cut trees, live Christmas trees will provide a longer period of enjoyment than a cut tree and they will enhance your landscape for many years to come. Unfortunately, live Christmas trees don’t typically come with instructions and many people make serious mistakes when handling a live tree and they end up killing the tree and losing the money spent on it.

Live Christmas trees are typically sold with the roots balled in burlap. The entire rootball is wrapped in burlap and bound tightly. Do not unwrap the burlap from the roots before bringing the tree in the house. The burlap will not only protect the roots until the tree can be planted, but it will also contain the soil around the roots and prevent your live tree from becoming messy while it is performing its role as a holiday decoration.

Decorating with live Christmas trees requires some forethought. Before you take the tree into the house, or perhaps even before the tree is purchased if you live in a very cold climate, you should prepare a hole for the tree where you expect to plant it after the holidays. Soil that is removed from the hole can be placed in a wheelbarrow and parked in the garage or in an enclosed porch where it won’t freeze solid. You’ll need that loose soil for backfilling the hole when you plant the tree out, and the job will be much easier if the soil isn’t frozen. Make sure to dig the hole before the ground itself freezes.

Live Christmas trees should be kept indoors for as short a time as possible. Spending too much time in the warm indoors can confuse the tree and cause it to break dormancy, resulting in shocking the tree when it goes back outside. If you like to put up your Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving and leave it up until after New Year’s, then live Christmas trees are not a good choice for you.

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Live Christmas trees will not fit a typical Christmas tree stand, of course, but the rootballs of most will fit into a large washtub or a really big ol’ bucket. The rootballs of live Christmas trees should be kept moist while in the house, but the tub or bucket should not be kept full of water. The rootball shouldn’t be allowed to dry out, but by the same token it shouldn’t be kept soggy all the time either. After placing the rootball into the tub, wet it thoroughly, but do not water again until the water in the bottom of the tub is almost gone.

As soon as possible after Christmas, live Christmas trees should be moved outdoors and planted. If you didn’t get around to preparing the planting hole before the holidays and now the ground is frozen, don’t fear. You can still keep the tree alive until it can be planted in the spring by packing bags of leaves or bales of straw tightly around the rootball. Keep the tree in an outdoor area where it will receive minimal sunlight and be protected from the harsh winter wind. Throw some snow onto the rootball occasionally to keep it from drying out.

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If you did prepare the planting hole before the holidays, try to plant the tree immediately after the holiday hoopla has ended. The tree should not be stored above ground during the winter if it can be avoided. It’s not a good idea to store it in your garage either, as it is likely to dry out in there. The best place for live Christmas trees is to be is planted in the ground, even if the ground was frozen as soon as the hole was dug. Just set the tree in the hole and backfill the hole with the loose soil you saved in your wheelbarrow.

If the reserved soil has become frozen into chunks, it should be thawed out and broken up before using, or not used at all. Backfill the hole only with small soil particles so no air pockets are left around the rootball. If the soil is frozen and can’t be thawed, you can either purchase and use a bag of potting soil from a garden center, or just set the tree down in the hole and backfill it later as soon as the weather permits.

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It is not necessary to unwrap and remove the burlap from around the rootball before planting live Christmas trees if the burlap is made from a natural material. However, if nylon string has been used to bind the burlap, the nylon string should be cut and removed as it will not decompose and would eventually choke the roots. No matter what sort of string was used to wrap the burlap, it should be removed from around the trunk of the tree.

Cotton or sisal twine can be left around the rootball, but removed from the trunk. If the burlap itself is nylon, it should be cut in many places or removed entirely from the rootball. If the ball is wrapped with a wire basket around it, some experts recommend loosening the basket but leaving it on the rootball, while others say the wire would eventually choke the roots and should be removed. My take on this is to remove anything from around the roots that will not decompose.

When planting live Christmas trees or any other tree, be careful to not plant the tree too deeply. Planting too deeply is the Number One reason why plants do not survive when they are brought home from a nursery. Trees should not be planted any deeper than they were planted in the nursery pot. The top of the rootball should be one to two inches above the ground level. If you have heavy, wet clay soil, trees should be planted even higher, with a bed built up around the rootball. Planted too deeply, plants literally suffocate. But plant them a bit higher and build a bed around the raised rootball and you will be providing good drainage for your live Christmas trees.

Do not fertilize live Christmas trees at the time of planting. Your tree will be dormant and cannot utilize fertilizer until it wakes up in the spring. Fertilize it with an organic fertilizer in the spring. If you have compost available, go ahead and mix some in with the soil while planting the tree, but any fertilizer added at this time will only wash away over winter.

It’s always a good idea to stake trees when they are planted. If they are constantly being rocked back and forth by the wind they will have a difficult time establishing their roots in their new home.

Armed with this knowledge, go ahead and start a new family tradition by decorating live Christmas trees in your home and planting them in the backyard for many more years of enjoyment.

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