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Consider a Living Christmas Tree this Year

By Robert Cox, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Agent, Horticulture

A living Christmas tree is an increasingly popular choice, especially among new homeowners and families with young children.

Potted trees can be planted outdoors after the holidays to improve the environment, furnish food and shelter for wildlife and improve landscape esthetics. Those who select this option can "have their cake and eat it too," because a live tree keeps on giving long after the New Year's bowl games have come and gone.

But, what do you do if you live in an upstairs apartment and the only dirt around is from your six-year-old's shoes? Plant the tree, or have it planted, somewhere else. Donate it to a park, church, cemetery, school or apartment complex. Just make prior arrangements and remember that such gifts can be a tax-deductible charitable contribution.

Locally available trees include pinon, ponderosa, Austrian, Scotch and lodgepole pines, Douglas-fir, white fir, blue spruce and Alberta spruce. When selecting a tree from your nursery or garden center, be sure it will fit in your house. Also consider the mature size of the tree. That cute little spruce in the plastic bucket can become a problem later if planted too close to the house or other trees.

It's best to purchase the tree a few days before Christmas, but the selection may not be as good. If buying earlier, ask the nursery to hold it for you until a specified time. Dig the hole for the tree in advance, because the soil likely will be frozen and difficult to work with when you want to transplant the tree outdoors. Dig the hole at least twice as wide but no deeper than the size of the rootball. Improve the dug-out soil by mixing in organic matter such as sphagnum peat moss. Save this improved soil in the garage or outdoors in a black plastic bag so it is less likely to freeze. You'll need this soil for backfill when transplanting.

The most important factor in the tree's survival outdoors is the length of time it is left indoors as a Christmas tree. Warmth received indoors may cause the tree to "think spring," and become less cold-hardy once it is moved outdoors. The less time the tree is inside, the better its chances. Seven days is maximum; five is better. Some families have developed the tradition of bringing the tree indoors to decorate on Christmas Eve and planting it outdoors on New Years Day.

Before bringing the tree indoors, give it a couple of days in the garage, to ease the transition. Make sure the rootball doesn't dry out and water thoroughly a few hours before bringing it into the house. Indoors, place the tree in a cooler room, away from heat sources such as stoves, fireplaces and heat registers. If desired, you can decorate the container with foil or place it in an ornamental pot. You may want to protect carpeting from water, as the rootball probably will need water during the stay indoors. Decorate the tree with miniature lights, which develop less heat than larger lights. After five to seven days indoors, return the tree to the garage for a couple of days to ease the transition to the outdoors. Water the tree.

To transplant, remove the rootball from the container and place in the previously dug hole so the top of the rootball is slightly above ground level. Put some backfill in the hole. Remove any wire around the rootball and any rope tied around the trunk. Fill with the rest of the backfill. Water heavily to settle the backfill; be prepared to add more backfill soil if needed. Allow water to soak into the soil, then apply a three-to-five-inch thick mulch of straw, pine needles or wood chips over the planted area. This mulch will help keep the soil moist.

Water the area at least monthly through the winter, more frequently if conditions have been dry, windy and unseasonably warm. You'll probably need to stake the tree. Remember those winter and early spring winds! Remove stakes the following summer.

An evergreen is an asset in the landscape. One that can provide memories of Christmas past is a treasure.

For those wanting the more traditional cut tree, remember that in early January, Colorado landfills will contain enough Christmas trees to revegetate the Great Sand Dunes. Stretch that spruce's uses by considering these recycling options:

  • Give the tree, sans the tinsel, to conservation groups, who place trees in gullies and arroyos to slow soil erosion.

  • Recycle it through a municipality that uses chippers to convert trees to landscape or garden mulch.

  • Use the cut tree as a model for a future landscape evergreen. Observe how the tree looks in relation to buildings and other plantings near the proposed site.

  • Create a bird station by tying the tree to a fence post or setting it in the ground. Hang suet cakes or seed balls from the tree.

  • Cut off branches, leaving one-inch stubs on the trunk. Use branches and needles as mulch. The trunk will make a fine tomato stake or bean pole.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010