Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Planting Live Christmas Trees for Winter Solstice

Each year we plant an evergreen in our yard to celebrate Christmas and the Winter Solstice. Last year, we squeaked into our new home in Pennsylvania on December 23rd, which gave us enough time to find a nice, live Oriental spruce on sale for half-off at a garden shop to celebrate in our empty but cozy new home. You can see its amazing progress in the third image above.

This year, we decided to go hog wild! After searching for local farms, we visited Linvilla Orchards and all their many farm pleasures – complete with chickens, goats, a wall full of preserves, and hayrides.

While we opted out of the hayride, we were positively smitten by the Christmas tree selection. We purchased a large, cut Fraser fir to bring in the house and decorate, and a lovely Blue spruce to plant in the yard. Live trees can only stay in the house a few days in order to stay healthy, and we wanted to have a tree indoors all month long for once.

We planted our Blue spruce on December 2nd when the moon was almost full in earthy Taurus. You can see it above in the top two images. It's about 20 feet away from last year's Christmas tree, giving both ample room for lots of healthy growth.

There are many websites out there offering tips for proper care of a live Christmas tree. Below are a few of the better ones (feel free to recommend others):

--Care Tips for a Living Tree

--How To Pick (and take care of) A Live Christmas Tree

--Live Christmas Trees

--9 Things You Should Know About Trees

And you don't want to miss this totally cool article with tons of ideas for combining Yuletide decorations with wildlife good will:

Decorate Your Tree with Wildlife Ornaments!

I thought that in addition to those resources, I might offer you a few of my own personal tips on caring for and planting a live Christmas tree:

1) Select a tree you love

If you’re going to plant this tree in your yard, plan for the long-haul.
We usually like to just pick the tree that sings to us, but we also have lived in places with lots of growing room. This tree is going to be with you a long time, so if there are concerns about placement, hardiness, etc., take a little time to learn about the tree you’re bringing home, and make sure it’s one you’re going to like to look at for a good, long time.

2) Remember it’s alive… in the dormant season

Evergreens are strong trees. In the winter of the Northern Hemisphere, these trees are going to be quietly preparing for next spring’s growth. That means that all those little nubbins you see on the tips of each branch are the promises of the tree’s future. All the growth to come depends on the health of those seemingly innocuous little buds.

Apart from taking care to be gentle with your tree, you want to ensure that your tree doesn’t think it’s suddenly taken a winter vacation in the tropics when it enters your home. We all like to stay warm in winter, but common sensible things like tree placement and moderate thermostat settings can make all the difference in the health of your tree.

Your tree needs to be watered. Help to keep your tree cool by watering with ice cubes. The ice will melt slowly on the top of the soil/root ball, helping reduce the tree’s overall temperature.

3) THIS END UP ^ ^ ^

Trees are heavy creatures, and when you bring home a live one, it’s going to come with a healthy root ball with some earth, either potted or wrapped (usually in burlap). Not only do you need to be careful with moving your tree, but you need to use common sense again when it comes to lifting. A handtruck/dolly or wheelbarrow can lend a helping hand if you don’t have a second person to help you move your tree in and out of the house.

Placement leaves you with several options, like a decorative pot, but most important is a solid, sturdy plastic tray beneath the tree’s pot. Like any potted plant, you want your Christmas tree to have good drainage so that it doesn’t just sit in water and rot. A sturdy, WIDE tray beneath your tree will help protect the floors, and also allow you to add additional ice around the base of the tree if desired to further assist in keeping it cool.

4) Planting time!

The longer you keep your happy little tree indoors, the greater the chances that you’re going to confuse it into budburst. You want your tree to remain dormant, because this is just the start of winter! Don't keep your live tree indoors for more than 7-10 days maximum.

In Washington State, I rarely had to worry about the ground being frozen in December. But here in Pennsylvania, I was lucky to squeak in by December 2nd, since the ground froze a week later. If your ground is frozen when it comes time to plant, you still need to get the tree outside.

Place your tree somewhere that it’s protected from the wind. While cold is a consideration, it’s actually the winds that really kill plants in the winter. Choose a naturally-sheltered area like the side of the house away from the prevailing winds. Wrap the pot/burlap/root ball with additional protection – hay, mulch, tarps, even old blankets. The rest of the tree needs to be exposed so it can breathe and take in the light. As soon as the ground thaws, you want to plant! Be sure to check the root ball periodically to make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Now, when it comes time to plant, I’ve got a few other notes from personal experience. Most people and sources will tell you NOT to unwrap the burlap, NOT to remove the old earth, and to plop it in the ground as is (after proper soil preparation). I’m here to tell you that I disagree completely.

Not all trees make it, so don’t let one year without success deter you from trying again. The second Christmas tree we planted did not survive after almost a year of apparent health. When I pulled out the dead tree, I found that it was completely bogged and choked in the burlap.

I now always remove the burlap from my trees, and I always GENTLY loosen the earth around the roots. It’s likely that this is not recommended because too much damage to the delicate, fine roots can mean death for the tree. Make sure that your root ball is nice and wet, and take your time. Remove the big solid chunks where possible, but do not pull away the small, thin roots. Leave on any chunks that don’t come off easily. Gently spread apart the bigger roots to get them out of the pot/ball shape, and encourage them to spread.

Finally, don’t plant too low! The earth is going to settle once the tree is in the ground, and you don’t want your tree swallowed up. Try to mound the earth so that the tree sits a little high at planting. As it settles a few inches, it will come flush with the ground level. And in case I haven't said it before - just say NO to the mulch volcano!

5) Long live the trees

Depending on where you live, your tree may be satisfied with winter rains for water. However, once the ground thaws and the days get warm, you need to water your tree regularly, especially during the first year as it establishes itself in its new home. Consistent, deep, weekly watering is helpful to encourage strong taproots and healthy growth.

Your tree has been sculpted to match the Christmas tree shape, but once those buds burst, that’s all over. Your tree will become the quintessential ungainly teenager as it tries to grow out of its cultivated shape to blossom into its true identity. Have patience the first few years as your tree slowly comes into its own with new growth. Don’t be alarmed if there are a few lost twigs, a few dead buds, or a loss of the leading branch. Other top buds will eagerly compete to become the new tree top, and the tree’s inherent nature will take care of the rest.

If you have any questions about live tree care and planting, please feel welcome to ask in the comments, and I will do my best to answer with what knowledge I have.

Happy planting!


  1. Too bad for us citylubbers! I'd love to try out your tips, JLB, but will have to settle with decorating a potted rosemary bush, which is similarish in shape with a slight stretch of the imagination (and some selective pruning).

    Perhaps you can help settle something I've been puzzling about recently... There was a two-storey-high tree at my grandmother's house, which she insisted, during my very early schooldays, was a Christmas tree that my mother had planted when she was the age I was then. Was she having me on, or can they grow so big so quickly?

  2. Pollen Nation, my inclination is to say YES, trees CAN grow that quickly, and your grandmother was likely telling the truth. Depending on the tree species, some can grow incredibly fast - even the evergreens.

    By the sounds of your story, I'd estimate that you are referring to a tree that was roughly 20 years old. Where I lived in Washington State, we could count on certain evergreens like the Douglas firs and White pines to grow very rapidly when pioneering a new clear-cut. When we had moved into our home, we had a "carpet" of trees roughly 6 centimeters tall. Some six years later, dozens of them were already 3 or 4 meters tall!

    Rosemaries are just as fun to decorate in winter. When I haven't had the pleasure of a Christmas tree in my home, I've always taken to decorating the larger houseplants! :D

  3. Thank you, JLB, for such an in-depth response. I love the image of your carpet of trees. What fun if the floor coverings in our homes could surprise us so pleasantly, too... although I think we might get fed up with the pruning, unless we chose the rug equivalent of that white cedar at the Great Lakes.

  4. We bought a blue spruce tree to plant in the yard in my father's memory. We purchased it yesterday, it was about 30 degrees at that time. We live in S.eastern Indiana and today is dropping to windchill of -20 and windy. We intended on bringing it indoors, but decided to plant it now because we didn't have anything to put it in. It was planted in a hole that was dug this morning before the ground was frozen but we weren't able to get it in the hole until the ground was frozen. We had it in mulch until planting it. Should we water it now as it is very windy and cold here now? We did mulch it and left the trunk uncovered.

  5. Greetings Anonymous, and congrats on your new tree.

    Keeping in mind that I am not a professional arborist, my advice would be to hold off on watering your tree until the temperatures climb back above freezing, and the wind chill subsides. At the moment, your tree is focused on settling and surviving. Watering now may compound the stress of transplanting. If there is snow on the ground, future melting will take care of any immediate watering needs your tree may have.

    I also encourage you to keep your tree protected if you have planted it out in the open. I've had hungry deer chow down on my unprotected evergreens when the winter gets tough, and as you've pointed out a lot of wind can be taxing on your new tree. You may do well to pack that mulch and/or some straw around the base of the tree, and generously over the top of the soil around the tree.

    Best wishes and happy holidays,



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