How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Alive
There are two good reasons for buying a Christmas tree with roots. First, you're too cheap to blow fifty bucks on a cut tree you're going to throw out in a couple of weeks. Second, you'd like to plant it in the yard where—if it survives—it will conjure up fond memories each December as you festoon it with lights that no longer work.
Let's be dishonest and presume you've chosen a live tree for the second reason. Having lugged the dang thing home—roots and dirt are heavy!—your primary task is keeping it alive, so it may fulfill its task once you plant it outside. Fortunately, Grumpy knows all about this and offers you the following tips (I refuse to use the word "hacks," as I am older than 24).
Select a tree that's adapted to your soil and climate.
Just because you can buy a Colorado blue spruce in Florida doesn't mean you can grow it there. Firs, spruces, and white pines don't like the South's long, hot summers and heavy soils. The only place you can grow a Fraser fir, the most popular Christmas tree, is in the mountains where it's native. Spruces tolerate a little more heat, but not much—like white pine, they do better in USDA Zone 7 and above. This means if you live in USDA Zones 8 and below, the only live Christmas trees likely to live very long include red cedar, Virginia pine, and Leyland cypress—not exactly top of the list.
For the Lower and Coastal South, try ‘Blue Ice’ Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica ‘Blue Ice’). It features soft, silvery blue foliage; has a pyramidal shape; and grows 40 feet tall. After the holidays, use it as a large screening plant in the yard. It’s hardy and easy to grow. ‘Goldcrest’ lemon cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’) offers lemon- scented, chartreuse foliage; has a narrow form; and grows 6 to 8 feet tall after about 10 years. It comes in very small sizes, 1 to 2 feet tall, so you can start with it as a tabletop tree and leave it in a pot indoors or outdoors for years in the Lower, Coastal, and Tropical South. That old standby, Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla), works well as an indoor Christmas tree anywhere and as an outdoor tree in the Tropical South.
Keep the root ball moist at all times.
But not sitting in a tub filled with water. (Roots, like you, need air.) If the roots dry out, your tree is history. Keeping the tree hydrated throughout the season is the key to successful planting in the garden later.
Don't keep a live Christmas tree in the house too long.
Sorry, but five days is tops. This is because the tree comes to you in its naturally dormant winter state. Leave it in the house too long and the heat will cause the tree to wake up and start growing. Then it you plant the tree outside and a freeze hits, the sudden cold will kill it. In addition, live Christmas trees need sun. While it's inside, keep the tree near a window, where it's sunny and likely cooler.
WATCH: How To Choose a Christmas Tree
If you're determined to buy a live tree, the photo above shows a smart way to do it. Buy a small tree in a one or two-gallon pot that you can decorate and display on a tabletop, windowsill, etc. Then after your five days are up, move the tree out to the porch or patio for the winter. Set the tree in a dry, covered area so it's protected from outdoor elements. Dwarf Alberta spruces, the trees in the photo, are excellent candidates, because they come in small sizes, grow very slowly, sport the traditional Christmas tree shape and needles, and grow as far south as USDA Zone 8A. They're quite cold-hardy too. Water the pots once a week.
Here's another live Christmas tree look that will bring joy to the porch now and to the garden later. We twirled up a 'Hillside Upright' Norway spruce with lights, pinecones, burlap, and feathers. It grows up to 20 feet tall and is suited to the Upper and Middle South.