Living Christmas Trees are a great alternative to freshly cut trees during the holidays! They require a bit more care and planning, but when properly cared for, a Living Christmas Tree will grow with your family and provide beauty and joy for years to come. If you're considering bringing a potted conifer indoors to celebrate the season, we've put together a few tips to ensure long-term success for your tree.
Choosing a Tree
One benefit of opting for a Living Christmas Tree is that there are many more options for the “look” of your tree than offered with traditional, freshly cut trees. You can keep it classic with a pyramidal conifer in shades of green to blue-green, or you can get creative with other shapes and colors, from dramatically weeping firs to colorful pines with bright golden needles. Since these trees will only be temporary residents in your home, it’s important to consider how your chosen tree will factor into your home landscape where it will ultimately reside. After all, following a brief stint in your home for the holidays, this tree will live out the rest of its life outdoors.
Since this is an investment in your landscape long-term, you will want to be sure to pick a tree whose ultimate size is compatible with your space. The majority of gardeners will elect to plant their tree in the ground as soon as it’s workable, and this is our recommended method. Your options this way are only limited by the size of garden and your imagination.
However, if you are interested in getting multiple holiday seasons out of one Living Christmas Tree, another option is to pot up your chosen tree in a large container that can be enjoyed outdoors for the majority of the year and brought indoors again this time next year. This method requires closer attention to the care of your tree, including more frequent waterings and the occasional repotting, but determined gardeners are up to the challenge. If you plan to keep your tree growing in a container, look for a slower-growing, dwarf conifer whose ultimate size will not exceed six feet or so in height. And because its roots will be more exposed to the elements in a pot than in the ground, choosing a tree that is hardy to at least two zones colder than the climate in which you garden will help to ensure that your tree survives any particularly cold winter nights. Here in Portland, where most gardeners enjoy USDA Zone 8b conditions, this translates to a tree that is documented to be hardy to at least Zone 6b.
Caring For Your Tree Indoors
While the warm, dry conditions of your home are perfectly cozy for visiting guests during the holidays, they are relatively inhospitable for a tree accustomed to growing outdoors. As such — with the exception of Norfolk Island Pines — you should plan to keep your Living Christmas Tree indoors for no longer than 4 days; otherwise, you risk it becoming a Formerly Living Christmas Tree. You will also need to carefully manage the transition between indoors and out following the steps below:
1. Slowly acclimate your tree from outside to inside by storing it in a protected location such as a covered porch or unheated garage for a period of 1 week. (Remember to keep it watered!)
2. Find the coolest spot possible indoors to set up the tree, away from any heat sources like a vent or fireplace.
3. If you choose to decorate your tree with lights, use only LEDs. As with vents, traditional, incandescent lightbulbs give off too much heat that can dry out your tree.
4. Keep the tree well watered, keeping the roots moist but not soggy. Use a tray to collect any excess water that drains from the pot.
5. Keep the tree inside for up to 4 days.
6. Carefully transition your tree back outside using the reverse procedure as in step one.
While most conifers wouldn't appreciate more than a brief stint indoors, there are other options at your disposal. The Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is a great choice for long-term pot culture indoors, especially in a bright space that can provide a decent amount of vertical growing room. Although they are not true pines, these subtropical conifers are superficially similar, with regularly-spaced branches and conical habit when young. And for this reason, you will often see them offered around the holidays for use as Living Christmas Trees. They are one of a few trees that can be cultivated indoors with relative ease, although they won't live as long — or grow nearly as tall — as their wild counterparts, which can reach heights of nearly 200 feet in the span of more than 100 years in their native New Caledonia.
An alternate option to forego the trouble of moving a Living Christmas Tree back and forth from your garden to your living room would be to simply plant it directly in the ground! Fall is actually the ideal time to plant a tree in our corner of the Pacific Northwest, but as long as the ground is workable, trees can still be planted well into winter, and our seasonal rains will help you keep your new tree watered. A well-thought out location will allow you to light and decorate your tree for the holidays where it can be enjoyed through a prominent window or from another vantage point on your property. Then, during the rest of the year, it simply becomes a part of your landscape.
This time of year, Cornell Farm has a wide selection of conifers suitable for use as Living Christmas Trees, and our staff would be happy assist you in picking out your tree or answering any questions you might have about its care.