Caring for your LIVE Christmas Tree

By Kirsten Conrad Buhls, Extension Agent for Arlington County and the City of Alexandria

Helping your tree survive its time indoors is a high priority for those who spend money on a live tree with the intention of replanting it outdoors when Christmas is over.  What tree owners need to do is to remember that the single most important goal is to keep the moisture level of the tree needles and twigs as high as possible and prevent it from drying out. Doing so will prevent needle loss and help to prevent tree mortality.

Right Tree, Right Place    

Research the types of evergreen trees that will do well in your area and in your specific growing conditions. Learn about how big it grows and how fast it will reach maturity. Read up on the major pests that the plant is prone to in your area.  Pick a native plant whenever possible as you will have fewer plant pest problems and it may be more adaptable to your backyard soils. Because many conifers are better adapted to temperature conditions in northern woods, be sure to check your plant’s heat tolerance zone on the American Horticultural Society’s heat map.

Most evergreen conifers require full sun and loamy well-drained soils that are slightly acidic.  Some will grow quite large.  Make sure that the place you are thinking of planting it will have enough room for it to grow for many years.  Select a tree that’s right for your climate, soil and light conditions and buy early.  Most nurseries are happy to order a tree for you or to tag your selection and hold it in the nursery for you. Here’s are some ideas for Virginia tree selections: Coniferous Evergreens for Virginia.

You may wish to pre-dig your tree planting hole especially if the ground is likely to freeze hard before you plan to plant the tree outdoors. This is an opportunity to check and correct the soil acidity. Most conifers prefer a slightly acid soil that can be adjusted with the use of various soil amendments over the larger growing area.  You can contact the Arlington County or your local Extension office for a soil test kit and information about how to adjust the pH of the soil for your new trees prior to planting.

If you are planning to grow it as a container tree, it should be cold hardy to two zones more than where you two will be living.  In Northern VA we are at Hardiness zone 6-7 so choose a tree that is going to be hardy down into Zone 4-5 for container grown plantings.

Placement is important

Bring the tree home about 10 – 12 days before Christmas.  Put the tree in a transition zone like a garage that has some light to get it used to being in a lower light and less humid environment.  Keep it watered so that the ball doesn’t dry out.  When you move the tree indoors, select a spot with filtered light and away from heating vents, direct sunlight, and drafts of air from fans.  The cooler the location the better. You can stand it in a basin to keep the floor dry and clean, but avoid the temptation to over water and NEVER keep standing water around the root ball.

Use only the light strands with tiny bulbs and avoid wrapping the lights around branches by laying them across the tops of branches. A few days after Christmas, move the tree back to the garage and never leave it inside for more than 8-10 days.

Remove grass and other plants from the base of the tree.  Plant the tree outdoors and water it well making sure to spread the roots out and away from the pot/rootball as much as is possible to ensure that new rooting takes place in your native soil.  Soil amendments are not needed in the planting hole.  The best thing to do is to break up the soil over a larger area and work in organic matter to provide good nutrient and water holding capacity prior to planting.

Place the root ball in the hole so that the top of the root ball is higher than the grade of the surrounding soil by a minimum of 4 inches.  Pull soil up the edges and lightly cover the top of the root ball.  Apply mulch over all of the disturbed soil to help prevent grass and weed growth and to help conserve soil moisture.  Here’s some more tree planting techniques from Virginia Tech.

Newly planted coniferous trees in the ground or in containers should receive one inch of water per week over the root zone.  If the tree will be in a high wind situation, you may wish to stake it for no more than a year to allow roots to take hold and get established.

After one year you may wish to work in organic matter like composted leaves or decomposed old mulch along with a light feeding of nitrogen.   Wood chips make an especially excellent mulch for trees and should be replaced each year or as needed.

Plant selection, planting and maintenance of landscape plantings is available through the Horticulture Help Desk at the Fairlington Community center.  Walk in, phone and email assistance is available weekdays from 9-noon. We provide education on insects, plant disease, household pests, weeds and more.  Phone: 703 228 6414.  Email mgarlalex@gmail.com.

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