Living trees provide lasting memories

While I love having fresh-cut trees in the house, their time with us is fleeting; a month goes by and their needles shed and we’re faced with taking them to the compost pile. One way to keep the holiday cheer is to use a living tree instead. (Photo: Shutterstock).

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

LONGMONT – This is a magical time of year. The smell of fresh-cut pine perfumes the air; choices are made between fir or pine, and cars adorned with carcasses of trees head home to put up their prize. Cut Christmas trees are a tradition reaching back to 16th century Germany, when evergreens were brought inside and decorated with candles, sweets, or ribbon. While I love having trees in the house, their time with us is fleeting; a month goes by and their needles shed and we’re faced with taking them to the compost pile.  One way to keep the holiday cheer is to use a living tree instead.

If you opt for a living tree, planning ahead is the key to success. To keep them healthy, you’ll have to water them, which, in addition to the soil, can make a mess on the carpet. Make sure the location in the home can accommodate a bit of moisture and mud.

Before purchasing the tree, consider the size and weight of what you can handle. The bigger the tree, the heavier it is. Shop early to find healthy trees, looking for those with deep green needles and no brown tips, yellowing, or shedding. If possible, check to ensure the tree isn’t rootbound by gently laying it on its side and sliding the container down to inspect the roots. For those that are balled and burlapped, look for firm rootballs with no cracking.

As you move the tree from store to car to house, lift it from the bottom of the rootball. Though tempting, don’t use the trunk as a handle to lift the tree, and avoid thumping it down hard against the ground. Living trees can be held in the yard until it’s time to bring them inside.

Living trees can’t stay in the house longer than seven days or it compromises their ability to be returned to the wild of your landscaped yard. Have your decorations on hand for when you move the tree into the house so that you make the most of its time inside.

Bringing a tree indoors immediately can result in shock – not from the tree’s response to you housekeeping but from the difference between conditions outside and in. Buffer this by acclimating it in a protected area, such as an unheated garage or enclosed porch. Approximately four days before moving the tree indoors, place it in this holding area to prep it for the move into the home.

Like cut Christmas trees, living ones should be located in a cool spot, away from heating ducts, fireplaces and space heaters.  But one thing this tree needs is sunlight, so try to keep it near a sunny window. Pop the rootball into a container that has at least two inches of gravel on the bottom, which will allow for the plant to be watered without it sitting in a puddle. Check the rootball daily to ensure that it is moist, but not soggy.

Once the holiday is over, acclimate the tree to moving back outside by placing it in the sheltered porch or garage for a few days.

If you plan to plant a living tree after the holiday, dig the hole now, before the ground freezes, making it at least twice as wide but no deeper than the rootball. Remove the container and place the tree in the dug hole so the top of the rootball is slightly above ground level. Put some backfill in the hole. Remove any wire and rope from the rootball, then fill with the rest of the backfill. Water heavily to settle the soil, adding more, if necessary, to bring the soil level with the ground.

Mulch the planted area. Water the tree monthly or more, especially if winter is dry, windy, and warm.

By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail [email protected] or visit