Using a live conifer for a Christmas tree is an alternative to using a cut tree.
Live trees serve double duty — first as a Christmas tree and then as an addition to your landscape.
If you are considering a live Christmas tree, proper planning is necessary so that your tree survives. Be forewarned that living trees have better survival rates in areas with milder winter climates.
Living trees can come potted in a container, which is more of a tabletop tree choice, or as a balled and burlapped tree (B&B).
A B&B tree has a large root ball that has been wrapped in a piece of burlap or similar material.
The tabletop tree will be much easier to deal with indoors. Either one can be planted in the landscape after the holidays.
When picking a tree to take home, think about how it will look in the landscape 10 or 20 years from now.
How big is it going to be at maturity? Is it appropriate for our climate?
Will it do well in your soil type? Is it prone to insect damage, diseases, or deer damage?
When you are shopping, look for healthy trees with good color. Trees that have yellowing needles, those with brown tips or shedding needles should be avoided.
Check the roots too.
Is the soil moist? Don’t take home a potted tree that is root bound.
Before you bring the tree in, keep it in an unheated, sheltered area such as a porch or garage. Keep it out of the wind and sun.
Trees should not be exposed to freezing temperatures. Make sure the root ball does not dry out and thoroughly water it before bringing it into the house.
If you are getting a B&B tree, find a large, leak-proof container that will fit the tree root ball.
Dig a hole before the ground freezes so you can plant your tree after Christmas. Dig the hole at least twice as wide as, but no deeper than the root ball. Fill the hole with straw or mulch and cover with a tarp to keep it from freezing. Store the dug soil in a wheelbarrow, someplace where it will not freeze. Use it for backfill when you plant the tree.
The most important factor in the tree’s survival once you plant it, is the length of time it spends inside as a Christmas tree.
Living trees can stay in the house for a week. If the tree spends too much time inside, it will think spring has arrived and it will be less cold-hardy when it goes back outside. If the tree buds out, it is less likely to survive.
Once inside, keep your tree away from heat sources. Put the tree in as cool a location as possible.
Make sure that it gets plenty of light.
Live trees may be decorated, but if lights are used, they must not give off any heat. The root ball should be kept evenly moist, but don’t leave it standing in water.
After Christmas, move the tree back to the unheated, sheltered area to acclimate it to outdoor temperatures.
The tree should be kept above freezing for a few days. Don’t let the root ball dry out.
When you are ready to plant, remove the straw or mulch from the planting hole. The tree should be placed in the hole so that the top of the root ball is even with the soil line.
Use the stored soil as backfill and water it well. Keep the tree watered, especially during thaws.
After the ground freezes, cover it with two to three inches of mulch. Do not mulch right up to the trunk as this can cause future problems.
As an alternative method, Michigan State University recommends for those in northern climates, to wait until spring to plant your tree. Keep the tree in a protected location such as an unheated garage.
Water the root ball periodically. Plant in the spring when you normally would.
There are multiple factors that can lead to living trees not surviving outdoors.
Larger trees are more likely to suffer from transplant shock than smaller trees. Trees dry out when they are inside.
Even once is enough to lower its chances.
Is the tree a good choice for your climate? The most likely reason for failure is that the tree was inside too long and lost its winter hardiness.
If your tree survives to spring, there are other cultural practices you can do to help your tree thrive. Mulching, irrigation, fertilization, disease, and insect control plus annual pruning to keep that Christmas tree shape are all recommended.
If you opt for a cut tree this year, there are several things you can do to make sure they last through the holiday season.
Provide plenty of fresh water and check the basin daily. Keep trees away from direct sun and other heat sources.
Monitor your tree for dryness. Run your hand across a branch — if needles are falling off, your tree is too dry and should be taken outside.
Christmas lights should be turned off when the tree is unattended.
Whatever type of tree you get this holiday season, enjoy it as part of your festivities.
Hours and programming
Have a gardening question?
Master Gardener volunteers are normally in the office 10 a.m. to noon Mondays through Fridays.
You can stop in at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Genesee County office at 420 E. Main St. in Batavia.
You can also call (585) 343-3040, ext. 127, or e-mail email@example.com.
Join us on Dec. 2 at noon via Zoom for our final Garden Talk of the year. Our Master Food Preserver volunteer, Catherine, will be presenting a new edition of “Gifts from the Kitchen.”
Garden Talk classes are free, but you do need to register at http://genesee.cce.cornell.edu/.
The Genesee County Master Gardeners will be collecting new, unwrapped books for the annual Toys for Tots campaign in conjunction with the Harvey C. Noon Legion. You can drop off books at the Genesee County Cooperative Extension office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
We will have a collection bin set up near the reception area. Book donations can be made through Dec. 6.
The Master Gardeners thank you in advance for your support. Contact Jan at (585) 343-3040 ext. 132 if you have questions.