Care of live fir trees can mean a greener holiday

Trying a live alternative to cut trees during the holiday season can be a satisfying exercise if some precautions are taken in the tree’s selection, transition and planting.

It is mid-December. That can mean only one thing: that special day is approaching. It happens but once a year. Anticipation is in the air. Children wait expectantly. There is no holding it back now.

So despite having put it off to the absolute last second, you get in your car and head out to buy the family Christmas tree. Once at the tree lot, you realize there are many more choices than just tall or shrimpy, fluffy or scraggly, and needles long or short. And then you see the cute little fir-like tree root-bound in burlap and stuffed in the back row like the lost puppy in the pound that no one ever came to claim – and you instantly fall in love.

Before you know it, you are back home explaining to your family why they will need fewer decorations this year because their holiday tree is only four foot four high (roots and all).

If not already versed in the care and feeding of a live coniferous tree, the National Christmas Tree Association offer some helpful tips on caring for trees with roots attached.

First of all, you may have noticed that living trees are quite heavy and bulky. A six foot tall balled and burlapped tree can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Be sure to ask for extra muscle help in moving the tree from place to place.

  • Depending on which type of tree you purchased, there may be some variations in its care. When in doubt, check with a reliable nursery or a Michigan State University Extension forester.
  • Hopefully prior to the ground freezing deep, you have a hole dug in your yard with an eye to your landscaping plan. Cover the hole and dirt pile with straw and mulch until you are ready to plant.
  • The tree should be stored in an unheated, sheltered area such as a garage or enclosed porch, out of the wind and sun for a few days prior to bringing it into the house.
  • Place the tree in a waterproof tub or container or wrap the root ball in plastic as the tree will need adequate water while inside. The root ball or soil should be kept slightly damp but not flooded.
  • Once inside the house, live trees may be decorated with care. Use only low-watt bulbs if any to avoid contacting the needles with heat.
  • Keep the living tree in the home for a maximum of seven to 10 days; fewer (e.g., four) if possible. Prolonged exposure to warm household temperatures will force new growth to develop on the tree and this growth is apt to freeze when the tree is transplanted outdoors after Christmas.
  • After the holiday, ease the tree back outside to the freezing weather. That is, move it to a sheltered area (such as the garage or enclosed porch) at first for several days.
  • Then plant as soon as possible.
  • Keep the burlap and strapping (unless it is plastic) intact. This keeps the root ball solid and secure.
  • If the cover is plastic, cut the bottom out of the plastic container and roll down the plastic at least half way prior to planting. Once in the hole, cutting a slice down the plastic container will free the tree roots.
  • Keep soil around the root system. Earth removed from the original hole should be backfilled around the root ball. Water well and cover with a heavy mulch. Wait till spring and generously water regularly again.
  • Stake the tree to prevent wind tipping or damage during the first growing season.

While ultimate survival is not guaranteed (transplanting trees can be tricky business even under optimal conditions) you can sleep well knowing you have done your part in celebrating a “Green” holiday by planting a renewable resource. Be sure to take photos of the tree in its first year. Maybe a few with the kids next to the tree. You’ll have the satisfaction of watching both of them grow (along with your investment in the environment). Become a Friend and then post your photos on the Michigan State University Extension Facebook page to share tips with others.