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By Tony Bratsch
University of Missouri Extension
A living Christmas tree, if handled correctly before, during and after the holiday season can also provide many useful years in the landscape. As a bonus, it becomes a living reminder of the season’s events as it grows through the years. When compared to a cut tree, a living tree does require extra effort in handling, but is well-worth the time.
Often nurseries carry a limited selection of adapted live trees as well as cut trees. Some Christmas tree farms will also dig a tree for you. Trees are sold either as a containerized plant, or balled and burlapped (B&B). For a live nursery tree, expect to pay twice or more what you might for a comparable cut tree.
Success in post-Christmas planting of a living tree is improved by following a few handling guidelines. Always keep in mind that the tree is dormant, and exposure to warm indoor temperatures causes the tree to “soften-up” and in some cases begin to grow. Thus the key to success is to acclimate the tree both before and after it leaves the indoors and to limit exposure to warm household temperatures to prevent breaking dormancy.
After you purchase the tree, keep it in a cool, unheated shed or garage for several days before bringing it inside. A cold tree immediately brought into a warm environment will break dormancy more quickly. Before bringing the tree in, consider spraying it with an anti-desiccant such as ‘Wilt-PrufTM. This will help the tree to better tolerate dry, climate-controlled indoor air, reducing water need and needle drop.
Once indoors, set the tree in a cool part of the room, away from heaters, vents or fireplaces. If possible, decrease the temperature of the room to 68 to 70 degrees, and even lower at night. Trees should be kept inside no longer than 7 to 12 days, and in warmer environments only 4 to 5 days.
It is important to keep roots moist. For containerized trees, a saucer can be placed under it to hold water. Both containerized and B&B trees can be set into larger containers such as a galvanized tub to help support the tree. Pack moist peat, sawdust or wet newspaper around the root ball to help keep it moist. Bricks or stone can be positioned under the ball to keep the tree straight and in place. Remember B&B trees can be heavy, and a furniture dolly and/or extra help may be needed to move and place it.
When you are ready to remove the tree, reverse the above procedure, and let it adjust to cooler temperatures for a few days to a week in a cold garage or outdoor building before transplanting it outdoors. Reapply the anti-desiccant. It helps to time the planting with relatively moderate winter weather, avoiding sub-freezing temperatures and cold windy periods. Do not plant the tree too deeply, leaving the top of the ball or container about an inch above the soil level. Make the width of the hole at least twice the diameter of the ball. Be sure to cut and remove all strings on the ball, and for containers, inspect for circled roots and cut them. Keep the tree straight, and backfill and firm soil carefully to avoid air pockets. Water the tree well. A piece of burlap or other non-plastic protective covering (such as garden row covers) wrapped around tree limbs can help protect it as it adjusts to the cold of January.
Compared to cut trees, a living tree not only meets the short term need for indoor display, but is also is a long-term investment for the home landscape. For more information about planting and caring for your landscape plants, check out the many horticulture publications available through your local University of Missouri Extension office, or visit online, with most titles downloadable for free: http://extension.missouri.edu/ publications/.