Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Given the recent loss of many area trees, has your household ever considered decorating a live tree for Christmas, one that can be planted in your landscape? It takes a little planning, but why not try it and get a head start on replacing trees you may have lost to the ice storm?
Most sources encourage homeowners interested in live Christmas trees to dig the hole sometime in the fall before the ground freezes. Fortunately, the ground is not quite frozen in most places in central Illinois, despite the recent ice storm and frigid temperatures. It is still possible to dig a hole now, fill it with mulch or straw, and store the soil in the garage or shed until ready to plant.
The first question to consider is what type of tree do you want? We typically think of pines, firs, and spruces when talking about Christmas trees, but when choosing a live tree, there are some additional options. Live specimens of arborvitaes, yews, and even hollies can be decorated for Christmas and then planted outdoors.
Whatever tree you choose, do your homework and research whether it will tolerate the ever-changing environment of central Illinois. It stands to mention that not all of the species we use as cut Christmas trees can survive in our landscapes. Many, such as the firs, are better suited to the colder, higher altitudes from which they are native. In general they suffer through our hot, humid summers, and a stressed tree is far more likely to develop disease and insect problems than a tree in the proper environment.
Scotch pines are my favorite choice for a cut Christmas tree. But as much as I love them, I won't plant one in my yard. They are very susceptible to the pine wilt caused by the pine wilt nematode, which is spread by the pine sawyer beetle. Many Midwestern nurseries no longer sell Scotch pines because of this susceptibility. They can usually survive long enough to be grown as a cut Christmas tree though.
Another factor in choosing a live Christmas tree is mature size. Generally the tag on the tree is not lying where size in concerned. It appears to me that most people ignore the tag on the Colorado Blue Spruce. This tree will achieve heights of 45 to 60 feet at maturity! Yet many people insist on planting it right next to their house or driveway.
It looks cute for awhile, like a perfect little Christmas tree, at least until it begins to grow up. Soon it is overpowering the house, or blocking the driveway, and people take desperate measures like removing the bottom branches or removing the top of the tree to try and force it into submission. Usually this drastic pruning ruins the shape of the tree, and it never recovers and becomes an eyesore until someone finally puts it out of its misery.
If you love the look of Colorado Blue Spruce but need something more proportionate to your landscape, try the cultivars 'Fat Albert' or 'Mission Blue' that are about 15 feet tall at maturity.
One bonus or drawback to having a live Christmas tree, depending on your viewpoint, is that you can't keep the tree indoors for more than a week under ideal circumstances. Keeping a live Christmas tree alive depends on not letting it break dormancy. Done properly, the tree is basically asleep while it plays its role as your Christmas tree, and is later planted in the yard, like nothing ever happened.
Selecting a live Christmas tree is one time where I think it's not worth the risk to buy a bargain tree. Oftentimes bargain or clearance trees are rootbound and otherwise stressed specimens left over from the most recent growing season. Subjecting it to being brought indoors only to be taken back outdoors may be too stressful for it. Pick a tree that looks generally healthy and vigorous. Also, a tree that has foliage in proportion to its root ball or container will have a much better chance of survival when planted after the holidays. A smaller tree planted in a container is generally easier to manage indoors than a large balled and burlapped one. Plus they are usually less expensive and have a better chance of survival.
Your live Christmas tree needs to be gradually introduced to your home to keep it in dormancy. This can be done by placing it in a sheltered but unheated space such as a porch or garage for about three to four days. During this time, it is a good idea to spray the tree with an antidessicant, available at many garden centers. This helps maintain moisture in the tree's needles while it is inside, where forced-air heat creates a very dry environment. Any of us that experience dry skin in the winter know about this already!
When placing your tree indoors, try and locate it as far from heat sources as possible. An ideal place would be in the coolest part of the room. Avoid decorating with lights that generate a lot of heat, as this may damage the tree and even start to bring it out of dormancy. Keep the root ball moist at all times, being sure to protect your floors from water damage. Do not use any fertilizers when watering, as this too may encourage the tree to break dormancy.
Do not keep the tree indoors for more than about a week, to keep it from breaking dormancy. After that, reverse the process by storing the tree in a protected but unheated spot for another three to four days, unless it is extremely cold, in which case it is best to wait until a relatively mild winter day. Remember to keep the roots moist during this time.
Plant the tree in your pre-dug hole, which should resemble a shallow bowl rather than a hole. Water and mulch the tree well to give it the best chance at survival. With any luck, your family will have a living remembrance of Christmas 2006 and a replacement for at least one tree lost to the ice storm! For more information on proper tree planting techniques, check out tips from U of I Extension at: http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hometips/treeplanting.html.