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John Fulton

John Fulton
Former County Extension Director

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In The Backyard

Horticulture columns and tips done on a timely basis

Living Christmas Trees

Posted by John Fulton -

In many parts of the country, people celebrate Christmas with a living tree. Don't confuse a living tree with a fresh cut tree. Living trees still have their roots, usually wrapped in a ball of soil and burlap. The whole point is to add the plant to the landscape after the holidays.

That's a nice idea, but it's easier said then done. If you choose to make a living tree part of your holiday tradition this year, there are several points to consider.

Some species just won't live outdoors. Norfolk Island Pines are common evergreens, but not hardy at all to Illinois winters.

Additionally, many species are shipped outside of their natural area and may not be adaptable to your property. Many of the firs fall in this category. It may not be winter's cold that does them in but summer's heat. Check to make sure the species you buy is suited to our area. Buying a plant from a local garden center or nursery is added insurance.

The tree should be stored in an unheated, sheltered area such as a garage or porch, out of the wind and sun where the needles can dry out. Try not to expose the tree to freezing temperatures at any time as this may send the plant into a dormant state, only to be revived when brought indoors.

Remember that the tree will need adequate water. The root ball or soil should be kept slightly damp, but not flooded. Wrap the root ball of a balled tree in plastic, or place it in a large tub while it is in the house.

Most live trees aren't that large because it would take a large root ball to maintain the tree. Roots generally aren't heavy, but soil is. A root ball that is 3 feet in diameter may weight more than 100 pounds.

Move the tree into the home for only two to three days. Try not to keep the plant in the house longer than one week. Live trees may be decorated, but do so with care. Use lights that do not give off any heat, so needle tissue is not damaged. Avoid heavy ornaments that might bend branches.

When it's time to move the tree back outside, do not take it directly from a warm house into freezing temperatures. Instead let it become accustomed to the winter weather over a period of several days. A good rule of thumb is to move it from the house to the garage, then to a sheltered area and finally to the planting site.

As long as the ground is not frozen, the tree may be replanted. The spot to be dug may be mulched to prevent freezing. Plant the tree as soon as possible to minimize stress.

Do not remove the burlap and strapping, unless it is made of plastic. This keeps the root ball solid and secure. If the root ball is covered with plastic, cut the cord and roll down the plastic at least halfway prior to plantings.

Water with warm water a couple times the first two weeks. Mulch the soil around the tree thoroughly to allow roots an opportunity to grow in soil that isn't quite frozen. Adding manures or fresh compost may help keep the soil from freezing immediately.

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