The debate over buying real versus fake Christmas trees has become almost as cliché as choosing paper or plastic, boxers or briefs. Whichever side you are on, there are a lot of facts that are lost in the debate. Of course, you don’t have to pick a side, you could decorate a live or cut tree one year and an artificial one the next. You could also have both, as my family does. Full disclosure: my family has owned and operated a Christmas tree farm in upstate New York for the past 60 years, so I likely have a bias towards live and cut trees.
A live tree refers to any tree that is grown as a crop on a farm or plantation for the purposes of either being cut down (a cut tree) and used as a Christmas tree, or a tree that has its roots intact (a living tree), and has been dug out of the ground with the intent of transplanting it into another location at another time. A fake tree is, of course, any artificial tree made of any synthetic material. Fake trees are not grown, but manufactured.
If you opt for a cut or living tree, the care and culture of it while it is in your home is critical for its prolonged use, and possibly its future life in your landscape.
Bringing a cut tree inside the home
Your cut Christmas tree is going to be a part of your family for several weeks. It is important that you prepare a proper home for it. Even though your tree does not have roots anymore, it will still take up water and respire as if it did for a short time, and you can help to prolong it. Clear an area for your tree that is away from any heat source such as a fireplace, wood stove, radiator or register. These speed up the drying out process of your tree and reduce its useful life as well as increase its chance of becoming a fire hazard.
If you cut the tree yourself, you can take it inside right away. If the tree has been bound with twine or subject to the elements for a while after being cut, you may need a period of acclimation for your tree. A garage is an excellent place for this process.
Cut the twine around the tree so that the branches can settle. This also allows a chance for any chipmunk or other animal that may have taken temporary residence in your tree to scamper away. Many people opt to cut the baling twine off of the tree after they get it in the house for ease of getting it through the door.
This is understandable, but may cause problems. It is better to cut it loose and let it settle and allow for any ice or snow to melt and any field debris and dead needles to fall out before bringing it in. The tree can then be loosely bound to help you get it in the house.
Make sure that your tree’s stand has an adequate water reservoir. Once your tree is up, check and fill it as often as needed. Your tree may drink as much as 1 gal. of water per day at first, and then reduce its consumption as the days and weeks progress.
If your tree ceases to take up water, and you still require its services prior to Christmas, it may be necessary to remove it from its stand and give it a fresh cut along the bottom. The sap may have clogged up the tree's pores and blocked its ability to take up water. A fresh cut can help encourage the tree’s uptake of water again.
Uses for your cut tree after the holidays
Once your tree has executed its duty faithfully, it can still serve useful purposes that will keep it out of a landfill. A discarded Christmas tree can become shelter and a habitat for a variety of birds and wildlife. You can stake it up in the yard and hang a bird feeder from it. You could also just toss it aside and let the animals find it themselves.
Christmas tree branches can be cut up and placed over top of over-wintering perennials. The added insulation can help get them through the winter and provide structure to collect falling snow if you live in a northern climate, which adds protection from freezing temperatures.
The trunk of your tree can be used as a fence post or stake and the branches could be added to a compost pile. If you are so inclined, a formerly loved Christmas tree may add an element of whimsy to your garden.
Care of a living tree in the home
If you cannot tolerate the thought of killing a tree for your holiday celebration and want to purchase a living tree so that you can plant it in your yard later, there are a series of steps that will help to make sure your tree survives. Living, coniferous evergreen trees, such as a blue spruce (Picea pungens), Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) or white pine (Pinus strobus), are not conducive for prolonged life inside your home.
They need to be acclimated to your home’s environment prior to being brought inside, and then can only stay a few days to a week so that they do not break dormancy and begin to grow inside. If possible, bring the tree into a garage or unheated porch for several days prior to being brought in and then repeat the process on its way out.
To protect your home’s flooring, put the root ball or nursery container into a larger plastic tub, bag or set a tarp or blanket on the location where the tree is to be placed.
Before you bring it in the house is the time to prepare its home for after the holidays. It is good practice to dig the planting hole before you bring the tree inside. You don’t want the tree’s roots exposed to freezing temperatures by being above ground once it is outside. If you cannot properly plant the tree until the spring, putting the tree’s roots in the ground and heavily mulching will keep it alive and healthy until it can be planted.
Cultural practices inside
Like a cut Christmas tree, keep a living one away from heat sources as well. It is key to avoid tricking the tree into thinking that it is now spring, and therefore time to break bud and start growing for the year. Do not allow the tree to dry out, but do not over-water. Unlike a cut tree, which should be taking up a large volume of water over the course of its time in your stand, a living tree should be moistened before coming into the house, but then watered only if there is risk of the roots drying out.
To determine this, insert a knife or other object four to six inches into the root ball and check to see if the soil is moist. Do not rely on the apparent moisture of the outside of the roots.
You can keep a living tree inside the home for longer periods if you keep it in a cool environment. An unheated porch can potentially host a living tree for several weeks of the holiday season. If you are inclined to keep your home on the cool side, it too will allow you to keep your living tree inside the home longer.
Post-holiday care of your Christmas tree
After you have acclimated your tree back to colder temperatures, take the tree out to the pre-dug hole. If the ground is not frozen, plant the tree as you would in the spring or fall. If the ground is frozen, it is critical to keep those roots insulated. Mulch around the tree’s base with pine bark, straw, wood chips or anything you can mound at least 3 to 4-in. thick. The excess can be removed in the spring, and aesthetics should not be the concern at this time. Water the tree as soon as it is practical. If the roots are dry and allowed to freeze, there is a good chance your tree will not emerge out of the winter alive and well.
Other living tree options for growing inside
If you want a live or living tree, but cannot use a traditional evergreen tree, you have several options, many of which are suitable houseplants year-round in any climate. The Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is an excellent substitute and can be grown indoors. It is not an actual pine tree, but it is a coniferous evergreen, and can be decorated and lit up for the holidays just like any other traditional tree. They are quite common in garden centers and anywhere houseplants are sold.
Rosemary plants (Rosmarinus officinalis), which are often pruned into a conical shape, are becoming a popular alternative and can live on inside the home for many years as an addition to your kitchen garden. Many other herb plants can be used as well.
There is no law that says your Christmas tree has to have needles. A jade tree (Crassula ovata), an arboricola (Schefflera arboricola) or any member of the fig family (Ficus sp.) could be made jolly with the addition of some lights and ornaments, and return to service as your household foliage plant after the holidays.
Growing your own Christmas trees
Starting your own mini Christmas tree plantation can be a fun way to ensure you will have a supply of varieties you like for many years. You will not be able to raise them indoors (if using traditional evergreen species), but you could get them started inside.
Evergreen seedlings are often plentiful in early spring. If you buy them in bulk, they can be obtained for as little as a dollar or two per piece. Create a potting mix that is acidic and drains well and pot each one individually in a gallon-sized nursery container. Water them as you would a house plant, until it is warm enough to place them outside.
They can spend their first full year in the pot. Allow them to go dormant in the winter by placing them in a garage or by burying the pot for the winter to protect their roots. Seedlings can be planted in the field (or your yard) in early spring. Allow 8 to 10 ft. between each tree and shear them in mid-summer to keep their growth compact and conical.
Christmas trees are a crop, just like corn, pumpkins or berries. They are planted to be harvested. Because they stay in the ground an average of seven to 10 years each, they do a lot of good for the environment.
They help to control erosion, act as a wind block, help to clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. And, since Christmas tree farmers are business people, for every tree that they sell, they will be planting at least one, and maybe five to 10 trees to replace those sold.
Buying a real tree helps the environment and supports small agri-businesses in your community. The process of selecting and cutting down a tree or taking one home with its roots intact can also be a fulfilling family event to add to the celebration of the holidays.