Tired of Killing Trees Every Christmas? Try a Living Christmas Tree

Reduce waste and improve your carbon footprint by selecting and replanting a living tree this holiday season.

By Sandi Schwartz | Published Oct 14, 2022 6:08 PM

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living christmas tree young couple planting christmas tree

Photo: istockphoto.com

Every holiday season, the debate over cut or artificial Christmas trees resurfaces. Both options have their pros and cons, but the true winner when it comes to sustainability and beauty is the living Christmas tree.

Tens of millions of Christmas trees are cut down each year in the United States, and many of them are simply tossed on the curb when the holiday ends. With living Christmas trees, however, you can keep your tree alive by replanting it in your yard to enjoy for years to come.

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What Is a Living Christmas Tree?

Living Christmas trees are live trees that still have their roots attached so they can continue to survive if cared for correctly. Typically, they sell as a tree in a container of some type with soil to cover the roots. Often referred to as “balled and burlapped,” these trees have large root balls bundled up in burlap or other fabric to allow for later replanting.

A living tree is a more eco-friendly choice than a typical cut tree, the latter of which will not survive after the holiday. Living Christmas trees also are sturdier, last longer, and even smell better. Once replanted outside, they offer many lasting benefits, such as shade, habitat for wildlife like birds and squirrels, and carbon sequestration to help address greenhouse gas emissions.

living christmas tree Sale of Christmas trees. Beautiful Christmas trees in pots are sold at Christmas market.

Photo: istockphoto.com

Choosing a Living Christmas Tree

When it’s time to find the perfect living tree for the holidays, it is important to consider space constraints, species, and when and where to buy a living Christmas tree.

Space Considerations

Before picking out the largest Christmas tree in the store, take a look at how much space there is to plant it in the landscape. Choose only trees that will fit comfortably in your yard. This may take some research to determine how large the tree will eventually grow. If you don’t have a yard or enough space for the tree after the holiday, there are other options, like gifting the Christmas tree plant to a friend, relative, or neighbor. With permission, you may also be able to replant it at a local school, church, or community center for others to enjoy.

Species Considerations 

Shoppers can be overwhelmed when it comes to deciding which Christmas tree species to purchase. However, sticking to native varieties is the best bet. Look for trees that will thrive in the local climate, soil type, and level of sun exposure where it will be planted.

In general, five species considered to be the best type of Christmas tree include: Douglas fir for Western states like Oregon; balsam fir in Southeastern Canada and the Northeastern U.S.; Fraser fir for the Appalachian Mountains region; Scotch pine in the Northeast, Great Lakes region, Central U.S., and Pacific Northwest; and Colorado blue spruce for the Western United States. Refer to local advice on the best living tree for your specific region.

Where and When to Buy 

The trick with living trees is timing. Plan ahead to make sure you bring home a potted Christmas tree at least one week before you want to move it indoors. A living tree will only last inside for about 10 days, so you can’t set it up and decorate it over Thanksgiving weekend. If a living Christmas tree is indoors for longer than 10 days, it can become stressed and unable to withstand the cold temperatures when replanted outdoors.

Living Christmas trees can be purchased at plant nurseries, garden stores, and home improvement centers like The Home Depot and Lowe’s. Experts recommend selecting trees with healthy colored needles and to avoid those with yellow or brown tips. The needles should also be full, firm, and not easily plucked. Finally, look for trees with a well-developed root ball and healthy branches.

Living Christmas tree being watered indoors

Photo: istockphoto.com

Caring for a Living Christmas Tree Indoors

While living Christmas trees are the most sustainable holiday choice, they require a little extra TLC compared to cut trees. When first bringing the tree home, try not to injure its roots. You can also avoid transplant shock by slowly acclimating it to the indoor environment. Keep the tree in an unheated yet sheltered area like a garage for a week or two before setting it up indoors. Water the tree periodically during this time to keep it damp but not soaked.

Before bringing the tree fully inside, vigorously shake it to help prevent Christmas tree pests from making it inside. Inspect the tree for aphids, adelgids, bark beetles, mites, spiders, and other bugs. If pests are found, treat the tree with an alternative to toxic pesticides, like diatomaceous earth.

Once indoors, place the tree in a cool location away from heat vents and heaters. It should get plenty of natural sunlight and be watered regularly, but don’t drench the soil. Some experts suggest placing ice over the top of the root ball to help water the tree slowly.

Finally, be gentle when hanging ornaments and lights on a live Christmas tree. Avoid hanging heavy ornaments on branches that could get damaged by the weight, and use small, low-temperature LED Christmas lights instead of older, heat-generating incandescent bulbs.

living christmas tree couple found perfect tree

Photo: istockphoto.com

Planting a Living Christmas Tree Outdoors

When the holiday is over, it’s time to find an ideal spot for the plantable Christmas tree to live outdoors for the rest of the year. Before planting the tree outside—especially if the ground is frozen—move it back into the garage for a few days to allow it to transition back to outdoor temperatures. Keep watering it regularly as detailed above.

One important thing to remember is that living Christmas trees need an adequate root ball to be able to survive, but they also need to be light enough to be moved around easily. A 5-foot tree should have a root ball with about a 22-inch diameter in order to survive transplanting. Smaller root balls will not provide enough moisture to keep the tree alive.

To replant the tree, first till an area 6 inches deep and four to five times the size the root ball. Then, dig a hole of the same diameter but a bit shallower than the root ball or container size. Natural burlap can remain on the ball, but remove any plastic or treated burlap. Break up the roots before placing the tree in the ground, and add soil so it is level with the top of the roots.

After planting, spread 2 to 3 inches of mulch over the ground. This helps to protect the tree from the cold weather and keep in moisture. Add plenty of water to the root ball and soil, and continue to water it regularly. Wait to fertilize the tree until spring when it has started to grow. It is important to not over-fertilize the tree during the first year until roots have become well established. Be sure to follow any other directions for your specific tree species.

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