How to Plant a Live Christmas Tree

Person selecting a live Christmas tree plant from a nursery. Photo by Susie Cushner

Here’s how to prepare, select, and plan to plant a Christmas tree in your backyard to keep it alive after the holiday season.

A faux Christmas tree that you can pack away after each holiday season is a huge convenience. But, there are a handful of benefits that come with choosing a live Christmas tree. Then, after the holiday season ends, you can plant your Christmas tree in your backyard. Kip Anderson, the gardener on the PBS’s The Victory Garden, show you how to turn a seasonal focal point into a handsome new planting step by step.

Can You Plant a Christmas Tree After Using It?

You can plant your Christmas tree in your backyard if the root ball is intact. To keep your live Christmas tree after the holiday season ends, start preparing to plant it around Thanksgiving, so that you can dig a hole for it before it gets colder.

How to Plant a Christmas Tree

1. Prep the Ground

Person digging a hole about 2 times bigger than the tree’s root ball to prepare for a Christmas tree plant. Photo by Susie Cushner

A week before Thanksgiving, Kip Anderson arrives at the Evartses’ home in Concord, Massachusetts, shovel in hand. He digs a hole roughly 2 feet in diameter and 18 inches deep, in preparation for the 4-foot tree that will eventually be planted there. Anderson puts the removed soil in plastic buckets and hauls it into the garage, where it won’t freeze.

As a planting rule of thumb, the hole should be dug about the depth of the root ball and 1.5 to 2 times the diameter. “If you know the size of your tree,” says Anderson, “don’t be afraid to dig a bigger hole. It can’t hurt.”

2. Insulating, Protecting the Christmas Tree Planting Hole

A bag full of fallen leaves to insulate the hole for the Christmas tree plant. Photo by Susie Cushner

After he’s finished digging, he insulates the hole to keep its walls from freezing by stuffing it with a plastic bag full of fallen leaves. The last step of November preparation is a safety precaution: covering the hole with a sturdy board to prevent the possibility of someone tripping or tumbling in.

3. Tree Shopping at the Nursery

Live Christmas trees lined up at a nursery. Photo by Susie Cushner

Just before Christmas, Anderson visits a local nursery. The store is offering three species of living evergreens: white spruce, Colorado blue spruce, and Fraser fir. He examines the trees for freshness; they should have a healthy green appearance and the needles should be flexible and not come off in the hand as you gently stroke a branch. In addition, the root ball should be well watered. Anderson reads labels to verify the species of trees and their appropriate growing conditions.

Finally, he chooses a 4-foot Fraser fir, prized for its robust fragrance and silvery green needles. The tree’s burlap-wrapped root ball indicates it was grown in the ground and dug up for transport, as opposed to being a container-grown variety. Either works fine as a Christmas tree.

4. Caring for a Living Christmas Tree

A decorated live Christmas tree indoors placed in a decorative basket. Photo by Susie Cushner

Setting up a living Christmas tree is as simple as carrying it indoors and keeping it watered daily. To help the tree retain moisture, before bringing it in the house Anderson sprays the needles with an organic solution of pine oil suspended in water.

The anti-transpirant treatment partially blocks the microscopic pores, called stomata, through which the tree “exhales.” Both container-grown and balled-and-burlapped varieties need to be placed in watertight vessels or on large saucers in a cool location away from heat sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces, and heating vents. A decorative basket or fabric wrap completes the setup.

5. Transitioning the Tree to Cold Weather

Person cutting away wire basket around the root ball of the Christmas tree plant to prepare to place it in the hole. Photo by Susie Cushner

A week after Christmas, Anderson moves the tree to the garage before transferring it to the planting hole. Keeping it here for a day or two helps the fir acclimate to the cold. The yard is now frozen solid, but under its protective cover of leaves, the hold is still workable.

He cuts away the wire basket around the root ball, loosens the burlap, and positions the tree in the hole. “You want the point where the root ball meets the trunk to be slightly higher than the natural grade, because there will be some settling,” he says.

6. Safeguarding the Tree Against Freeze

A live christmas tree planted in the backyard. Photo by Susie Cushner

Next Anderson shovels in the saved backfill. “Tamp it in well with the end of your shovel; if air gets in during winter, it will literally freeze-dry the roots,” he cautions. He waters well—”really soak it down”—and then mulches with the ground bark. “The mulch helps avoid wide fluctuations in soil temperature and conserves moisture,” he says. “And, in the same manner as with a shrub or tree planted in the spring, it should be watered regularly thereafter.” Ignoring the biting cold this brisk January day, he stands back to admire his work. “In five years,” he says proudly, “this should be an eight-foot tree.”

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