Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2000
Regional Report

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Evergreen trees can live for many years in containers and double as Christmas trees, too.

Living Christmas Trees

Oh, Tannenbaum! As the icon of the holiday season, a decorated tree graces our homes with the fresh fragrance of winter. Ornaments spin and shimmer, reflecting memories of Christmas past. Every year, millions of young conifer trees surrender their lives for this fleeting moment of glory. Cut trees are expensive to purchase and, at the end of the festivities, end up as landfill. There is a solution, however; it's possible, even easy, to keep an evergreen tree alive in a container year after year to bring indoors as your "living" Christmas tree.

Going "Live"

There are several excellent reasons to choose a live tree over a fresh-cut tree. Living Christmas trees are economical, the one-time cost ranges from $25 to $175. They provide the most precious gift of all during the holiday season: time not spent shopping for the "perfect tree." Most families who keep them feel that a living Christmas tree becomes a tradition, cherished year after year.

Growing in Containers

As a professional gardener at the demonstration gardens of a well-known West Coast lifestyle publication for over 15 years, I cared for and maintained a "fleet" of various conifers in containers. I kept these trees in the on-site nursery when they were not on display. The following is what I learned from hands-on experience.

The Best Container Tree

There are many choices for the best tree. Here's a list of some of my favorite slow-growing conifers suitable for growing in containers along the West Coast: Noble fir (Abies procera) has short needles with open branches. Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) has short needles but does not have a strong branch structure for hanging heavy ornaments. Deodara cedar (Cedrus deodar) has short needles and a drooping branch habit. The dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca) has short needles on a conical, bushy branch structure.

Choosing a Container

Containers for living Christmas trees should be large enough for roots to grow. A 16-inch-diameter pot is the minimum size to use. Prices vary for containers, so shop around. Remember, the overall height of your tree will include the height of the pot, plus the length of the trunk, so a 6-foot tree may end up 8 1/2 feet tall, including the pot and saucer.

Heavier than plastic containers, terra cotta pots work well because they absorb salts and minerals from the water; however, plants grown in terra cotta require more water than those grown in plastic containers. Terra cotta is also more expensive to purchase than plastic. Whichever pot you use, a large drainage hole at the bottom is essential.

Potting It

When potting up your Christmas tree, leave a 6-inch-deep lip between the soil and the top of the container to allow for watering. A container of this size will be heavy once it's filled with soil and tree, so consider using a pot with casters, which will be easier to move indoors. A fast-draining, organically enriched soil is perfect for most conifers. I use a mixture that's 1 part garden loam, 1 part river sand, and 1 part organic compost. Before potting your tree, place a piece of plastic screen over the drainage hole to keep soil in and insect pests out.

Bringing the Tree Indoors

After scrubbing the outside of the pot to remove soil and debris, open the front door and roll her in. Place the tree in a bright spot away from heater vents, frequently opening doors, and drafts. Never place a living tree near a fireplace. Plastic sheeting under the tree will protect the carpet or the floor. Set the tree, pot, and saucer, on 1- to 2-inch wooden blocks for maximum air circulation.

Indoor Care Tips

A simple method to "slow"-water the tree while it's inside is to empty two ice cube trays onto the surface of the soil daily. Decorate the tree with small lights, as they produce less heat than the larger bulbs. Keep the tree indoors for no more than 2 weeks to avoid needle drop and stressing the tree.

Container Tree Tips

Conifers in containers will need transplanting approximately every 2 to 3 years. Here's how to do it: In the early spring before active growth begins, lay the container on its side and slide the tree out of the pot. Shave away 1 inch of the root ball all around with a shovel or old kitchen knife. Place fresh soil in the bottom of the container, set the tree into position, and fill in the sides with fresh potting soil. Water well.

Pruning and Care Tips

When growth begins in earnest in spring, prune the new growth by half to maintain a cone shape and to increase bushiness. Remove errant branches throughout the growing season. Fertilize monthly with fish emulsion and keep the soil evenly moist through the active growing season, but allow it to dry between waterings after growth slows in the summer and fall.

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