Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Middle South
December, 2007
Regional Report

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Evergreens come in a fascinating array of shapes, sizes, and colors, as this nursery display attests.

Choosing and Planting a Living Christmas Tree

I love the tradition of displaying a living tree during the holidays, then planting it outdoors. I remember my parents planting future Christmas trees and watching them grow along with us. It's a perfect excuse to embellish your landscape.

Four years ago I convinced my husband that we should get a live tree. (Convincing him was no small task; the balled-and-burlapped tree was 5 feet tall and he wanted an 8-foot Christmas tree to fill our front entry.) We chose a fraser fir because it was pretty, had a nice aroma, and most of the trees on the lot were frasers, and because the proprietor told us that Western North Carolina is famous for this species.

Now a dead fraser fir tree adorns our brush pile, a relic of that first Christmas in this house. The tree's demise wasn't due to improper planting, lack of water, or any other fault of ours. It was due, we learned too late, to the fact that in this region fraser firs grow at altitudes of 3000-plus feet, struggling at lower altitudes. The Norway spruce we planted in its place the following Christmas is thriving.

Following is a list of some types of trees to consider for different parts of our region. But before you start shopping for a potted or balled-and-burlapped tree, there are a few things that you should keep in mind about displaying, maintaining, and planting a living Christmas tree.

Live trees should be kept indoors for no more than a week. If you prefer to keep your Christmas tree up until the crocuses start to bloom, consider purchasing a cut tree for indoors, and display your live tree on a cool porch. Or plant your new tree immediately and decorate it outdoors.

Before you choose the biggest specimen, consider the weight of the tree and how you'll transport it home. In this case, logistics mean that smaller is probably better; plus, the smaller the tree, the better chance it has of surviving transplant shock. Consider the mature size of the tree, as well as the color and form and how it will fit in your landscape. If you don't have room for a large tree, find a school, community garden, or park that might like a donated tree.

Transport, Set-Up, and Holiday Care
Protect the tree during transport to prevent wind burn. Carry the tree by the rootball or container, not the trunk, to avoid damaging the roots. Once you get it home, keep the tree in a cool, sheltered location for several days. This will help it transition to the warmer indoor environment. In the meantime, dig the planting hole. The hole should be two to three times as wide but slightly shallower than the depth of the rootball. Cover the hole with a sheet of plywood (for safety), and cover the backfill soil with mulch and a tarp (to keep it from freezing).

Bring the tree indoors and set it in a large container or bucket. Keep the soil moist, but don't allow the rootball to sit in water. Use a turkey baster to remove excess water in the container if necessary. Surprisingly, a living tree needs less water than a cut one.

Planting and Beyond
After the holidays move the tree back to that cool, sheltered location for several days to a week to help it readjust to the cold. Then plant the tree so that the top of the rootball sits a few inches above the soil line so water will drain away from the trunk. Use the soil you excavated as backfill -- don't replace it with compost-enriched garden soil or the tree's anchor roots may remained confined to the planting hole and not extend into the native soil. Water the tree during and after planting. Use a soaker hose circled around the tree, or let a hose dribble water slowly, moving it to cover the entire planting hole.

Choose the Right Tree
You may not have a large selection of trees to choose from since most nurseries are winding down for the season. Consult with knowledgeable staff and read plant tags. Look for named varieties that offer the traits you desire -- with mature size a primary concern.

In general, pine species are adaptable to a range of conditions and are easy to establish.

Black pine (Pinus thunbergii). Reaches a height of 40 to 80 feet with a spreading habit. Grayish white buds are striking against dark foliage. Consider 'Thunderhead', which grows just 10 feet tall with a pleasing upright shape.

Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). Native tree that grows 50 to 100 feet tall and 20 to 40 feet wide. Prefers fertile, moist, well-drained soil. Best in cooler parts of our region. 'Fastigiata' has a narrower, more columnar form.

Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris). Grows 40 to 70 tall and 15 to 30 feet wide with blue-green, twisted needles. Best for cooler parts of our region. Look for compact varieties, such as 'Bonna', which tops out at about 10 feet at maturity.

Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana). Grows to 60 feet tall and 10 to 30 feet wide. Tolerates poor, dry, heavy clay soils where other pines will not grow. Hardy throughout our region.

All firs have soft, flattened needles that vary from 3/4 inch to 2 inches in length, depending on the species. They tend to be slow-growing compared to pines, and prefer loamy soils over heavy clay.

Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). A beautiful ornamental tree with a classic Christmas tree shape. Grows 40 to 70 feet tall. Native to the Appalachian Mountains at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia; struggles at lower elevations. Requires excellent drainage.

Silver fir (Abies alba). Slow growing, but may eventually reach 100 feet in height. Prefers moist soil. 'Pyramidalis' grows 15 to 25 feet tall and has especially attractive glossy green needles with a tight columnar form that widens with age. Suitable throughout our region.

White fir (Abies concolor). Also called concolor fir. Native to the western United States. Generally reaches 30 to 50 feet tall but can reach 100 feet. Needles are 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 inches long, silvery blue in color, and curved upwards along the twig. 'Glenmore' is more compact than the species. 'Candicans' has especially striking silver-blue needles. Best in cooler parts of our region.

Spruces have short, stiff needles arranged all around the branch, similar to a bottle brush, and are suitable for the cooler parts of our region.

Norway spruce (Picea abies). Grows 40 to 60 feet tall and 25 to 30 feet wide. Relatively fast growing once established. Pyramidal form with deep green foliage. As the tree ages, the branches begin to droop gracefully. 'Cincinata' reaches 10 to 12 feet at maturity. 'Clanbrassiliana' reaches 5 to 10 feet.

White spruce (Picea glauca). Native to the northern U.S. Tall, narrow form at maturity, reaching a height of up to 100 feet. 'North Star' grows to a height of 10 to 12 feet. 'Conica' (also known as dwarf Alberta spruce) is a popular landscape plant with dense, light green foliage. Very slow growing (2 to 4 inches per year), eventually reaching 10 feet. 'Black Hills' (Picea glauca var. densata) grows 20 to 25 feet tall and is more tolerant of heat (zones 2-8).

Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens). Native to the Rocky Mountains. Grows 30 to 60 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide. Dense blue-green to silvery blue needles. 'Fat Albert' grows into a perfect, 10-foot-tall pyramid. 'Iseli Fastigiate' has a narrow, columnar habit and reaches 10 to 15 feet. 'Baby Blue Eyes' grows 10 to 15 feet tall. 'Foxtail' has shown more tolerance to heat and humidity than other varieties and reaches a height of 10 feet.

Cedars and Arborvitae
The common name "cedar" is confusing since it can refer to plants in several genera.

Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Native tree that grows 20 to 50 feet high and 8 to 15 feet wide with scale-like foliage. Tolerates drought once established. Very adaptable, suitable for all parts of our region. Good for screens and hedges; may be sheared or pruned to keep more compact. Foliage may turn brown/bronze in exposed areas. Blue berries on female trees. 'Concorcor' (also called Emerald Sentinel) resists bronzing; this variety won the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Gold Medal Plant Award in 1997.

American arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis). Also called northern white cedar. Broad, pyramidal, 25- to 40-foot-tall tree. Scale-like foliage is bright green above and pale green underneath. Very popular for windbreaks and screens; may be sheared or pruned to keep more compact. Subject to winter browning on exposed sites. Zones 3-8.

'Pyramidalis' is a tall, slender, compact grower, reaching 15 to 25 feet tall with a spread of 3 to 5 feet. 'Techny' is very resistant to winter and drought damage with a mature height of 12 to 15 feet. 'Emerald' keeps its rich color throughout the winter. 'Green Giant' is a fast-growing hybrid between Thuja plicata and T. standishii with bright green foliage.

Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara). Grows 40 to 70 feet tall after 30 to 40 years. Attractive tree with short blue-green needles; branches droop gracefully at the tips. Good for warmer parts of our region (zones 7 to 9).

Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). Fast-growing member of the cypress family reaching 100 or more feet tall in its native habitat. Branches grow upward then droop at the tips. Foliage often turns bronze in winter. 'Yoshino' is very popular and bronzes just slightly in winter. 'Radicans' has bluish green foliage. 'Black Dragon' has very dark green, almost black, foliage. Hardy in zones 5 to 9.

Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) grows 50 to 60 feet tall with dense, finely textured, scale-like foliage. Thrives in hot and dry conditions. 'Carolina Sapphire' has steel blue foliage and grows 20 to 30 feet tall. 'Clemson Greenspire' is similar in height but has grass-green foliage. Hardy in zones 7 to 9.

Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii). This 60- to 70-foot-tall tree has been widely planted as a fast-growing hedge or screen. Dense branches and fine, feathery foliage. Hardy in zones 6 to 9, this tree will grow throughout our region. Some fungal diseases are becoming more common as the tree's popularity increases.

Local retailers are selling Lawson's false cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Elwoodii') and Italian stone pine (Pinus pinea) as tabletop trees. The former is hardy throughout our region; the latter is hardy in only the warmest parts of our region and produces edible pine nuts. Treat these small trees as you would their larger kin, keeping them cool and planting outdoors as soon as possible.

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