Q: I’ve always felt a little guilty about the way evergreens are cut down for Christmas, then tossed away a few weeks later. This year I want to buy a live Christmas tree and plant it in my yard after the holidays. What’s the best way to care for these trees? — Gail Madden, Mount Lebanon, Pa.
A: The urge to spare a tree is strong, but buying a live Christmas tree will likely turn you into a grinch — and it won’t do much to help the environment, either. According to Christmas tree farmers, only about half these trees survive the holidays. Sheltering a live tree indoors poses several challenges: A 6-foot tree should have about a 24-inch root ball and will weigh about 250 pounds; you must be vigilant about watering (indoors, trees dry out quickly); time is definitely not on your side — after 10 days, you should get it back outside and in the ground. That’s a short life for a Christmas tree and extra stress for you, just to plant an evergreen. Also, unless your property is quite large, you’ll run out of space in a few years; eventually, all the popular Christmas trees become huge.
I recommend buying a Christmas tree from a local tree farm; it’s more convenient and ecologically sound. Cutting farm-grown Christmas trees is no worse for the environment than harvesting a field of broccoli. I think it’s better, because these evergreens remain in the ground for 8 to 10 years, during which time there’s usually no cultivation and thus less soil erosion. Alternatively, you could grow your own trees to cut. Evergreen seedlings are inexpensive and take about 8 years to reach harvest size. They require little care beyond mulching, irrigation, and pruning in midsummer for a more compact shape. If you’re set on a live tree, there are a few tips to improve its post holiday prospects. Dig a hole now, before the ground freezes solid, making it a few inches wider than, but the same depth as, the root ball (the planted tree should rest at ground level). Fill the hole with dry leaves or other mulch, and cover the dirt for backfilling so it won’t freeze before you’re ready to plant.
A tree from a local grower stands a much better chance at success; trees sent long distances often have smaller root balls to make shipping easier, but smaller root balls lower the survival rate. Let the tree acclimate to warmer indoor conditions by resting it in the garage for two or three days. Do this again on its trip back outdoors. Set the tree in a tub big enough for you to water it well without fear of making a mess. Water it a little every day, but don’t let the root ball stand in water. Be true to your original purpose: When its 10 days of indoor duty have passed, start your Tannenbaum on its way back outside to your garden.