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Christmas Trees Need Proper Care
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill


Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.

December 9, 2012

When it comes to Christmas trees, there are two basic choices – living or artificial. Although artificial trees have their place, and manufactures are producing some startlingly realistic versions, I’m going to focus on the living types.

Living Christmas trees can be further divided into those that are cut and those growing in pots. Let’s start off with cut trees.

Stayin’ alive

Cut Christmas trees are still alive when you purchase them. Having their roots cut away when they are harvested will kill them, of course. But it’s our job to keep them on life support and in good shape for as long as possible.

Life support means keeping water moving into the tree. A tree growing in the ground uses it roots to absorb the water it needs from the soil. When the roots are cut away, the surface of the cut trunk can still absorb water if it’s put in water. A Christmas tree is like a giant cut flower, and we take care of it much the same way.

First, you must make sure the base of the trunk can absorb water as efficiently as possible. To ensure this, it’s best to recut the base of the tree trunk when you get it home and immediately put it into a large bucket of warm water. If the cut end of the trunk is exposed to the air for a period of time before you put it in water, the cut surface can become blocked and not absorb water efficiently.

Most Christmas trees are harvested well in advance of being sold and have become somewhat dehydrated. Trees that are harvested at local tree farms are the exception. To rehydrate your tree, leave it in the big bucket of water outside in a shady location for a few days after you bring it home. Replenish the water as necessary – trees can drink a lot the first few days. You can even spray it down once or twice as long as it is dry when you bring it indoors.

Once the tree is inside, place it immediately into a tree stand with a generous water reservoir. Check the stand every day without fail, and add more water as necessary. Tree preservatives may be used but are not nearly as important as simply keeping the reservoir full.

Heat causes the tree to dry out faster. Turn on the lights only when necessary. And locate your tree away from heat sources, like fire places, hot air vents or space heaters.

I will survive

Potted Christmas trees still have their roots and will survive beyond the holidays. After the holidays, these trees or plants are often planted into the ground, where they will grow and become part of the landscape. Or they may continue on as a container plant to be used as a Christmas tree again in the future.

Since these trees will not be discarded like cut trees after the holidays, take particular care to keep them in as healthy as possible while on display. The plants we usually use as potted Christmas trees are not well adapted to indoor conditions, so we keep them indoors for as short a time as possible. Generally, limit the time indoors to no more than about two weeks.

Place the plant in front of a window where it can get natural light. Check the soil and water when it feels dry when you stick your finger in it. Pots covered with decorative foil or plastic will hold excess water and keep the soil too wet. Either punch holes in the covering to allow excess water to drain into a saucer or, if it’s a small plant, remove it from the cover, water it and allow it to drain and then replace the cover.

It’s best not to put lights on potted Christmas trees, and make sure the ornaments you use are not so heavy that they damage the branches. Place the potted Christmas tree away from heat sources.

After Christmas, either continue to grow the plant in its container or plant it into the ground outside. Many of the plants used for potted Christmas trees are hardy and can be planted in late December or January.

If you plant a tree into the ground, you need to know what growing conditions it prefers and how big it will grow. Ask about this at the nursery when you buy it. Most of these plants will need a sunny, well-drained location. Pay careful attention to the mature size. It is easy to plant a relatively small, potted Christmas tree in a location where over time it may grow to be far too large.

Some of the plants at your local nursery that can be used as potted Christmas trees and then be added to your landscape include spruce pine, Eastern red cedar, junipers (like Blue Point and Sky Rocket), Arizona cypress, deodar cedar, Savannah holly and other hollies (with nice red berries that are poisonous, so be careful if you have young children or pets), Italian stone pine and rosemary (both of these are commonly available sheared into a Christmas tree shape). Look around at the nursery when you are there, and you may see other suitable choices.

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