'Living Christmas tree' in the yard?

Is a living Christmas tree right for you this year? Expectedly, a living tree costs more -- $20 to $35 for a fir, spruce, or pine -- but if all goes well, it can be considered a permanent investment that will add to the value of your home year after year.

All living trees must of necessity be small. At least one-third of the height and most of the weights is in the root ball.

If you do decide to buy one this year, the less time you keep it in a warm, dry house, the better. I bought my folk a holly shrub one Christmas and it wasn't even taken inside the house. We followed all the directions when planting it, yet it didn't live till spring.

If you are sure you want a plantable tree, despite all the extra work and risk, dig the hole now before the ground freezes hard. Fill the hole with soft, loose material, such as compost, peat, or bags of leaves, to keep the ground warm.Put the fill soil in the garage under a blanket to make sure it doesn't freeze rock-hard. Also, be sure you put a stake in the hole in case you have to find it under deep snow.

A tree can be kept for up to three weeks in a cool room with "grow lights" on it 10 hours a day, according to Charles Rickey, chief grower at a large Iowa nursery.

The tree should be moved outdoors in stages -- perhaps to the back porch, then the garage, and finally outdoors with some wind protection. This gives it the chance to adjust gradually to the declining temperature and conditions. In fact, if it gets very cold before you bring the tree inside, that should be done in stages, too -- several days to a week at each 20-to-30-degree interval.

For best results, move the "grow lights" right along with the tree.

A january thaw, or at least a mild day, is the best time for the final planting outdoors. Water and mulch well and erect some kind of wind shield on the north and west sides.

While indoors, the tree should be in a container that will allow ample watering. Cover the root ball with peat or sphagnum moss to prevent evaporation and spray the needles with a fine mist several times a day. Be sure to let the moisture dry before plugging in the lights again. Decorations should be small and lightweight.

Mr. Rickey advises against the project where winters get as cold as they do in Iowa. The milder the climate, the better chance for survival of your tree.

Plantable trees are a nice idea. You can enjoy them all year, no matter what the season.

There are people who can point to their well-landscaped yards and match the evergreens with specific christmases.

I know one person who always planted an "indoor-outdoor" tree to mark the first Christmas of each of her sons. Perhaps you also have occasions you may want to mark.

Is this the year you'll decide to buy one, too?

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