A survival guide for living Christmas trees

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year many families bought living Christmas trees. They shelled out big bucks, but it was one way of doing their little bit for the environment.

This was the scenario: After wrestling the tree home, they dragged it into the living room, decorated it, and even watered it on occasion. Then, after a couple of weeks, a small problem arose: Their prized, living Christmas tree, well, wasn't. It had wilted, and needles were dropping like icicles in the afternoon sun.

When Hawaii freezes over. That's when these angered folks vowed to buy another living tree. And they even counseled the neighbors: "Live trees are too expensive, too heavy, and too much trouble, and don't survive. Don't even bother."

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"Last year, living Christmas trees were the hot sellers," says Richard Moore, former president of the New York State Christmas Tree Growers' Association. "But when folks got their tree home they didn't care for them properly. And most live trees wound up in the trash."

Despite such experiences, Mr. Moore says it is possible to keep a conifer alive and thriving. "Living trees do, however, demand more preparation and maintenance than cut trees," he says.

Live trees are extremely sensitive. If you live in a moderate climate, the probability of your tree surviving the transition from indoors to outdoors is good. If you live in Fargo, N.D., - think plastic. It's just too cold. The only way you could pull a live tree through the winter there is to leave it out on the porch, Moore says.

Buy a slow-growing cultivar that will thrive in your climate, Moore advises. Your local nursery should be able to guide you. Scotch pine, Douglas fir, balsam, and blue spruce usually make the best transitions from indoor Christmas tree to permanent yard fixture. It may be wise to think small as well - at least for the first time around. A six-foot live tree with sizable rootball can weigh more than 250 pounds.

To ensure that your living tree will be around to see another Christmas, Moore suggests the following procedures:

* Make sure the tree you buy isn't too big or heavy to handle or get home. Choose a spot outdoors in direct sunlight where the soil is well-drained to plant the tree later.

Dig a hole, when the ground is unfrozen, that is about double the circumference of the root ball. Fill it with leaves or straw to keep it from freezing., and store the soil from the hole in a warm spot like the garage or cellar.

* Live trees come balled in burlap or planter containers. If it comes in burlap, you'll have to buy a planter to act as a stand and container. Depending on size and type, it can cost as much as $175.

* After bringing your tree home, move it indoors gradually. For example, from garage or sheltered area outside, to basement or screened-in porch, and finally to the room where it will be displayed. Spread the process over two to three days.

* Most important, choose a cool room away from a fireplace, wood stove, space heater, direct sunlight, heat vents, or radiator. The cooler you keep your tree, the better chance of it surviving. If the room is too warm, the tree will start growing. When a tree enters a growth stage and is suddenly moved outdoors, it will likely die. And use miniature lights that emit minimal heat.

* Place the rootball or planter on a waterproof surface (a garbage bag works well) so you don't damage the floor or table.

* Water the tree, but only enough to keep the rootball from drying out. It will not require much water if kept in a cool room. Dump a tray of ice cubes on the surface of the soil once in a while. Too much water, coupled with indoor warmth, may also encourage unwanted new growth.

* Keep the tree indoors no more than six to eight days. When you're ready to take it outside, reverse the procedure you followed when you brought it inside.

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