Make a lifetime memory this holiday season, by opting to plant a live Christmas tree. If you decide to do so, plan in advance this fall.
First, plan your selection. Consider the ultimate height of your tree at full maturity. Fir, pine and spruce can achieve heights of up to 50 feet or taller, with branch spread of 20-25 feet. Remember when planting a pretty Christmas tree, even one of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree stature, that it is not a foundation plant.
Do not consider planting even a dwarf variety next to a house foundation. Give your selection very careful consideration.
Deal with a reputable tree farm or nursery supplier. A balled and burlapped evergreen is a good landscape investment. Get the most for your money. Many "big box" stores have mislabeled and poorly cared for inventory.
Having made the decision to plant a live tree, decide on the species that compliments your landscape and is pleasing to your family. Perhaps a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) would add a stately accent?
If spruce needles are too stiff but you want a nice blue tree, how about a Concolor fir (Abies concolor)? It has a nice blue color with longer needles, which are softer to the touch.
Some folks like Douglas fir (pseudosuga menziesii) because of it's sweeping branches while the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) remains a favorite because of it's balsam fragrance with dark green foliage and white undersides to it's needles. Research is essential here.
Once the genus and species is decided, visit a tree farm that will allow you to tag your tree in autumn. This is a fantastic family opportunity!
Inspect the tree for obvious flaws and disease. Is the tree trunk straight and is the central leader in tact? Are the needles healthy and is the tree devoid of any brown branches?
Once you make your selection, ask the forester how big and how heavy he expects the root ball to be. Remember, you are going to have to transport the tree and move it in and out of the house.
In the next couple of weeks determine the planting spot. Site the tree far enough from the house with well-drained soil. Evergreens do not like "wet feet."
Before digging, check for any underground utilities in the digging area. Then begin to dig the planting hole. Dig three times as wide as the expected size of the root ball, but no deeper than the root ball, according to the forester's specification.
Remove the soil to a wheelbarrow, cover it with a tarp and place it in a garage or shed to keep it from freezing. Fill the planting hole with large plastic bags full of autumn leaves, place a couple of reflective driveway markers in the hole, just in case there is an early snow, and cover the hole with boards.
When you pick up the tree, cover it with a tarp to avoid drying out the foliage while it is transported. Place the tree in an unheated garage, barn or shed for a week. Moisten the root ball regularly keeping it moist, not wet until planting.
Since house humidity is usually low during the heating season, spray the needles with an antidesiccant, such as Wilt Pruf, before bringing the tree in the house. Place the tree in a tub with waterproof barrier under it.
Do not keep the tree in the house longer than five to seven days to avoid breaking dormancy. When ready to move it out, store in an unheated garage, barn or shed for one week to allow it to adjust to the outdoor temperature again.
Before planting the tree measure the hole to be sure it is the proper planting depth. The trunk flare, the point where the roots spread from the tree, should be visible. If the hole is too deep, fill it in and adjust it now.
Plant the tree so one third of the root ball is above the soil grade and place a yard stick across the hole to check for the correct depth. Natural burlap will decay but synthetic fibers will not.
If synthetic burlap is used, slash the burlap in many places to allow the roots to "escape", being careful not to slash the roots themselves and being sure to keep the root ball in tact.
If a burlap-lined wire basket is used to form the root ball, it will rust away and the burlap will decay so don't be concerned about it. You can gently slash the burlap here also. If some burlap remains, be sure not to have it above the soil, or it will wick moisture out of the soil.
Remove all wire and cord. If rope, twine, wire or cord is left on the trunk or around roots, it could cause girdling. Girdling is putting pressure on the roots or trunk, thus "choking" the tree and depriving it of food or water.
Back fill the planting hole with the reserved soil about two thirds. Firm the soil and be sure the tree is straight. Be sure to give the tree a good helping of nutritive compost. A good bucket full should do it, mix it with the remaining soil and complete filling the hole.
Water the tree well and mulch the top of the root ball, taking care not to bring the mulch closer than two inches from the trunk. Mulching closer will encourage rodents to nest and gnaw and it will provide disease opportunity. DO NOT FERTILIZE THE TREE AT THIS TIME.
Oh, yes, compost those autumn leaves that you have removed from the planting hole.
In spring, when the ground thaws, feed the tree with specially-formulated food for trees and shrubs. Keep the tree well-watered.
Planting a live Christmas tree not only improves your landscape, enriches your family life and benefits the environment; it's one of the best gifts we can give ourselves!
Julie Foley is a Penn State Master Gardener in Carbon County
Sources of information:
The Pennsylvania State University, College of Agriculture; International Society of Arboriculture