Christmas trees are in season, and much is written about their sustainability, or lack thereof. I grew up in an era when the options were “real” trees or metallic monstrosities, often accompanied by rotating colored lights. Today the fake trees look a good deal less fake, and most of them can be used for several years before they have to be cast off.
Therein lies the problem: where a tree produced by nature can return all of its elements back to the earth, a fake tree probably won’t disintegrate for fifty or a hundred years. Like so many of our modern conveniences, from disposable diapers to electronic gadgets, they end up in landfills and incinerators, but their metals and plastic live on in one ugly form or another.
Real Christmas trees require lots of unnatural inputs, of course: tree farmers must shear and spray and fertilize if they want a salable crop. Later, the trees are cut down mechanically and often shipped on eighteen-wheelers to centers of commerce. One faction may see this as job creation, while another wonders at the wastefulness of growing and shipping a tree to decorate a home for a few weeks.
Another option, the truly living tree, has its own set of issues. A Christmas tree grown in a pot, or sold balled and burlapped, may or may not survive to be a part of your landscape.
Good preparation is required to succeed with this approach. The most important bit of advice: assume this tree will become a giant, and plant it well away from your house or other fixed objects! A spruce or fir may grow two or more feet per year, so it doesn’t take long for one of them to grow into your utility wires – plan ahead. Also, try not to plant it just south of your driveway or walk, where it will shade your paving and keep the sun from doing its winter work of thawing snow and ice.
Since your ultimate planting location may be frozen when you are ready to evict your tree back into the great outdoors, it’s best to dig the hole as soon as possible. Trees need holes the same depth as their roots, with a width at least one and a half times the diameter of the root ball.
Obviously, a large hole in your lawn is a hazard, so cover it with a board, lest you become a victim of your own tiger trap some moonless night. When you dig the hole, place the loose soil on a tarp, and move the tarp-load to a warm place such as a garage, so you still have loose soil on your planting day, and not a mound of frozen earth. Filling the hole with leaves will help to keep the soil from freezing.
As to the tree itself, keep in mind that Christmas trees are not really dormant in winter. Those thousands of needles are agents of transpiration, so your tree will need water, both while it’s in your home and after it is planted.
Of course, most homes, even in these days of high-priced heating fuel, are a good deal warmer than a tree’s normal environment, not to mention much drier. These factors add to the tree’s need for water. The water plus the root system will make your tree a good deal heavier than a cut tree, too.
When it’s time to take down the decorations and plant your tree, give the hole a good watering with tap water from your house (you probably have already disconnected your outdoor hoses.) Carrying the tree by its root ball – not by the stem – place the tree on the edge of the hole and unwrap the rope or wire holding the burlap in place. If the root ball is solid, you should be able to fold back the burlap on the side closest to the hole and slide the tree down into it, shifting the burlap out from under it at the same time. If the root ball is starting to disintegrate, you will have to put the tree, burlap and all, into the hole. After it is settled in, it’s important to cut away the burlap from the sides of the ball.
(Landscapers may tell you it’s okay to plant trees with their burlap on, but I’ve seen too many dead trees with their roots wrapped around and around inside the burlap.)
Once the root ball is stable and the tree is standing straight, you can loosely fill in around it with the soil you stashed in the garage. Tamp it down gently, then water again. If you have some shredded leaves or wood chips, a two inch layer of mulch will help keep the soil moist – just be sure not to place mulch up against the tree’s trunk.
If the winter continues to be mild, you can water your tree weekly; after the ground freezes, there is no point in watering. Come spring, the tree will need at least ten gallons of water a week for its first two growing seasons.
Meantime, give yourself a generous pat on the back for helping to save a tree – and the planet!