Preparing for a Living Christmas Tree

Lee ArmilleiField Notes

The common debate among the purchase of Christmas trees is whether you should purchase fresh cut or artificial trees. The case can be made for sustainability, supporting local businesses, longevity, cost, aroma, tradition, or personal preference.

Often left out of this debate is the option for a “living” tree, also known as a live tree or a balled & burlapped (B&B) tree. This option utilizes a tree that has been dug out of the ground or grown in a container to decorate temporarily for Christmas before planting it permanently in the landscape.

While the option for a living tree seems like it could be the eco-friendly favorite, there are special considerations in this decision.

Because this type of Christmas tree is alive and is intended to remain alive after the holidays, it must be carefully selected and handled. Live trees also cost significantly more, so it’s worthwhile to protect your investment.

The biggest risk to these trees is stress. These plants are acclimated to the external climate and sunlight and more than a few days inside can throw off their physiological processes.  Not to mention that the warmer temperature inside can dehydrate live trees quickly.

Below are some guidelines for selecting, handling, and ultimately, planting your living Christmas tree:


Selecting Your Tree:

  • Shop from reputable nurseries.
  • Choose a species of tree that will ultimately grow well in your region.
  • Choose a species of tree that will mature to a suitable size for your site. Many Christmas tree species can grow 30-40’ wide and 60-70’ tall when mature.
  • Run your hands along branches to check for needle drop. If lots of needles fall, select another tree.

Handling Your Tree:

  • Bring your tree inside only a couple of days before Christmas. It should be inside for no more than a week.
  • You’ll likely need a ball-cart or dolly to help get the tree inside.
  • Don’t handle the tree by the trunk- it can break roots or loosen soil from around roots.
  • Have a leak proof container available, slightly larger than the root ball of the tree.
  • Keep your tree in a cool location of the house- away from heaters and fireplaces
  • Use LED lights or lights with small bulbs, both of which generate less heat than large bulbs.
  • Keep the soil of the tree moist, but not inundated with water. Live tree roots need oxygen in addition to water.

Planting Your Tree:

  • Select a location on your property with suitable conditions for your tree (sun, wind protection, drainage, etc.)
  • Make sure that your selected location will allow for the mature size of your tree.
  • Dig the hole for your tree before the ground freezes. The hole should be equally as deep as the root ball and 3x as wide as the ball.
  • If the ground is frozen before you can plant your tree, have a stockpile of mulch to pull around the root ball of your tree until you’re ready to plant it.
  • Stake the tree for stability. Stakes should be removed after one year.

For most people, the living Christmas tree is not a clear winner over their preferred fresh cut or artificial trees. But for some, this could be the option they’ve been looking for.