I thought today I would revisit an old column on living Christmas trees (the kind you plant after the holidays), but was surprised to find I had never broached the subject in thirteen years of garden columns. I'll change that today, for it is a subject close to my heart.
In case you haven't figured out, I love trees. I love selling them, pruning them, removing weed trees, planting unique trees; evergreen or deciduous I am hard pressed to think of a tree I consider worthless. Yes, I do my share of tree clearing but I try to balance it by planting others. I love the beauty of sawn lumber but have been arrested and fined for protesting the logging of old growth redwoods. I guess I'm as contrary as vegetarians wearing leather, and yes, I ride both sides of the fence when it comes to Christmas trees.
I used to be a purist-only living Christmas trees would do; be they potted or ball & burlap (B&B), whether one foot tall or eight, live was the only righteous choice. One day a friend challenged me with his perspective that growers of cut Christmas trees were just as much a part of the horticulture industry as I (a nursery manager) was. Cut trees were well cared for, lovingly sheared to perfect their shape and contributed to the global balance while alive. The growers were essentially farmers, harvesting a portion of their stock each year for market.
So I have purchased both cut and live trees, but still find myself looking at live trees for the choice of genus and species is usually greater though not all are adaptable to Oklahoma's harsh summers.
By far the most common potted evergreens available in Oklahoma are junipers. They are tough, adaptable and big strides have been made in breeding selections that have more to offer than the local, overpopulated juniper known as Eastern Red Cedar. I have never however met a juniper that wasn't prickly to the touch and for me this is a deterrent for planting one. Although not the classic Christmas tree with strong, horizontal branches suitable for ornaments, junipers can be decorated with ribbons, popcorn, garlands, etc.
A few pines are frequently found in the potted tree selections. Pines grow fast but have a few more diseases to watch out for once planted in the yard. Excellent drainage, wise positioning of sprinklers and proper fertilization will help pine purchasers from having buyer's remorse. Also, be aware that most pines (save Loblolly and Swamp) prefer a slightly cooler summer. I do think it is relatively safe to plant pines and pray we don't have 115° summer.
Those wanting a live tree have to reduce its time indoors to a minimum. Seven to ten days is preferred, not to exceed two weeks. Of course as with any tree or plant, position it away from a heat vent or sunny window for its indoor stay. Indoors, live trees lose moisture through their needles quickly; excessive water to the roots does little to help. Lightly misting the tree is a better solution, but one would need to forego the lights and certain decorations to mist.
Soon after the celebrating is finished, the live tree needs to be reacclimated to the outdoors. If the days are a moderate 50°-60° that is not a problem; if the temperatures are freezing or below, the tree should adjust slowly. Consider moving it into a garage or unheated porch to help with the transition.
Plant the tree shortly after the New Year (assuming the ground is not frozen) and, be aware of what you are planting. Potted trees may be B&B with soil or mulch spread over the top of the ball. Often the soil within the burlap ball is heavy clay. If the burlap is removed completely the clay will fall free and possibly break the few roots contained therein.
To plant these B&B, I like to dig the hole wider but not deeper than the ball's size. Remove the root-ball from the container and loosen the burlap from around the trunk of the tree. It should unfold to a square. Use the four corners to lift and lower the root ball into the hole. Cut away excess burlap from the sides and refill the hole with 1/2 planting mix or compost and 1/2 of the original soil. When watering, remember B&B trees will establish feeder roots along the soil surface the first year of growth; deep roots regrow, but not as quickly.
Some companies grow evergreen trees in root-control bags. Be aware, the open-topped, dense, poly fabric is not biodegradable. Use a razor knife to cut and remove the bag completely before planting. Do not break the roots up further. Simply place the tree into a hole slightly larger than the ball, and backfill maintaining the same soil depth.
My love of trees is trumped by my love of cozy Christmas lights. One year, deciding not to decorate, my father purchased me a 2' fiber-optic tree with bendable branches. (I think he got a 2 for 1 deal from a mail order house.) I scoffed in my heart, but for more years than one plugged that little tree imposter in and enjoyed it for the season. Whichever tree you choose to express your holiday joy this year, please be safety minded and, be blessed!