Care for Christmas Trees
24 November 2004
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
Last week in this space you read about selecting Christmas trees. Once you have returned home with your Christmas tree, its continued freshness depends upon the type of care you provide.
The tree should have a fresh cut across the bottom, about one-inch above the old base. This removes any clogged wood that may not readily absorb water. Next, the tree should be placed in a stand with a large reservoir of water and located in the room. Depending upon the size, species, and location of the tree, it may absorb a gallon of water in the first day, so it should be checked frequently and re-watered as necessary. Although some people advocate placing various substances in the water to preserve freshness, we recommend that consumers simply keep the tree well watered with pure tap water. As long as the tree is able to absorb and transpire water, it is reasonably fire-resistant.
It is important that the tree always be kept watered and not allowed to dry out. If the tree does become dried out, it may not be able to adequately absorb moisture once it is re-watered, and it will shed its needles prematurely. Taking the tree down and cutting about a 1-inch slice off the bottom of the trunk, then replacing the tree in the stand and re-watering, will remedy this problem. Although inconvenient, it is the only way to prevent early needle loss. Overall, a good rule of thumb is to treat a green Christmas tree just like a fresh bouquet of cut flowers.
The Christmas tree should be located in a safe place, preferably near a wall or corner where it is not likely to be knocked over. Keeping the tree away from heat sources such as hot air ducts, wood stoves, fireplaces, etc., will help to preserve freshness and lessen fire danger. Similarly, light cords and connections used in decorating the tree should be in good working condition. Lights should always be turned off at bedtime or when leaving for an extended period of time.
Fresh, well-watered Christmas trees do not represent a fire hazard. Trees that are dried out, however, do. In public buildings it is often advisable to spray the trees with a fire retardant. In fact, in many locations this is necessary for insurance purposes. In the home, however, the best fire retardant is to keep the tree supplied with plenty of water.
After Christmas, the family tree represents a source of organic waste. Most consumers simply put the tree out with the rest of the household garbage to be carted off to a landfill. Depending upon your situation, however, there may be other alternatives to disposing of your tree. The tree could be placed in the backyard, adorned with bits of bread and suet, and used as a bird feeder. In the spring, the tree could be chipped for mulch or burned for fuel. Farmers with ponds have found that a couple of Christmas trees, properly weighted down, provide good habitat for fish. Some communities even provide special chipper services for Christmas trees, with the chips either sold or used for landscaping purposes in city flowerbeds, parks, etc.
Living Christmas trees are unique and should definitely receive special care. Since the root balls are often heavy and cumbersome, it is important that they are not mistreated or dropped. Balled and burlapped trees should not be carried by their stems, because the weight of the root ball can exert pressure on the roots and break them. It is best to pick the tree up by the ball itself or to roll the ball along the ground.
Once the tree is home, it should be conditioned before being brought into a heated room. Leaving the tree upright in an unheated barn or garage for a couple of days should be sufficient. After the conditioning, the tree can be brought indoors and placed in a cool location away from direct sunlight. It is even more important with living trees that the location is away from heat sources such as wood stoves, fireplaces, heater vents, etc.
Living Christmas trees will also need water, although not nearly as much as cut trees. Prior to moving the tree inside, the root ball should be moistened and kept in a moist condition while the tree is displayed.
Living Christmas trees are fairly sensitive and should not be kept inside for more than 10 days. Exposure to the warm temperatures may cause the dormant tree to break buds and start to grow, and this is undesirable. Before removing the tree directly outside, it should be allowed to recondition in the same manner as when it was brought inside. After a couple of days, it should be ready to plant outside.
If the ground is frozen or if the tree cannot be planted immediately, it should be placed in a sheltered area and the root ball heavily mulched. When planting, the hole should be dug about the depth of the root ball and 1.5 to 2 times the diameter. In heavy clay soil, the hole can even be dug 1 or 2 inches shallower than the root ball. The tree should be placed in the hole, backfilled with the soil removed from the hole, watered, and mulched. The tree will remain dormant for the rest of the winter and then will start to grow normally with other vegetation in the spring.
For more information about landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.