Why You Should Choose a Living Christmas Tree This Year

By Lauren Dunec Hoang, Houzz

It seems like a shame to take a Christmas tree home for a few weeks over the holidays, just to toss it on the curb for the recycling truck. Instead of heading to the tree lot this weekend, consider stopping by your local nursery for a potted conifer that can be brought in for the holidays year after year. Here’s how to choose a tree, care for it through the holiday season and then ensure that it thrives in your landscape. 

Related: Read More on the Debate Between Real vs. Fake Christmas Trees 

Living Tree 1
Louise de Miranda, original photo on Houzz 

Why Choose a Living Tree?

Opting for a living Christmas tree instead of a cut variety makes sense for a number of reasons. On average, it can take about seven years for a Christmas tree to reach a height of 6 to 7 feet before it’s cut to sell. Once harvested, trees are often transported miles to sell in tree lots before being taken home over the holidays, and then discarded. 

A living tree can also be a more economical choice. Purchase a potted conifer once and you’ll be set with a tree to bring in for the holidays for years. 

Living trees also create less of a mess indoors, dropping far fewer needles, and continue to smell fresh longer than cut trees. Plus, once the holidays are over, you have a specimen tree to add your landscape. 

Living Tree 2
Koreman Landscape Company, original photo on Houzz 

Dwarf white spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’, zones 2 to 7), blue spruce (Picea pungens, zones 3 to 7) and golden juniper (Juniperus sp.; zones vary) are layered in a Chicago garden. 

Selecting Your Tree

Plan ahead before heading to the nursery and choose a conifer variety that will thrive in your climate, soil and light conditions. Some of the most popular conifer choices for moderate- to cold-winter regions include Douglas fir, noble fir and blue spruce. Leyland cypress and Virginia pine grow well in milder winter climates. To get the longest container life of a potted conifer, choose a slow-growing or dwarf variety for your region, such as a dwarf white spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’, USDA zones 2 to 8). 

At the nursery, select a tree in a 5-gallon, 10-gallon or 15-gallon container that looks healthy and vigorous, showing no brown needles or signs of disease. Depending on the size you buy, these trees can range from around $30 to $100. Check the soil in the container — it should be moist, not overly dry. 

Living Tree 3
Linda Merrill, original photo on Houzz 

Caring for Your Tree

Once you’ve chosen a tree and brought it home, here’s what to do to make sure it remains healthy. 

1. Mind the roots.

Container-grown conifers can be sensitive to having their roots disturbed. Instead of repotting, sink the tree (still in its nursery pot) into a more attractive container or basket to display inside. 

2. Choose a bright, sunny spot indoors.

Place the tree by a window where it will receive as much light as possible. Avoid placing the tree close to heat vents and, if possible, keep the room temperature cool. 

Living Tree 4
Michelle Edwards, original photo on Houzz 

3. Water regularly.

Potted trees indoors will dry out more quickly than those in the garden. Water consistently to keep the soil moist but not soggy. Protect your floor by placing a heavy plastic saucer under the container or setting the nursery pot into a decorative container without drainage holes. 

4. Bring the tree outside.

Most nurseries recommend limiting the time a living tree is kept indoors to seven to 10 days. To refresh your tree, bring it outside for a few days to give it a break from the heat and limited light inside. 

Living Tree 5
Monrovia, original photo on Houzz 

Dwarf white spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’, zones 2 to 7) stands out in this landscape. 

Post-holiday Care

After Christmas, remove all lights and decorations and bring your living tree outdoors. Water it deeply, completely saturating the root ball, and gently hose off the needles to remove any dust. To help ease readjustment to the outdoors, place the tree in a sheltered location out of direct sun and wind for about a week. Then move it to a spot where it will receive plenty of sun, and remember to water regularly. You can keep the tree in a container for three to five years, carefully repotting as needed to keep the roots from getting container-bound. Once your tree grows too large to easily move indoors, choose a place to plant it in the landscape where it can grow for years. Most conifers grow best in full to partial sun and in well-draining soil. In cold-winter regions wait until spring, when the soil is completely thawed, to plant. If you change your mind or realize you don’t have space in your garden for the tree, check with your city for tree donation programs to public parks.

Then move it to a spot where it will receive plenty of sun, and remember to water regularly. You can keep the tree in a container for three to five years, carefully repotting as needed to keep the roots from getting container-bound.

Once your tree grows too large to easily move indoors, choose a place to plant it in the landscape where it can grow for years. Most conifers grow best in full to partial sun and in well-draining soil. In cold-winter regions wait until spring, when the soil is completely thawed, to plant.

If you change your mind or realize you don’t have space in your garden for the tree, check with your city for tree donation programs to public parks.

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