December 10, 2016

1 - Living Christmas trees require some extra care if you really want them to live.

Yard and Garden December 10, 2016


Do you have recommendations regarding living Christmas trees?


That is a pretty open question - thank you. As far as "living" Christmas trees, people often refer to trees with root systems that may be planted outdoors after the Christmas and New Year's Day celebrations. However, people have recently been asking me about the Norfolk Island pine tree in this regard also.

If you plan to plant the tree outdoors after the holidays, remember you will be moving the tree from a warm home environment to the harsh outside New Mexico environment. To increase the chances for success, minimize the time the tree spends indoors in the warm, dry, environment in which we live. Keep the tree outdoors in a protected area where drying winds and direct sunlight cannot desiccate the tree. To further protect against desiccation water the rootball regularly while the tree is waiting outside and while the tree in indoors. Do not let the roots dry! While the tree in inside, keep it as cool as possible and protect it from hot, dry air from furnace vents. Once the tree's indoor service is completed, return it to a protected outdoor environment where it can gradually become readapted to the cold outside. The tree may have lost some dormancy while indoors. If the weather is extremely harsh outside, or extreme temperatures are forecast for the next week, this gradual adaptation is critical. If the weather is mild, you can plant the tree immediately or soon after returning it outside. Remember to keep the roots moist.

Some people will have prepared the planting site before even purchasing the tree. A proper planting site preparation involves loosening the soil over a large area (much larger than the rootball of the tree) and mixing compost into the soil over this area. These gardeners will have already dug a hole in the center if this area only as deep as the depth of the rootball. They will have filled the hole with straw and watered the soil well. When it is time to plant the tree, they remove the straw and the planting hole is ready. Burlap and any material tied around the trunk of the tree should be loosened after the tree is placed in the hole (burlap under the rootball is not a problem). Soil with no additional compost or other amendments is filled in around the roots and watered well. Organic mulch should be applied to cover the soil under the canopy of the tree. This will help moderate soil temperatures and reduce evaporation. The tree will need irrigation once every once or twice a month until growth begins, and then twice monthly irrigation should begin.

Gardeners who choose a Norfolk Island pine cannot plant their tree outside and expect it to survive in New Mexico. However, they may grow it as a potted plant for several years. This tree will become quite large over time, but some gardeners may have room to grow it for several years and reuse it for several winters before replacing it. If it is repotted into larger and larger containers as needed, never allowed to dry, and provided adequate sunlight, it will serve for many years. The branching pattern of this tree is perfect for decorating.

A final comment is the usual warning about taking care to avoid fire hazards with both living and cut trees. Never expose them to open flames; keep them away from hot, dry air from heat registers; use only safe lighting that is checked annually to be sure there is no damage to the wiring, and never overload electrical systems. Also consider additional safety measures if pets and small children are present and attracted to the decorations.

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email:, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.


For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms.

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