Magazine article Sunset

Living Trees ... a Joy Indoors Now, Glory in the Garden for Years

Magazine article Sunset

Living Trees ... a Joy Indoors Now, Glory in the Garden for Years

Article excerpt

DECKED OUT WITH COLORED LIGHTS, THE ALPINE fir pictured above is a magical sight at Jerry Zetzsche's house around Christmas. The warm glow of its lights brightens the neighborhood and enchants passersby. But the tree doesn't come down after the holidays; it's a tall, proud part of the landscape now, a dozen years after it presided over holiday festivities indoors as a mere youngest in a nursery can.

Many living Christmas trees throughout the West hold similar memories for their owners. "Whenever our grown daughter comes home, she goes first to that great blue spruce out front to see how much it's grown since its Christmas tree days," one tree owner wrote us. "In its way, that tree marks the passage of time."

How many living Christmas trees find their way into the garden after the holidays? And how well do they do? To find out, we asked readers; more than 200 responded to our query.

The results surprised us: about 90 percent of our respondents' living trees survived, and most had earned a special place at their households.

"The tree is like an adopted child, specially chosen," one reader wrote.

"Each tree represents a year of our lives," commented another.

Most people used and planted out several living trees; the practice seems to become a gentle addiction that goes well beyond the ideals of Global ReLeaf.


Our readers' failures told as much as their successes. With those in mind, we give you Rule One for Christmas tree longevity: shop only for trees that thrive where you live. The chart on pages 64 and 65, which lists the eight commonly available trees that are most widely grown by our respondents, will help, as can your nursery.

And Rule Two: before you buy, think about where you'd like your tree in five years. You could keep it in its container, reusing it year after year; work it into your garden; or pass it on--our readers have donated ex-Christmas trees to parks and schools from Walla Walla to San Diego.

With these principles in mind, you're ready to buy.


When you shop for a tree, take a tape measure: a living tree with a 6-foot trunk will be 2 feet taller than an identical 6-foot cut tree. The difference, of course, is the live tree's extra 2 feet of rootball and container.

Once you get your tree into the house (use a hand truck), keep it there no more than 10 days. Place it well away from heater vents and fireplaces, and water slowly and thoroughly by dumping two trays of ice cubes into its soil surface every day. Decorate it with small, cool bulbs--flashing bulbs are best of all. Some readers decorate their trees with food birds love--strings of popcorn and cranberries, for example--then leave the decorations in place for the birds to peck at when the tree is moved back outdoors. Don't use tinsel; it's too hard to get off.

Fast-growing trees like grand fir can only remain containerized for a couple of years. Longer than that, they become rootbound. Slow-growing trees like Korean fir can stay potted long-term: one Seattle family we interviewed had used a bristlecone pine for 15 Christmases without repotting.


Though most living Christmas trees planted out grow large, many people who responded to our survey managed to grow more trees in the landscape than we'd have thought possible.

The most popular garden sites were in corners and along lot lines; conifers make great all-season screens. A few were also standout garden centerpieces, strung with lights yearly until they outgrew the decorator's ladder.

Don't plant trees where they'll eventually block your neighbor's view or your precious winter sunlight. …

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