Balled Christmas Tree Considerations

It may feel like it’s too soon to be thinking about Christmas, but if you are considering purchasing a live, balled Christmas tree this holiday season, you need to take some measures now to get your tree off to a good start and ensure its survival once you plant it.

First, decide where you will plant the tree before you purchase it. Most Christmas tree species will be quite large when mature and need plenty of room to grow, and you’ll also need to make sure the soil in your chosen location has good drainage. Selecting the site before you purchase the tree will help you choose the right tree and also allow you to dig a planting hole for your tree ahead of time.

Digging the hole for the tree before Christmas is a wise choice. You should definitely dig the appropriate size hole for planting your tree before December, when the soil will likely freeze and the weather is more inhospitable. If the ground freezes while the tree is inside, it can still be planted outside right after the holidays if you prepared a planting hole ahead of time. The hole should be at least two to three times the diameter of the root ball but no deeper, so dig your hole wide and shallow and keep in mind the root ball may be as large as 24 inches. The tree will need a large enough transplanting hole to provide plenty of room for root growth but trees buried too deep will quickly die. Be sure to save the soil that you dug out of your hole. You can add some amendments to improve drainage, but do not completely replace the soil. If the soil composition is very different from the soil outside the hole, your tree roots may have difficulty growing past the hole’s boundaries.

In order to select a good tree, take a close look at its root ball. A four-foot tall tree should have a ball at least 18 inches wide, but a bigger ball is better for transplanting the tree. Keep in mind a balled and burlapped live tree is often extremely heavy so it’s unlikely you’ll find trees larger than five to six feet tall at your local nursery. The tree should be firmly attached at the root ball, and not wobble at the top of the ball. Be sure that the ball has been kept adequately moist since harvest. If you can readily pull needles out from the stem then the tree is not fresh, or the root ball has been allowed to dry out. Gently cup your hand over the center portion of a branch and slide it to the end.  Only a few, if any, needles should pull out into your hand. Another feature to examine if you’re planting the tree in your landscape is the tips of the branches. Trees are heavily sheared every year so they will develop dense branches and needles. This produces well-shaped trees, but if the tree was sheared too late there will be no live buds and no new growth next season. Look for live buds at the ends of healthy branches at the tops and sides of the tree.

Once you’ve brought your tree home, store it outdoors in a sheltered area away from wind until you’re ready to bring it in the house and decorate it. Avoid leaning the tree against a wall as this may damage branches, and do make sure the tree still gets adequate light. Your tree should be kept in a cool location in your home, away from heating vents, for no more than seven to 10 days.

Part two of this article will discuss caring for your live tree during the holidays and planting it outdoors.

Barbara Arnold is green corps coordinator at Franklin Park Conservatory.

Part two- Caring for Live Christmas Trees

Holiday safety facts

  • According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), approximately one tenth of one percent of residential fires involve a Christmas Tree — both real and artificial.
  • At no time can a real Christmas tree start or cause a fire; Christmas trees do not spontaneously combust.
  • In 1998 more than 32 million real Christmas trees were used in the United States. Of these, only 0.00093% were ignited in home fires.
  • Christmas trees are not as likely to be the first item ignited in residential fires as many other common household items: newspapers and magazines — 13 times more likely; boxes or bags — 10 times more likely; curtains or drapes — 9 times more likely.
  • Overloaded electric outlets and faulty wires are the most common causes of holiday fires in residences.

The National Fire Protection Association tracks fires and their causes. If you see a sensational blazing tree on television, these trees are often doused in a flammable liquid or cut many months prior to harvest time. Trees that are kept fresh during the holiday season using National Christmas Tree Association care tips are extremely difficult to ignite.