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Helping Christmas put down roots Recycle: Using a live tree for the holidays and planting it afterward isn't as easy as using a cut one, but it has its advantages anyway.


While Christmas comes but once a year, a live Christmas tree can deck your garden long after it has decked your halls. But shifting a live tree from the living room to the landscape is not as simple as hanging a stocking. Successful recycling has a price, but the payoff is an evergreen for a lifetime.

After you accept that you'll pay from $20 to $50 more for a live tree than a cut one, that live trees require more time and work than cut ones, and, perhaps most important, that you must decorate your live tree later and let go of it sooner than you would a cut one, you're ready to make your purchase.

Experts at some local garden centers where both live and cut Christmas trees are sold disagree on how long a live tree can remain indoors, but the consensus is that such trees should come late and leave early.

"We recommend that people keep them in no longer than a week," says Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, which provides a handout on step-by-step tree care to customers buying live trees.

"The longer a tree is inside, the more likely it is to press growth buds," says Mike Warner of Glyndon Gardens in Glyndon. By this he means the tree will begin new growth in its warm surroundings. Then, when it gets outside, it won't be able to survive the cold.

But Warner believes trees can be indoors longer than a week and still transplant successfully.

Climate compatibility

The first step to buying a live tree is to choose one that will grow where you live. Colorado blue spruce, Norway and Serbian spruce, and Douglas fir look good in the house and grow well in Maryland gardens. White pine grows the best of all types here, tree experts say, but it lacks the look of a Christmas tree. Fraser fir, considered to be the Cadillac of Christmas trees, thrives better in colder areas of the state, such as northern and Western Maryland.

A healthy live tree will have a uniform color and pliable branches and will lack browned or yellowed needles.

The most important part of a live tree is the root ball, the roots surrounded by a ball of earth. Choose trees with large root balls (which will be heavier) over those that have small ones. Be certain that the earth of the ball is a firm, solid mass, neither crumbly nor cracked. Avoid trees with large roots that cause a bulge in the sides of the burlap covering the root ball, and ones where the trunk is loose at the root ball.

When you get the tree home, move it to a shaded location outside. When moving it, always lift by the root ball, never by the trunk. Moving by the trunk can damage the root system.

Keep your tree outdoors until you're ready to decorate it. Be sure to keep the root ball moist in the meantime. An occasional thorough saturation with a trickling hose should do the job.

Choose your spot

Consider digging the planting hole early, before the ground freezes. You can still dig a hole after the ground freezes, of course, but the job will take longer. Make sure that the hole is at least twice as wide and slightly deeper than the root ball. Turn the soil over and break it up thoroughly. Evergreens grow quite large, so select a planting spot at least 15 feet away from other trees or the house. Be sure the location gets at least four to six hours of sun daily.

In the house, place the tree in a washtub or other waterproof container and prop it straight. Bricks make a good support device. Just place them around the root ball. Avoid placing the tree in front of a window that receives direct sun, and close off any heating ducts (especially forced-air heat) directed toward the tree.

Add water to the container until it reaches at least half the height of the root ball. Keep the top of the root ball moist by covering it with wet newspapers or old towels. Remember to keep your tree well-watered during its stay inside. (Valley View Farms recommends spraying the tree with an anti-desiccant such as Wiltproof to retard water loss.)

When it's time to move the tree outside, give it a chance to chill out first.

"Put it in a protected site such as an unheated garage or covered porch for at least a week before planting," says Warner of Glyndon Gardens. "This helps the tree adjust to the extreme change of going outside."

At planting time, remove any cord tied around the trunk and set the tree in the hole so that the top of the root ball is slightly above the original grade. Peel the burlap back from the top of the ball and tuck it down the sides of the ball. (Yes, the burlap stays in the ground; it'll disintegrate eventually.)

Mix organic matter such as compost, rotted leaves or peat moss with the soil taken out of the hole and fill this mixture around the ball of the tree, mounding it up over the edges of the root ball. Mulch with at least 2 inches of material such as shredded pine bark and then water thoroughly. Continue watering weekly until the ground freezes. After that, care for the tree as you would any other evergreen.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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