Our Living Christmas Trees

By Sean Callahan in Mainely Conifers

Every year, since we moved to Maine in January of 2005, we've had a living Christmas tree. We bring it inside for a few days so it won't come out of dormancy then put it back outside and eventually into the ground where they have been growing ever since, each labeled with the year when they were the centerpiece of our holiday celebration. It would appear to be an environmentally correct thing to do: A green Christmas.

Our 2011 Living Christmas Tree, a Picea abies ´Hillside Upright´
Our 2011 Living Christmas Tree, a Picea abies ´Hillside Upright´

A nice story but the subtext is that it's really just another excuse for Dad to buy a specimen conifer, a cultivar that he doesn't already have.

The cultivar selection for December's tree is usually done in October when the nurseries are anxious to reduce inventory and avoid having to haul their unsold stock from the selling yards to where they overwinter materials. They usually offer discounts of 40-60%, depending on how long you are willing to wait them out and hope that something choice is still left.

I used to get the kids involved in this process but eventually that turned out to be a more timely and expensive proposition than I bargained for. A few years ago Anna and Mac couldn't agree on which tree we should get. They wouldn't compromise and we were in danger of having a family meltdown right there in the nursery.

Mac's selection that year, a Picea glauca 'Yukon Blue,' was an interesting short-needled white spruce that is a good choice if only because it has the triangular cone shape that one expects in a Christmas tree. Anna, however, the discriminating artist that she is turning out to be, had her heart set on a Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome,' a variegated Japanese white pine. It's an interesting dwarf tree and one that should be in every collection but it doesn't have that classic Christmas tree shape. It's an irregular bun, wider than it is tall and certainly not something I could get through the patio door to bring inside. So I bought both.

When we got home I took Anna aside to try to explain calmly and logically why the parviflora wasn't going to work as a Christmas tree. I was prepared to bring out my trump card, reminding her what a traditionalist her mother is about most things, including trees, and how she still squirms whenever I bring home a weeping specimen. A squat Japanese pine splashed in yellow would rankle her rigid alpine Austrian sensibilities.

To my surprise, there was no argument; Anna understood my reasoning perfectly. The only argument was with her younger brother about which tree to buy and she had gotten what she wanted. The only issue now was where the parviflora was going to go in the yard, not whether it was going to go inside and be decorated. It also meant that I had one final tree to put in the ground before it froze. Fortunately that year a long Indian summer gave me enough time to get it settled in.

Anna's choice of a Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome' has more Mardi Gras than Christmas.
Anna's choice of a Pinus parviflora 'Ogon janome' has more Mardi Gras than Christmas.

Long-time members of ACS probably know what needs needs to be done to overwinter conifers in cold climates but, if you've never tried this, let me tell you what I've learned by trail and error.

If you don't want your living Christmas tree to end up mulch like most cut trees you have to do some planning, particularly in the northern latitudes. Since most conifers need a long dormant period in winter, we leave our potted tree outside all fall and right up to Christmas before taking it inside. The tree will gradually start to wake up indoors but that can take as much as five days - as long as it is not near a heat source, is not allowed to dry out (I feed mine ice cubes as a form of drip irrigation) and it gets adequate light.

I time the move inside to coincide with our travel plans which, for us, usually means going to New Hampshire for the big day. Despite entreaties to bring the tree in earlier so it could be decorated and the presents arrayed underneath, I'm strict about making sure it is in and out in less than five days. When its time in the big house is up, I'm careful not to put it back outside where it could go into shock at the sudden temperature change.

Rather, I trick it into thinking that it was just experiencing a warm spell by taking it instead to an unheated - but not freezing - garage where it stays near a window for light and gradually nods off into its fully dormant state. A week in this environment, making sure it doesn't dry out, recreates a compressed fall-to-winter season. Now it's ready to go outside - still in its original container. Just make sure it gets adequate water (or snow cover), is not subject to persistent drying winds and sun. Or, as in our case, you could just put it into the frozen ground.

What's that, you say? Dig frozen ground? Back in October, when I first bring the tree home, the real preparation begins - in two steps. Step one requires having two identical plastic containers. If your tree comes in a 25-gallon tub like our 2011 Hillside Upright, you need a duplicate of that size. If your tree comes balled and in burlap (B&B) like our 2012 Fraser Fir, you need two identical containers; one big enough to hold the ball of the B&B tree and a duplicate pot to put in the ground to hold open the space for the tree.

Transfer the B&B tree to one of the pots making sure to add soil so there are no gaps between the round ball and the cylindrical pot. Tamp down the soil, water and then set the potted tree somewhere convenient to bringing it inside in December and where it will get adequate water and light until Christmas.

Future home of 2011's Picea abies 'Hillside Upright'.
Future home of 2011's Picea abies 'Hillside Upright'.

Step two is finding a suitable site for the tree after its holiday star turn and preparing the ground in October as you would any new tree with the proper dug depth, amendments and mulch. I plant the identical empty pot there instead and set it to the proper depth of the potted tree. The ground will eventually freeze around the empty pot so when you pop it out, you have the perfect receptacle for the frozen root ball of the actual potted tree.

One other thing - and this I learned the hard way. Cover the empty pot tightly with heavy plastic so snow and ice doesn't fill up the pot and make it difficult, if not impossible, to extract after Christmas.

Most years, after the tree has been coaxed back into full dormancy, I take it out of the garage, setting the tub on a big snow shovel which I then use as a sledge to drag it across the snow-covered lawn to the prepared site. Use a rubber hammer to break any seal on the tubs. Pop out the placeholder pot, drop in the root ball of your liberated tree. It should be a perfect fit.

On an unusually warm New Years Eve we moved the Hillside Upright in its new home. Anna made this shirt for me for Christmas. Appropriate?
On an unusually warm New Years Eve we moved the Hillside Upright in its new home. Anna made this shirt for me for Christmas. Appropriate?

When your tree wakes up in the spring it should be in heaven and none wiser for all the shuttling that has been done to it.


Nancy Bowker

Hello Sean,

I live in Portland Maine and am enamoured and impassioned by a lone beauty of a pine in the park on the Eastern Prom. I believe it is a Mugo Pine.

Might I contact you and send you images for proper identification?

Thank you for your consideration.

Nancy Bowker

207 749 7088

Maxwell Cohn

Hi Nancy, Sean hasn't been associated with the American Conifer Society since shortly after posting this article. We do not know how to forward your question to him.