‘Tis the season for all things festive and if picking up a Balsam or Fraser Fir is on your to-do list in the coming weeks, but you feel guilty whenever you chop one down, it may be time for you to consider a potted Christmas tree.
A potted Christmas tree really is the perfect way to get the best of both worlds — a real tree without the guilt of killing it, because you actually keep it alive through the holidays and beyond.
“We’re really proud of real Christmas trees,” says Doug Hundley, seasonal spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA). “They are environmentally much friendlier to produce and use than an artificial tree. But what you’re doing with a potted Christmas tree is even more environmentally friendly.”
Read on for everything you need to know to buy, care for, and maintain a potted Christmas tree this year.
Choosing your tree
When choosing a potted Christmas tree, keep in mind that it will likely be much smaller than what you are used to. Hundley points out, though, that there are two types of potted Christmas trees you may come across — conifers (which are typical Christmas trees) and non-conifers (like cypress, cedars, Norfolk Island pines, or arborvitae) — and one is smaller than the other.
Acclimating your tree for indoor life
Remember, your tree was grown and made to live in a cold environment, whether in a pot or in a field, so bringing it indoors can be a shock to its system. To decrease the likelihood of killing it with the high temperatures, transition it inside slowly.
Start by keeping it in a sheltered, unheated location like a garage for a week, making sure its roots remain damp (not wet or dry) throughout that time, then bring it inside carefully. If a slow transition is not an option for you, Hundley believes you won’t hurt the plant as long as it’s moved back outdoors after no more than three weeks inside.
Where to place it
While all trees are obviously heavy, living trees are even more so, so you’ll want to choose the perfect spot for it before you lug it inside. Hundley suggests placing it in a room that tends to be on the cooler side with plenty of natural lighting but not in the line of direct sunlight.
Additionally, as with any Christmas tree, avoid placing it near a fireplace, heater, stove, or anything that gives off heat or fire, both to keep it alive longer and to lessen the risk of fire.
If you purchased a tree that has a burlap sack covering its roots and soil, Hundley recommends using a classic galvanized washtub as a planter. When doing so, do not remove the burlap and rope. You’ll actually water with the burlap on to keep the ball of dirt and roots inside evenly damp.
With the burlap sack wedged into a properly-sized washtub, the tree should stand up on its own, but if it’s a bit loose or crooked, you can use wooden wedges underneath the balled root system to help prop it up so it stands up straighter.
How often to water a potted Christmas tree
To maintain a healthy tree, keep its roots damp at all times. Hundley says this typically means you’ll need to water your tree every couple of days and recommends doing so with a classic watering can whenever the soil begins to feel dry.
Be sure not to drench the soil. You do not want it to be soaking wet, nor should it be left to sit in standing water as this could drown and eventually rot the tree.
What do I do with it after Christmas?
No matter the tree variety, after it has been inside for about two or three weeks (maximum), you should reacclimate it to outdoor temperatures and relocate it. You can do this by following the same acclimation steps you did to bring it indoors, but in reverse this time.
For the non-conifer pre-potted trees, you can typically leave them in their pots if that was how they were grown and it has been confirmed that they won’t get too much bigger. Consult someone at the nursery you’re buying from to make sure you’re properly caring for it once you’ve undecked the halls.
Depending on the variety, you may eventually need to re-pot it in a larger planter. You’ll know it’s time to do so if its growth seems to have stunted, you see yellowing or sparsing of its needles, or, more obviously, it’s physically looking oversized or beginning to tip over.
While Hundley recommends planting any living tree outside after the holidays for the best chance of keeping it alive, conifer variety trees require immediate planting outside in full sunlight as they will get very big and will not survive long without being able to sink their roots.
To keep them alive as the seasons change, treat them as you would any other landscape plant: soil test to figure out what fertilizer you will need, then irrigate and add fertilizer in the spring or summer.
Can I use a potted Christmas tree for multiple years?
Yes and no, depending on the type of potted Christmas tree you buy. If you went with something other than a conifer and it’s a smaller tree that can stay in its pot, you will be able to reuse it each year for as long as you keep it thriving and surviving.
If you choose a potted tree of the conifer variety, you have to plant it after Christmas, so you would have to cut it down to bring it back inside next year. That said, Hundley points out that it makes “a very attractive focal point for the neighborhood” when decorated in lights outdoors for years to come.
Though it may seem like an intimidating task, caring for a potted Christmas tree is not all that difficult. When you break it down to the basics, you just have to pick your tree, transition it gradually indoors, place it somewhere out of direct sunlight and away from any heat source, water it regularly, and transition it back outside after two or three weeks.
The reality is, it’s just like caring for any other plant. The only difference is the acclimation period but, even that is relatively straightforward, especially if you have a garage. Plus, if you do this successfully, you have a lot to be proud of because as Hundley says, “You’re going to keep it alive indefinitely. That’s a wonderful thing.”