Caring for living Christmas trees

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By Charlotte Glen
Pender County Horticulture Agent
Many garden centers offer rosemary plants pruned in the shape of Christmas trees. Following the holidays, these hardy shrubs can be planted in the landscape and enjoyed for years to come.
In addition to pre-cut Fraser firs, many garden centers offer living trees grown in containers for sale as Christmas trees. If you are tempted to buy one of these to use both for holiday decoration and as a permanent addition to your landscape, keep the following tips in mind to ensure your tree has long and healthy life.
First, find the right place
When purchasing a living Christmas tree, first ask yourself the same question you should ask before buying any plant. Where am I going to plant it? This question is so important because it will determine what type of tree you buy.
All plants have certain conditions where they prefer to grow, and Christmas trees aren’t any different. Take note of the drainage and soil type where you plan to plant your tree.
Be sure to look up to see what is above. Most Christmas tree species eventually get big and should not be planted under power lines, other trees, or anything else that will limit their upward growth. Be sure to choose a sunny spot, since most trees suitable for use as Christmas trees prefer to be in sun most of the day.

Next, find the right tree
After finding the right place, you need to choose the right plant. Unfortunately, the classic Christmas tree species, Fraser firs and spruces, only grow well in North Carolina in the mountains.
Still, there are several evergreen trees suited to our coastal climate that can make attractive Christmas trees. For sites with good drainage and sandy soils, consider Chinese juniper. Varieties like Hetzii Columnaris, which grows 15-20 feet tall and 8 feet wide, and Spartan, which reaches 20 feet in height but only 3-4 feet in width, are readily available and fit nicely into smaller landscapes.
For a moist site, consider Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica). This large evergreen tree has wonderful texture and can reach 30-40 feet tall by 15-20 feet wide. Black Dragon is a beautiful compact selection with dark green needles and architectural form that is often planted as a specimen.
Garden centers often offer specially trained rosemary plants during the holidays. These plants can be kept indoors through winter and planted outside in spring. Rosemary likes sandy soil and lots of sun and grows as a medium size shrub in our climate. If you want to go out on a limb this Christmas, consider using a holly (Ilex species), pre-decorated with red berries, or a Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) as a Christmas tree. Both like good drainage and will tolerate more shade than conifers or rosemary.

Caring for your tree indoors and out
The less time your live tree stays inside, the better off it will be, with less than two weeks being ideal. Inside the home, place the tree in a cool, bright spot away from heating vents and out of direct sunlight. Keep it moist but not wet and never allow the container to sit in standing water. A good way to water these trees without having water run all over the floor is with crushed ice, which melts slowly and soaks into the soil.
After Christmas, you will have to recondition your tree to the outside climate by placing it in a sheltered spot, such as an open garage, for a few days before planting. Container grown trees and shrubs can be planted outside in our area anytime throughout the year.
When planting your tree, be sure to plant it no deeper than the depth of the root ball, water-in and mulch well, but do not pile mulch around the trunk of the tree. Water the tree once a week through the first season after planting if rain does not do the job for you.
Send your gardening questions or comments to: Brunswick County Master Gardener Column, P.O. Box 109, Bolivia, NC 28422, or call 253-2610. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope if requesting information or a reply. Answers may be printed in this column.