By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura
Today I want to introduce to you a few well known and popular living Christmas trees followed by the care inside the home and planting outside.
With their magnificent sight and endless tiers of branches graduated with perfect symmetry, its no wonder that Nordmann Fir, Blue Spruce, Norway Spruce, and Dwarf Alberta Spruce are the most popular ornamental conifers to be used in the landscape especially for the holidays.
Each year and every year during this time Green Thumb gets in these beauties. People buy them time after time. They plant them in their yards, gardens or give them to friends and family. Maybe they use them as a memorial or tradition or as something from the good old days that their mother or father or grandparents had when they were growing up and they decorated them with Christmas lights. They are better known traditional conifers that people come to symbolize at Christmas. The following potted living Christmas Trees are only available for a short while so I encourage you to head out to your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and deck the halls while supplies last because availability is limited.
In general the Spruces may survive many years when planted out of their natural range, but often lack normal vigor and growth. You read in literature and it explains that the Spruces will be an unsatisfactory grower here or is it that you should not believe everything you read? The truth behold, in our area they will not grow like it does in the high mountains or it will not languish either but may be stressed and not grow to their full potential .
Dwarf Alberta Spruce:
Dwarf Alberta Spruce is botanically called Picea glauca albertiana ’Conica’ and is a perfect cone-shaped dwarf conifer displaying dense, stiff, green needles and grows slowly to an average 4-8 feet tall and 2-5 feet wide in 35 years. The attractive bright green foliage turns gray-green as it matures. When you brush your hands against the foliage it produces a forest scent. In the landscape it makes an excellent choice as a miniature Christmas tree in natural form, or as an artistically pruned topiary. Dwarf Alberta Spruce provides a formal statement in the garden and a superb container specimen. It can also be utilized in planters, in pairs by a porch, entrance, along driveways or walk intersections, and in the center of beds.
This selection has shallow roots, likes to be protected from the winds, reflected sun or heat, and thrives in very cold temperatures. Dwarf Alberta Spruce requires lots of sun with partial shade in hot climates and is intolerant to salt spray. To be at its best, it is recommended to water regularly, weekly or more often in extreme heat or in containers. Dwarf Alberta Spruce does best in cool summers and good air circulation. Many long time customers have longed to buy these and cherish the ones they have despite their fussiness.
Scientifically called Picea abies but the common name is Norway Spruce and is native to Northern Europe. This spruce is much faster in growth than others, reaching 100 to 150 feet tall and 20 feet wide. This selection tolerates wind, heat, and humidity better than other Spruces. In our own climate it may have some setbacks and it is not at its best but will still grow and survive. Many people adore this tree because the rich, deep green foliage, and classic pyramid shape it has in its youth which is reminiscent of a Christmas tree, however when the tree gets older the branches droop and the oldest branches nearest the trunk die back.
Botanically known by the name Picea pungens. Pungens means sharply pointed leaves in regards to the needles it possesses. The Blue Spruce grows to a height of 50–75’ or taller and a spread of 10–20′ at maturity. They are at home in the high country in the forested Rocky Mountains of the southwest. In our own climate, it will likely grow considerably smaller, grow much slower, be stressed, and be short lived. I believe it will do better in a container than in the ground especially if you have clay soil. In fact the Blue Spruce can grow in a container for several years. It prefers growing in a soil that is acidic, moist, rich, sandy, and well-drained. Intense heat and salt spray are not its friends. Blue Spruce prefer to be protected from drying winds, benefits from irrigation in dry weather, and needs regular watering- weekly, or more often in extreme heat. Make sure to water young plants during dry spells. Even though the tree likes the soil to remain moist, especially while it’s still young, it becomes more drought tolerant as it matures. Blue Spruce needs very little in the way of pruning.
I like to save the best for last because it is the most adaptable in California and can tolerate more hot/dry conditions better than others described here. This selection requires some shade influences in hot interior locales and prefers regular water. It is best to provide an area for your Nordmann Fir that is sheltered form the wind. In lower elevations it is slow growing and not as vigorous.
Nordmann Fir is botanically called Abies nordmanniana and is native to Northeastern Turkey, Northern Iran, and higher elevations of the Caucasus Mountains, hence the other common name Caucasian Fir. This species does well with rich, consistently moist, acidic, well-drained soils and grows poorly in heavy clay soils. If you do have clay, I would amend the soil thoroughly (see planting directions below) and plant in a raised bed so you have better drainage, air circulation and water penetration.
Nordmann Fir grows 30-50 feet tall and about 20 feet wide in the landscape, however in its native habitat it grows 200 feet. It’s soft, dark green, flattened needles with whitish bands underneath makes it a very attractive, and an appealing choice. It is a tall, erect, cone-shaped, and symmetrical growing being that is densely branched. Nordmann Fir is renowned for holding onto its needles the best of all Christmas trees, so you won’t need to worry about cleaning up needles over the festive period.
In the garden, it is recommended to supply ample room and do not restrict the growth by pruning as this will ruin its natural picturesque shape. Pruning is rarely needed and it is more attractive with its branches all the way down to the ground. To limit the Nordmann Firs immense size and if you have a clay soil, consider planting it in an appropriate sized pot because it adapts very well to long term container culture.
Indoor Care And Planting Outside:
Now that you know the basic particulars of these beloved trees, I want to now share with you some tips on caring for the trees while they are inside your home and planting in the landscape which by the way, is the most preferred method.
One of the more enjoyable Christmas traditions is to replant a living Christmas tree into your landscape after or during the holiday season. Our living trees are usually offered as containerized trees grown in pots or as “balled and bur lapped” (B&B) trees. These have large field-dug root balls bundled in burlap or other fabric. Unfortunately, Christmas trees replanted after holiday use often do not survive or grow well. Very often while in the home, a live Christmas tree is allowed to dry out between waterings, even one episode of excessive drying can stress a tree to the point where it cannot recover. Christmas trees are often displayed in the home too long. After little more than a week, a tree can lose its hardiness. However, with proper care, watering, and a little luck, living Christmas trees have transitioned to the landscape successfully and survived. Once established, they can often be enjoyed for years to come.
If you want a tree that you can plant after Christmas then it is wise to follow these timely tips and advise. Potted trees often do well and if you follow these directions, you will have given it the best chance of survival but please remember, they are outdoor trees and taking them inside means we can’t guarantee their survival. Prolonged exposure to warm temperatures in the home will force new growth to develop and this new growth will be apt to suffer damage when the tree is transplanted outside after Christmas. Longer periods in the house can lead to death of the tree.
If you decide to put your tree inside the house it is wise to place it in a cool spot away from heat or direct sunlight. LED or small, low-temperature electric lights should be used for decoration rather than any older-style, heat-generating incandescent bulbs. By reducing home thermostat settings a few degrees (especially when the room is not occupied), you can also slow the rate of drying and stress on your tree.
Both B & B and container trees need to be watered regularly but not flooded with water. If a deep tub is used to contain the B & B tree, there should only be an inch or two of water at the bottom. Do not fill it to the brim like the bowl of a cut Christmas tree stand. Roots need to breath. One technique for watering living trees while they are displayed indoors is to periodically distribute crushed ice over the top of the root ball that way it could water the tree slowly and keep the roots cool. A full size tree can use as much as a gallon of water in a day.
If you do not have an adequate water-tight container in which to place the tree, you can wrap it in heavy plastic sheeting or a large enough saucer. Center the tree on a square of plastic or saucer it from the bottom, and leave the top open to breath. You should be able to water the tree without any water reaching the floor or table. Care should be taken to never over-water any tree. Check the water level in your tree’s basin regularly and water as needed. Continually water your living tree while it is indoors so it doesn’t dry out. Ensure there is 1-2” of water at the bottom of your tub or container. Any more than that may drown the roots.
They also have a better chance of survival if they are not displayed in the house for more than a week to ten days. I always recommend the longer the tree is in the house the worst off it would be. The least amount of time in the house the better off it would be. The best thing to do is to not put in the house at all but if you insist then have it inside for a few days only. Remember Christmas trees are not houseplants and they are intended to grow outside.
If you must bring your tree inside, it is best to store the tree upright in a cool area like a porch, garage or shed and keep it well watered. This transition zone will help acclimate it to an indoor condition better. Hose the tree down once and shake off any loose needles. Aim to keep the tree in a cool area for as long as possible, taking it inside just before Christmas and ideally putting it in the coolest room away from open fires and radiators. Water the tree daily. You can also place your tree outside your doorstep for a few days to give it a break from the heat and limited light indoors. A few days after Christmas, put the tree back in the garage (or other area as mentioned before) to help it acclimate to the outdoor area again. As soon as possible, take the tree outside to plant it.
To plant your living Christmas tree outside, till an area four to five times the size of the root ball to a depth of six inches. Dig a planting hole two to three times the diameter and the same depth of the root ball itself minus 1-2 inches to account for settling. The idea is to have the tree planted at the same depth as it was planted in the container . Natural burlap can be left on the ball, but remove treated burlap or nylon and of course remove the plastic container. If a containerized tree is root bound, break up or divide any coiled or massed roots on the outside of the root system. Level the surrounding soil with the top of the roots. Because conifers like acidic soil conditions, I recommend to use an acid soil amendment like Azalea Camellia Mix and mix that in with your native soil 50%. Back fill with that mixture making sure soil is well crumbled and sifted so it is fine with no clods. Also you may want to sprinkle a handful of bone meal in the hole and on the soil to be back-filled. After planting, spread three to five inches of mulch over the area and never allow mulch to touch main stem of the plant. Water the tree after planting, but wait to fertilize it until spring after the tree has started to grow. Do not over fertilize in the first year, especially with nitrogen, until roots have had a chance to become well established.
If planting in a container, make sure the planter that the tree is going in is 2- 3 times as wide and no deeper than the pot it was originally in. Plant at the same level is was planted and don’t fill the pot up to the brim of the container, instead leave a 1- 2 inch clearance from the top so you can can water.
When planting on a mound or raised bed work the soil, creating an area so it is above the original soil grade. And always when planting in any application make sure to tamp down the soil lightly to eliminate air pockets, these air pockets are dry areas and are not conducive to plant growth.
Drop by your favorite Green Thumb Nursery and check out our wonderful Christmas Shop and other cool things the gardener in your family might need for the holidays.
Do you like what you see? Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get content like this every week!