December 15, 1997
Caring for decorative holiday greens
Fragrance, familiarity, and festivity--all these come with the gathering and placing of greens in the house this month. How can the decorations keep their beauty through the holidays? Cut greens do best arranged in water to keep them fresh. For safety, don't arrange lit candles in the center of cut greens. This practice looks good in magazine photos but isn't appropriate for home safety. Trees, live or cut? Christmas trees grown in Washington are shipped all over the world, and we have the finest and freshest here. When buying a Christmas tree, tap it on the ground. Few needles will fall off if it's fresh (though all trees lose needles from the interior branches regularly.) If the needles feel dry or look yellowed, or fall off in quantity, find another tree.
Re-cut the trunk immediately before setting up the tree. Take off at least an inch, to allow better water uptake into the tree. Plain water is as good for holiday trees as anything with additives. Put the tree in a stand that holds at least a gallon of water. A large tree can take up a quart or more in its first days in the house, so be sure to check the water level. Don't let the water level fall below the cut end at the base of the tree. Reduce the temperature in the house at night to keep the tree as cool as possible. With all the other holiday excitement, watering the tree may be neglected, but it's essential.
Live trees take some careful thought and management. If your family plans to put the tree out in the landscape after the holiday, does the garden have enough space for its eventual growth? Douglas firs, for instance, can get to 40 feet in 20 years, and ultimately to 100 or 200 feet. My neighbor's Douglas fir, set out in 1974, now occupies all of her narrow back yard, with the tree obscuring the garage and heading for 50 feet in height. Small evergreens are darling when small, but so are Great Dane puppies. Think about the tree's eventual fate. There are smaller trees than Douglas firs, and nurseries or garden centers will help you locate them.
Try to select a live tree that has been grown in a container for several years. The root system will be intact within the container and able to take up water well. By contrast, many live holiday trees are harvested from fields and wrapped in burlap before being put into containers. The tree's roots will often be severely damaged by this process, and the tree will suffer even more damage when brought into the house.
Moving a living conifer into the warm house stresses the plant, and will increase its need for water. Good root condition is vital, because without a good root system, the tree won't take up water properly. Plan to keep the tree indoors only 7 to 10 days at the most. If exposed to warm indoor temperatures for more than about 10 days, the tree can begin growing, moving out of winter dormancy. When that happens, it's more likely to be killed by freezes when placed outside again.
Before bringing the tree indoors, soak the root ball thoroughly. Spread back the wrappings, usually burlap, at the top of the root ball. Check to feel the dampness of the root ball. When watering the plant, be sure the water penetrates into the roots. Feel the soil for moisture every day. Set the plant on a large tray or tarp to catch excess water. If possible, set up a living tree in a cool area like a glassed-in porch. Some families traditionally decorate a small tree that's kept outdoors in a container year round and brought in only briefly for the holidays. After its week indoors, acclimate the living conifer to the outdoors gradually. Move it into an unheated garage or sheltered porch for about a week, especially if the outdoor temperatures are below freezing. Help the plant move back outdoors by stages.
January in western Washington is a fine month to plant or transplant. Whenever the weather's above freezing, get planting! Prepare a hole twice as wide as the root ball, but no deeper. Cut off all the twine and loosen and remove burlap wrappings. Many tree wrappings are synthetic and won't disintegrate underground, thus keeping the roots from growing properly. Pull roots loose and clip off any that are circling the tree. It's not necessary to add compost or other soil amendments to the planting hole. The roots will grow into native soil and allow the tree to establish well. Don't sink the tree lower into the ground than it was in the container. Keep it level with the ground. Some people find that laying a shovel handle across the top of the hole and the top of the rootball helps with leveling. Water well after planting, even if rain's falling. The water helps settle the roots, and it's necessary to provide more than rain will. Add several inches of organic mulch like compost or leaves over the area after planting. Keep the plant well watered during its first two years in the ground to help it get established.
Another way to manage a living Christmas tree is to leave it outside and decorate it for birds with slices of orange, apple and popcorn strings. Children enjoy doing this, and will probably also enjoy watching the greedy squirrels this sometimes attracts!