Living Christmas Trees Bring Joy to the World by Lilly Browning Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program Coordinator
We all get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we picture a family walking into the woods and chopping down a pine to be used as their Christmas tree. You just know they will decorate it by a fireplace, and they will have cookies and hot cocoa after. That mindset may have been okay in Louisa May Alcott’s time when she wrote Little Women, but the times, they are a’changing.
First of all, we are in Florida, so we don’t put on our boots and hit the woodlands, tromping through the snow in search of the perfect tree to cut down. Second of all, they don’t even do that up north anymore!
So, what is the Florida-Friendly family to do this holiday season?
You could drive up to the nearest big box store and pick up a cut tree. Alas, that doesn’t feel quite the same. And when you think about it, those spruces came from far away to reach our big box parking lot in the land of the sun. It is hard to keep them properly watered before all of the needles end up on our floors. Also, consider the carbon emissions it took to bring those trees to us from hundreds of miles away.
Use your holiday funds to buy local and visit a Christmas tree farm. Sure, Florida Christmas trees don’t have that classic look we are used to, but it may be time to start new traditions. At a tree farm, you can take the family to cut down a sustainably grown tree. You can wear boots if you want, but there probably won’t be any snow.
Most Christmas tree farms will also offer living Christmas trees. What is the difference between a live Christmas tree and a living Christmas tree? A living Christmas tree will continue living after the holidays! These trees, sold in pots, can be planted in your yard after the holidays. Choosing these trees is a wonderful beginning to a family tradition and serve as a legacy reminder for your family’s holiday. You can continue to decorate that tree year after year, with wildlife-friendly, out-door ornaments to make the holiday joy last year after year.
If you go to a local tree farm, the living Christmas trees offered will probably be Southern Red Cedars, Arizona Cypress (under the brand name Carolina Sapphire), and Leyland Cypress. Of those choices, I recommend the native Southern Red Cedar to bring the most benefit to your landscape. I have an Arizona Cypress that once was a Christmas tree, but I have no guarantees of how long it will continue to thrive. Leyland Cypress notoriously die out at around ten years. Southern Red Cedars will grow large, so you will need a lot of space, but they will last for many years and provide a lot of wildlife value.
After you have chosen a living Christmas tree, be careful how you bring it home. Lay it down, if possible, and take slower back roads. No trees particularly enjoy hurricanes, and you don’t need to overstress the tree from its ride home. Once you have it at your house, you need to acclimatize the tree. It has lived in a sunny, open field its entire life. Bringing it into your family-room too soon will cause a stress reaction. Leave the tree in a sunny spot in your yard for a couple of days. Gradually move it into shadier locations and onto your front stoop for another few days. This process helps acclimatize the tree to light and temperature changes. Once you bring it in, you can place the pot in a more decorative container and decorate the tree. Be sure to keep it well watered. There is no need for a special formula. A fair amount of plain old water will do. You only want to keep this living tree in your house for about a week. So, if you enjoy a long period of holiday decorations, this may have to serve as a secondary holiday tree. When it is time to take the tree out, reverse what you did to acclimatize it to bring it in. Leave it on a porch or a semi-shady area for a couple of days, and then put it back out in the yard for a couple of days before planting it.
When you dig the hole for the tree, make sure the hole is twice as wide but no deeper than the root-ball of the tree. Burying the tree too deeply will cause it to fail. The root ball should be about an inch above the soil line. You can use the leftover soil from digging to create a berm around the tree, to keep water in, like a moat. Don’t cover the top of the root ball with soil or mulch. Keep the tree watered very well until it is established. The establishment time varies depending on site and soil conditions. Water every day and gradually begin to reduce that to every other day, every three days, etc. Rain barrel water will work just fine for your living Christmas tree, as long as you give it a good amount. You can also utilize a hand-held hose with a self-canceling nozzle, a soaker hose, or even a drip irrigation system. Don’t fertilize the tree. When fertilizing the tree during planting, it forces foliage growth when the tree needs to concentrate on its root growth and establishment. Avoid pruning the tree, as well.
The Norfolk Island Pines you will find in the stores that are all decked out for the holidays, well, those cute “little” trees do not make the right landscape plants in our area. They are susceptible to freezes, and if they weren’t affected by cold weather, they grow to unmanageable heights that are very weak in storm situations. If you must have a Norfolk Island Pine, keep it in a pot as long as possible, knowing that in several years, it will be too big to handle, and you’ll have to dispose of it.
Your landscape’s size may limit the number of times we can bring in a living Christmas tree, but every little thing we do to benefit the environment will bring joy to the world!
Hernando County Utilities Department
Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program Coordinator