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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Truly Live Christmas Trees Need Special Care
No actual 'question' this week, kats and kittens--instead it's a special "You Bet Your Garden" holiday alert! Wroop! Wroop! Deet, deet, deet deet deet; wroop! Wroop! We interrupt our regular programming to provide important help to all of the people who are going to buy a truly live Christmas tree this season; one with its roots all tucked up in burlap that they intend to plant in their landscape after the holidays are over.
Because, while it's a great idea, and the ultimate in re-use of a resource, if they don't know what they're getting into, they'll end up injured or with a dead tree or both.
Oh yeah—a decent size live tree is going to have a rootball that weighs at least a hundred pounds; and one person trying to wrangle it around alone could lead to a sudden seizing up of said wrangler's lower back, their fingers being crushed down in the planting hole…you get the idea.
So you need strong helpers. When I planted my first live tree around twenty-five years ago, I was in really good shape, had the assistance of two super-fit friends, and we still struggled.
Oh and thinking back on that day reminds me. Tip #1: Keep the beer in the fridge until after the tree is safely planted.
Now: First, make sure you have a good spot to plant the tree. Most evergreens are slow growers, but you need to plan for the final size of the tree, or at least how big it might be twenty or thirty years from now. Which means no planting anywhere near overhead wires or where the tree will throw shade on your vegetable garden. And you need to research the final width of the skirt, add a foot, and plant at least that far away from your home and other structures. And stay away from underground pipes and utilities. ("Call 811 before you dig!")
Oh—and the area needs good sun and excellent drainage.
Now, if you find such a spot, dig the planting hole on the next nice day, when the soil isn't soaking wet or frozen hard. Make it a wide hole but not a deep one; and keep the soil you removed to use to refill the hole.
Check several local garden centers and select the nicest tree you can find; the branches and needles should be fresh and supple, not dry. And try and use a place that will deliver the tree to your home. If you must do it yourself, don't transport it in an open truck bed, where wind will desiccate it.
When it arrives home, stand it up in a big container of some kind, like one of those oversized galvanized wash buckets. Pour water slowly over the rootball every couple of days, but try not to have too much standing water in the container; just a couple of inches.
Now comes the tricky part. If the tree comes into a warm house for more than a few days it'll come out of dormancy, and then might suffer greatly if it has to go back out into freezing cold. You are aiming for the shortest possible period of time indoors in the coolest possible room. The ideal situation would be to get it inside (into a room with the heat turned down and no woodstove or fireplace nearby) on Christmas Eve and back out on the 26th. If it must stay inside much longer than that, harden it off on the way out; take it to a cold garage or shed or some other in-between place for a few days before planting.
Now, when I did MINE, I took the Cowardly Path. ("Cowards always prosper and cheaters always win") We set it up and decorated it outside, which avoided radical temperature changes and a lot of heavy lifting.
Everybody involved needs heavy gloves and work clothes; you're going to get dirty and maybe a little sappy. Carefully remove the burlap and any other coverings from the root ball. And no matter what you read elsewhere, do not leave any burlap in the planting hole.
Then the big question: Should you break the root ball up a little bit?
Answer: Only a little, and only if you know what you're doing.
Now measure the height from the bottom to the top of the rootball; that's how deep your planting hole should be. Do not plant deeper than that; you want all of the trunk to remain above ground. Make sure you have enough people to turn the tree around a couple of times to get the best angle and then fill the hole back up ONLY with the soil you removed. No peat moss, compost or other amendments, or the roots won't grow beyond the edges of the hole.
Then let a hose drip slooowwwly at the base of the tree for several hours. Repeat this weekly until the soil freezes hard if dry conditions persist. Then you can spread an inch or two of shredded leaves, compost or arborist wood chips around the base of the tree, but don't allow any of your mulch to ever touch the trunk.
No Christmas volcanoes!