How to Choose and Care for a Living Christmas Tree

Decorated live Christmas tree

Decorating, enjoying, and then planting a living Christmas tree can be a wonderful “green” holiday tradition. Living Christmas trees require a little extra attention to acclimate them indoors and plant them afterwards, but the rewards are well worth it.

In addition to the environmental benefits, living trees are safer than cut ones. They pose less of a fire hazard, and the heavy container makes them difficult to knock over – a plus if you have kids or pets!

Choosing a Live Tree

Living Christmas trees include spruce, cedar, sequoia, fir, cypress, and pine. You can find dwarf varieties that will stay small, or ones that grow up to 70’ tall. If you have trouble finding living trees for sale, visit a choose-and-cut lot and ask if you can dig one instead.

Douglas Fir is popular, with soft needles and plenty of branches for ornaments.

Once you’ve decided on a variety, it’s time to pick out a healthy tree. Keep in mind these tips:

  • Determine the mature size and shape of the tree, how fast it grows, and any special care information related to your climate.
  • Look for healthy, recently-dug trees, with green needles, flexible branches, and live growth buds. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller when the tree was dug, and avoid last-season or “bargain” trees.
  • Make sure that container-grown trees are not rootbound.
  • With balled-and-burlapped trees, the root ball should be firm, not falling apart. If the soil is rock-hard, the tree probably hasn’t been watered properly.
  • Keep in mind that your tree, once watered, will be very heavy – larger varieties can weigh upwards of 200 pounds! Make sure you have help unloading and setting it up. Smaller container-grown trees are usually lighter and easier to handle.
  • Pick up your tree by the root ball or container, never by the trunk. Use a hand truck or rolling plant stand to move your tree, and set it down gently.

This Italian Stone Pine (center) will grow to 70’ tall!

Bringing a Tree Indoors

The biggest concern with living Christmas trees is preserving the tree’s winter dormancy. Sudden exposure to warmth, or prolonged time inside, can cause the tree to start growing, which can be fatal if the tree is then returned to the cold outdoors. To ensure a smooth transition:

  • Acclimate your tree to warmer temperatures by storing it in an unheated (but not freezing) garage or enclosed porch for 3-4 days before bringing it inside.
  • Keep your tree indoors for no more than 7-10 days.
  • While indoors, keep the tree in the coolest spot possible, away from heaters, heat ducts, fireplaces, or stoves.
  • Keep the tree in bright indirect light but out of direct sunlight.

Blue Spruce has a lovely color, and it’s firm branches hold ornaments well.


  1. Check the tree at the nursery or side of the road vendor BEFORE you buy it. You want to be sure there is a nice trunk flare; imagine a really old oak tree (or any other). The base should not look like a telephone pole going into the ground, but rather have an increase in diameter, then you should see where the trunk turns into roots. You may have to dig in the soil a little to find the trunk flare; don’t be afraid to do so… it does not hurt the plants. Once you find the trunk flare, be sure there are no roots circling the trunk; if there are some small ones, they can be cut at the time of planting, but large ones are, well, just too large to cut. If you cannot find a satisfory trunk flare, do not buy it. The roots that wrap around the trunk are termed girdling roots – this is akin to leaving a collar on a puppy, then as the pup grows into a dog, the collar will choke it; girdling roots choke the tree and will cause all sorts of problems resulting in a slow, painful death.

    * ISA Certified Arborist
    * Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor

    Chris Francis Landscapes

  2. (enjoy your show.). I noticed our Black Hills Spruce Christmas tree is producing new growth :). I wish it had roots! :(. Happy New Year!


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