Forest Products


Living Christmas Trees

This year, more than 37 million American families will celebrate the holidays with a real, fragrant, renewable Christmas tree. Iowa has approximately 200 growers of Christmas trees providing a wide variety of species for the Iowa consumer. 

In recent years, both the consumer and the producer of trees have seen increased interest in the "living" Christmas tree. Live Christmas trees have consumer appeal because with care they can be added to the home landscape after use as a Christmas tree. In Iowa, establishment of living Christmas trees is difficult because of the adverse winter weather conditions including wide temperature extremes, cold freezing weather, and high winds.

When choosing a living Christmas tree, here are a few tips to increase the odds of having it live and thrive in the landscape after Christmas.

  • Plan ahead; and prepare the site for planting before Christmas. Just like all tree plantings, select the species to match the site. For most conifers, good soil drainage and adequate space and sunlight are required for optimal growth. Pick conifer species which do well in the Iowa landscape. Some common species used for living Christmas trees are Scotch, white and red pines, Blue, Norway, White, and Black Hills spruce, and Concolor fir.
  • Dig the hole before the ground freezes and cover with enough straw or mulch to keep the soil from freezing; also protect the fill soil from freezing so it can be used for planting the tree after Christmas.
  • Base the selection of the tree on more than shape and color. Living trees can be balled and burlapped (B&B), container grown or potted. Small trees are almost always a better choice than large trees because they are easier to handle and move and because you have a higher probability of the tree having sufficient root system to support it after planting. Pay attention to the root portion of the plant; the pot or ball should match the size of the tree. B&B stock should have a solid ball. Potted stock should not be root bound or too small to support the top portion of the tree. 
  • Purchase the tree one to two weeks before Christmas, and store in a cool but not cold location. Keep the pot or soil ball cool and moist, but do not allow it to freeze; ideal storage temperatures would be from 33 to 45 degrees. A mulch of straw may be used to keep the soil ball or pot from freezing.
  • Plan to keep the tree in the home for as short a time as possible. The maximum time allowed in the house is five to seven days; the longer it is kept in the house, the greater the risk of failure. If kept inside too long, the tree begins to grow and is damaged or killed when planted outside in the cold temperatures of an Iowa winter.
  • Remember the tree will need adequate water inside the home. The soil ball or pot should be kept moist but not wet; wrap the soil ball or pot in plastic or place in a tub while it is in the house to avoid damaging the floor or carpet. Check the soil ball or pot daily, and water when it becomes dry.
  • Locate it away from heat sources such as fireplaces, registers, wood stoves, and space heaters. Decorate with care; avoid heat producing lights, flocking or artificial snow. Use cool lights and avoid causing damage to the tree with heavy ornaments or decorations.
  • After Christmas, remove the decorations and move the tree back to the cool but non-freezing storage location for three or four days to gradually acclimate it to cooler temperatures. Again, do not allow the soil ball or pot to freeze during this acclamation period.
  • After the acclamation period, plant the tree in the pre-dug and mulched hole using good tree planting techniques. Remove the pot or as much of the burlap as possible without disturbing the root system. Firm the soil around the root system, water well and mulch heavily with straw or composted wood chips over and beyond the planting area to minimize soil temperature fluctuations.

Using and planting a "living Christmas tree" in Iowa is more difficult than in warmer climates, but with a little care and attention to detail, success can be yours.