Can’t decide on a real vs. fake Christmas tree? Consider a ‘living’ tree

Real or fake Christmas tree? It’s a tough choice, especially since both have environmental pros and cons. But there’s a third option that few people consider: living (or potted) Christmas trees.

Stories like the one about the owl found in the Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree can make some of us feel a little guilty about the impact real Christmas trees have on things like wildlife habitat.

With a living Christmas tree, which comes in a pot with roots intact, you can decorate and enjoy a real tree over the holidays and then afterward, plant it outside and actually create wildlife habitat that can last a long time.

“You’re going to plant a tree that is going to be enjoyed for years to come,” said Jamie Beckett, who’s in charge of Christmas tree selection at Evergreen Garden Market in Toronto. The market generally sells a few potted trees each year and even offers workshops on how to care for them, but doesn’t have any this year, partly because of a shortage.

Shirley Brennan, executive director of the Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario, said there are people who want a Christmas tree but don’t like the idea of cutting one down to decorate their house. Some have thought about planting a tree in their yard anyway, so why not do it this way?

“We see it more and more,” Brennan said, adding that the idea is most popular among people in new housing subdivisions with little existing greenery.

Despite their benefits, living trees aren’t for everyone. For one thing, a three-foot-tall living tree costs about the same as a six-foot-tall cut tree, although the former does of course last longer. And a key requirement is you need a place to plant it. (Donating it to a shared green space such as a park or grounds around a condo building may be an option).

Ensuring a live tree makes it through the holidays requires a bit of care and planning, Beckett and Brennan warn. Here are some of their tips:

  1. Know where you want to plant the tree before buying. Choose the species accordingly, as they grow to different sizes and tolerate different conditions. Often it also helps to dig the hole ahead of time, when the ground isn’t frozen.
  2. Buy a larger tree if you can. These tend to survive better than smaller potted trees, but even the largest aren’t that big, Beckett said. Potted trees generally top out at about three feet tall, as the root balls of larger trees are impractically large and heavy. 
  3. Have a sheltered, unheated space, such as a garage or porch, where the tree can transition between the outdoors and your heated home. Make sure it’s not exposed to repeated freezing and thawing.
  4. Take good care of it. Make sure the root ball is moist but not too wet. Decorate the tree but make sure the lights aren’t too hot and the decorations too heavy.
  5. Don’t keep it indoors too long. Christmas Tree Farmers of Ontario recommends five days and definitely not more than 10 before moving it back to the garage or another outdoor shelter. Otherwise, the tree will get too used to the warm temperatures and won’t survive being put back outside.

Brennan said the tree’s survival improves if it spends less time indoors, and some customers have had good luck keeping and decorating their tree on the deck. She recommends planting the tree as soon as possible in the spring.

Beckett acknowledges that a living tree is trickier to care for than other kinds of Christmas trees, and may not always survive. But it’s an opportunity to plant a tree that will always remind you of a happy Christmas past.

“I personally love the idea,” he said. “I’d absolutely encourage somebody to try it.”

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