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How to keep a living Christmas tree alive

Indoor environment can cause rapid decline

evergreen tree
Keep a living evergreen tree in good shape indoors by making sure it gets enough light and water. (Photo: Kathy Morrison)

Have you ever put a “living” Christmas tree in your living room, only to have it die almost overnight?

Such are the trials of bringing an outdoor plant indoors during the holidays.

Compared to a fresh-cut green tree, a living Christmas tree still has its roots attached, usually jammed into a too-small pot for its size. The idea is that this tree can then be planted outdoors after its service as holiday decoration. Or it can stay in a pot for a return appearance indoors each December.

Whether strung with tinsel and lights or standing bare, it’s still a living tree and needs what any living tree needs: Water and light.

A 6-foot tree can easily drink a gallon of water each day. Evergreens also need several hours of sunlight each day to keep those needles green.

A lack of water or light will cause the tree to suffer, drop needles and suddenly brown.

Another obstacle: Heat. People like indoor living conditions warmer than what the tree likely has been used to outdoors. A sudden change of temperature can cause needle drop, too.

The solution? Keep the tree outside in a sunny but sheltered location until Christmas week. This reduces stress on the young tree as much as possible.

Indoors, keep the tree away from any furnace vents, stoves, fireplaces or other heat sources. Position it near a window where it can get as much light as possible. Check its soil moisture daily.

Once the celebration is over, get the tree undressed and back outside.

As for planting, choose a sunny location with at least six hours of sunlight each day. In Sacramento, young evergreens prefer a little afternoon shade. Evergreens can be transplanted in January.

Want to keep it in a pot? Get a larger pot. Most living Christmas trees are sold in undersized pots (often 5 gallon or smaller) for convenience and ease of transport. To survive until next December, that tree likely needs a bigger container to give its roots some room.


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Dig In: Garden checklist for week of Nov. 27

Before the rain comes later in the week, take advantage of sunny, calm days:

* This may be your last chance this season for the first application of copper fungicide spray to peach and nectarine trees. Leaf curl, which shows up in the spring, is caused by a fungus that winters as spores on the limbs and around the tree in fallen leaves. Sprays are most effective now, but they need a few days of dry weather after application to really “stick.” If you haven’t yet, spray now.

* Rake and compost leaves, but dispose of any diseased plant material. For example, if peach and nectarine trees showed signs of leaf curl this year, clean up under trees and dispose of those leaves instead of composting.

* Make sure storm drains are clear of any debris.

* Give your azaleas, gardenias and camellias a boost with chelated iron.

* Trim chrysanthemums to 6 to 8 inches above the ground after they’re done blooming. Keep potted mums in their containers until next spring. Then, they can be planted in the ground, if desired, or repotted.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while dormant.

* Plant bulbs for spring bloom. Don’t forget the tulips chilling in the refrigerator. Other suggestions: daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas.

* Seed wildflowers including California poppies.

* Also from seed, plant sweet pea, sweet alyssum, bachelor buttons and other spring flowers.

* Plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from winter rains.

* Set out cool-weather annuals such as pansies and snapdragons.

* Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cool-season greens can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* If you decide to use a living Christmas tree this year, keep it outside in a sunny location until Christmas week. This reduces stress on the young tree.

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