Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tis the Season for Living Christmas Trees

So, there I was this afternoon, wandering around Green Acres Nursery in Sacramento, checking out the winter vegetables. Even though it's mid-December, lots of veggies can go in the ground now as transplants here, including asparagus, bok choy, corn salad, garlic, kale, leaf lettuce, onions and slips of white potatoes.

Then I overheard a loud discussion between a boy and his father off in the distance. "Dad, let's get one of these as our Christmas tree!" said the son, excitedly, fondling an incense cedar in a five gallon container. "No," replied Dad. "Let's go out front and get a real Christmas tree."

Out in the front of the store? You guessed it. CUT Christmas trees.

Junior had the better idea. Oddly enough, I kept my mouth shut. Until now.
If chosen wisely and treated correctly, a living Christmas tree can thrive in your yard for generations. The main thing to remember when choosing a living Christmas tree: pick a variety that will flourish in our area. Among the conifers available at local nurseries that will do well outdoors in most areas of Northern and Central California after their indoor holiday use:

Italian Stone Pine. A good choice for the interior valleys. Can take heat and drought when established. Has a moderate rate of growth to 60 feet.


Aleppo, Mondell or Afghan Pine. Also called Pinus eldarica or Pinus halepensis. These evergreens can take sun and wind. As an added bonus for those who own acreage, these pines are good for windbreaks and erosion control. Rapid growers, these pines with gray-green needles can get to 30 to 60 feet tall with a 20 to 30 foot spread. They aren't that thirsty, either; a deep, twice a month watering is all they require during the summer.

Colorado Blue Spruce. Can take sun, shade and cold, but is susceptible to spider mites. Likes most soils, as long as they're well-drained. This tree with the bluish needles is a slow grower that will eventually get 60 to 80 feet tall with a 40 to 50 foot spread.

Deodar Cedar. A tree that actually prefers clay soil, as long as there's no standing water. This evergreen can take sun, wind and heat. It's a rapid grower that will reach 50-80 feet with a 40-foot spread. Aptly known as, "The California Christmas Tree".


• Incense Cedar. Not a true cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), but this California native tree will truly perform well in Northern California yards. Although a slow grower at first, the incense cedar can get 80 feet tall, with a 15 foot spread at the base. IT can take our hot summers and poor soil, and doesn't require a lot of water. It''s best characteristic: the wonderful aroma on a hot summer day.

Coast Redwoods, 1991

Coast Redwood. Give this tree plenty of room in the yard. The coast redwood can get 70 feet tall with a spread at the base of 30 feet. It can take our sun, but needs frequent, deep watering.
Coast Redwoods, 2011

Some tips for caring for a living Christmas tree:

• Don't keep it in the house for more than a week.

• Keep it away from heating vents, wood stoves and fireplaces.

• Water the tree every day while it's in the house. A good way to insure a slow, thorough watering is to dump a tray or two of ice cubes into its container.

• Decorate it with the smaller, cooler, flashing bulbs.

• The tree can remain in a large container for a number of years, but you may need a furniture dolly to move it in and out of the house.

Marginal Living Christmas Trees:

Given a little care, the dwarf Alberta Spruce can survive as an outdoor living Christmas tree here. Give it afternoon shade for best results. 

Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis), native to mountainous areas, tend to revert to rounded tops as they age. The exception is the "Vanderwolf Pyramid" variety, which keeps its Christmas tree shape. 

Another one to be wary of is the Grand Fir (Abies grandis). This tree could soon overwhelm a small yard, reaching heights of 200 feet. 

Other borderline trees that may have trouble here in the Valley include the Tempelhof cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) and the Blue Point Juniper (doesn't like too much water or slow draining soil).


At the top of Santa's horticulturally naughty list is the Monterey Pine, which is better for coastal environments; even in its native environment, Monterey Pines are in decline due to pine pitch canker. Here in the valley, the Monterey Pine is susceptible to pests, diseases and sulks in our summer heat.


Another Christmas-tree type plant that is widely available here is the Norfolk Island Pine. Known as the Hawaiian Christmas Tree, this is best planted Hawaii. Here, it makes a good house plant year round.


When is a Christmas tree not really a tree? When it is a Rosemary plant, an evergreen shrub that's been pruned into a pyramidal shape. This herb is a great addition for its culinary and bee attracting qualities (blooms in the winter and spring), but would require constant shearing to keep it looking like a Christmas tree...uh, bush.