Fir trees, photo by Jane Gates

With people becoming more concerned with eco-friendly Christmas décor, the potted Christmas tree is quickly gaining favor in many households. Certainly there are advantages. Living trees are less flammable than cut trees that dry out quickly. They do not require stands to hold them upright and tend to be more stable than cut trees or artificial Christmas trees. Living trees can fill the room with a delightful pine scent. And although they can be pricey to buy, if you care for them well, you can often use them for successive years making them very economical. They also don't leave you with the quandary of how to handle disposal once the first of the year is over.

Then, of course, there is the sustainability factor: you are not killing a tree, but saving one.

So just how do you take care of a living Christmas tree during the holidays and after? Give them conditions that are as close to natural and they will grow fine. This means the tree will need root space, maximum light and efficient watering. Chances are giving adequate care indoors for a tree that naturally grows outdoors will be a tall order. But the tree will only be indoors for a relatively short period of time. If you have a garden, a patio or even a balcony where the tree can spend most of the year outdoors, you should be able to keep your tree happy in a pot for years even with the month indoors covered with decorations.

The greatest success is likely to be with a tree that is reasonably small. Fir trees that ordinarily grow to 200 feet in height will only handle the limited root space of a pot for a year or two. Beware some of the cute, teddy bear-like blue-needled Christmas trees that look dwarf. These are likely the juvenile foliage of much larger growing trees and when the tree reaches 3 or 4 feet in height, it will suddenly start sprouting much bigger, longer, dark green needles. Those short blue-tinted needles can mature into a very different-looking growth in just a year.

While indoors give your tree as much light as possible and don't let the soil dry out. You might want to place your tree on a flat dolly so it will be easy to move. (Don't forget the tray under the pot to avoid water stains below the pot.) After the New Year you can put your tree outdoors in a location where you won't for get to water it. If you live where winters are cold try putting your tree in an unheated room or porch to help it adjust to cooler temperatures before it goes outdoors. If you need to move your tree outdoors earlier try to give it some protection. Remember the roots are more vulnerable to freezing in a pot rather than being sheltered deep in the ground.

Come springtime you can pot your tree up one size larger to give the roots a little more space to grow. If you feed your tree, use only half the recommended dose as you do not want to encourage rampant growth. Prune any long or odd shaped branches. With proper care your tree will be in good condition to wheel back indoors for the next Christmas.

You can also plant your tree outdoors in the garden or in open land. Remember that your tree will likely to full size so plant it where it will have the space to grow to full size. Here are some commonly sold Christmas trees and the approximate heights they will grow when mature.

  • Arizona Cypress: 80'
  • Black Pine: 40' (but grows very slowly)
  • Balsam Fir: 40-60'
  • Colorado Blue Spruce can grow over 100'
  • Douglas Fir: 70 – 250'!
  • Eastern White Pine: 80'
  • Frazer fir: 80'
  • Grand Fir: 300'!
  • Eastern Redcedar: 40'
  • Leyland Cypress Hybrid usually under 20'
  • Noble Fir: 80'
  • Colorado Blue Spruce: usually less than 65'
  • Scotch Pine: 100'
  • Virginia Pine: 80 - 100'
  • White Spruce: 80 - 100'
  • White Fir: 75 - 150'

Another way to grow Christmas trees successfully in pots is to choose fir trees that are bred to be natural dwarfs. These can often thrive in reasonably large pots for many years. Again, grow these trees outdoors for most of the year, bringing them in only for the holiday season and introducing them back outdoors as gently as possible.

Suggestions for dwarf fir trees are Dwarf Arizona fir, dwarf blue alpine fir, the Mugo pine, bird's nest spruce, Montgomery blue spruce, dwarf shag white pine, Korean fir, dwarf blue alpine fir and a number of juniper cultivars.