Christmas trees sit in a field at Nutkin Knoll Farm in Newburgh in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Ashley L. Conti / BDN

This story was originally published in November 2020.

Going to a farm and cutting down a Christmas tree is a time-honored tradition. But some families looking to commemorate their holiday memories have turned to purchasing living Christmas trees, which can be planted in the yard once the holiday is done.

“A trend that has become more [popular] is the concept of a live Christmas tree, whether it be fir, pine or spruce that is used for a short time indoors and then planted in the spring,” Adam Dyar, operations manager at McClure’s Tree Nursery in Kingfield, said. “This has the benefit of providing someone with the enjoyment of adding to their landscape for years to come.”

Planting the living Christmas tree can become part of a new holiday tradition, and serve as a living reminder of family memories, while also providing wildlife habitat and cleaning the air (and, if you plant your tree strategically, potentially reduce your heating and cooling bills). Because they are alive, these trees are also slightly less of a fire hazard than their dried-out, cut counterparts.

Shoppers may be attracted to living Christmas trees because it seems better for the environment than a harvested one. But Rob Moody from Moody’s Nursery and Garden Center noted that the environmental impact of a living tree isn’t necessarily less than that of a cut tree.

“The cut tree is planted as a small seedling, low impact, grown for about seven years, harvested and trucked to market,” Moody said. “A live tree is grown from a seedling, low impact, harvested with specialized equipment, trucked to a retailer [and] fewer trees per truckload can be trucked at once, then specialized equipment is used to unload it, [which is a] higher impact.”

Cut Christmas trees also support the local agricultural economy.

“Actually, Christmas trees and wreaths support an entire agricultural community,” Moody said. “Christmas tree farms supply jobs to seasonal employees for planting, care and harvest. Trucking companies specializing in agricultural trucking rely on Christmas tree deliveries for additional income at this time of year. Even down to local corner stores who see increased sales at harvest time for coffee, food and snacks.”

If you are going to use a living plant as your Christmas tree, it will also require specific care if they are going to thrive once they are replanted. 

“Our concern is that once you bring them inside for a month or two you break their dormancy as most of our houses are 65 [to] 70 degrees [Fahrenheit],” Melissa Higgins, wholesale manager at Sprague’s Nursery in Bangor, said. “These plants would prefer to stay dormant during the winter and we find the ‘live Christmas tree’ idea to be great but it does take some [finagling]. You can’t of course just throw it outside into sub-freezing temps when it has been used to 65- to 70-degree [temperatures].”

Moody said that living plants this time of year can be brought in for up to a week, and should be lightly watered if they are dry, but they should be brought back out into the cold — and replanted, if you can — as soon as possible after that. 

“Consider digging the hole prior to the ground freezing and keeping the backfill soil from freezing so that the plant can be planted correctly after it is re-acclimated to the cold,” he said.

Moody said that garages are a good transition space, but you should not keep your living trees in the garage over the course of the winter. 

“Garages tend to dry the plants out, deprive evergreens of light as they still photosynthesize over winter and is in general a rather hostile environment for a plant,” Moody said. “Garages work well for acclimating only.”

Another note: living Christmas trees can be heavy.

“The root ball must be of a size to support the tree both structurally and nutritionally, and soil can be heavy,” Moody explained. “Teenage boys and big friends can be helpful. Dollys also are recommended. Not to dissuade, but just to make aware — all ventures in pursuit of ecology are noble.”

Dyar said that in future years, shoppers looking for living trees should coordinate with a farm or nursery earlier in the year so the tree can be dug well in advance or reserved in a pot. However, you can still check at local nurseries or garden centers for the options they have available.

A living Christmas tree requires more maintenance than a cut Christmas tree. For folks who love gardening, though, Moody thinks that the experience might be rewarding.

“Some people may consider some of these suggestions to [be] a pain,” Moody said. “For the person willing to do some of the gardening-type activities, the rewards are theirs.”