Q: We would like to have a live holiday tree that can be planted in our yard when the holidays are over. What should we consider?
A: A living, container-grown tree that is later installed in the home landscape is an attractive holiday decorating option, and affords teachable moments for a family with children. However, success requires advance planning and preparation.
The first task is to select the location in your yard where the tree will ultimately be installed, as this may influence the selection of species and mature size. The location should be away from overhead wires and provide separation from buildings and other plantings.
When selecting a tree, choose a species that is appropriate for your area, and a variety that has a mature size and shape suitable for your site. Also consider the size and weight of the specific tree you choose. A 5-foot-tall tree may weigh as much as 200 pounds and will require a dolly or hand truck for moving it in and out of your home.
When planning your holiday events, be aware that a living tree should remain indoors for no more than seven days. Place it in a cooler room away from fireplaces, heating vents, and drafts, and avoid attaching heat-producing or heavy decorations to the tree. Water it regularly so that the soil 2 inches below the surface feels moist but not soggy.
The tree cannot remain outdoors unplanted over the winter. As soon as you know the size of the container, dig a hole in the planting location that is twice the diameter of the container, but no deeper than the depth of the soil in the container. Mound the earth removed from the hole and cover it and the hole with a thick layer of straw or leaves to keep it from freezing. Plant the tree immediately after removing it from the house, backfill it, water it in, and cover the area out to the dripline, except for a 2-inch-wide ring around the trunk, with 3 to 4 inches of straw or wood chips. When the ground thaws in the spring, rake back the mulch, check for settling of the backfilled material, add soil if needed, and replace the mulch.
An alternative, should the ground freeze before you can dig a planting hole, is to keep the tree next to a window in a shed or unheated garage until spring. Insulate the container with mulch or bagged leaves to keep the soil from freezing. Periodically check the moisture level, water as needed, and rotate the tree a quarter turn for even sun exposure. Plant the tree outside once the ground has thawed and the soil can be readily worked, typically around April 15 in the Chicago area.
Plant Information can recommend appropriate species for your site and provide detailed planting instructions if you email email@example.com.