How to Choose a Living Christmas Tree

Buying a living Christmas tree is becoming a popular choice for environmentally-conscious Christmas celebrators.[1] If you've ever felt bad about cutting down a tree only to have it up for a few weeks and then throwing the whole thing away, you may want to consider purchasing a living Christmas tree, which comes with its roots intact. After decorating it for the holidays, you can plant it in your backyard or donate it to a plant-a-tree organization. But to make sure that the tree will thrive in your home and for years to come outside, it's important to choose a healthy, properly potted tree.[2]


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    Think ahead. Before you actually go shopping for a living Christmas tree, take the following into consideration:
    • Tree digging stops once the ground freezes. Unless you can find a nursery or farm that carries pre-potted trees, you'll have to do your shopping before the ground in your area freezes. This means you may have to purchase the tree several weeks before Christmas and find a proper place to store it, such as a patio. It can't be kept indoors for any more than 7 to 10 days or else it may die.[3] 3-5 days indoors is preferable so that the buds remain dormant and the tree avoids "winter kill" when moved outside.[4]
    • Consider when the tree can be planted. In some areas, the holiday season is an ideal time to plant trees. If this is not the case in your region, the tree will need to be stored and cared for outdoors until a good planting time arrives.
    • Make sure that the tree will fit into your landscape and that the type of tree you are considering will ultimately thrive in your local environment. Some trees used as Christmas trees will eventually reach heights of 40 to 60 feet (12.2 to 18.3 m)! If coniferous trees are uncommon in your area, the environment may not be conducive to them (e.g. arid regions) and you'll have to look for drought-tolerant species (e.g. Arizona cypress). If you don't want to plant the tree on your property, find a neighbor, friend or organization who does want it, and make an agreement before you purchase the tree.
    • Keep in mind that living trees are much heavier than cut trees because they come with roots and soil that must be kept constantly moist. For example, a 5–6 foot (1.5–1.8 m) tall balled and burlapped tree can weight up to 200 lbs![5] It may not be wise to purchase a living tree if you can't move it around without hurting yourself or damaging the tree (e.g. bad back, small doorways, stairs). If you anticipate difficulty moving the tree, consider buying a small, container tree.[6]
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    Shop around. Make a list of local nurseries, garden centers, retail lots and choose-and-cut farms. Call ahead and ask if they have any container trees, or if they are willing to dig up a tree for you (instead of cutting it) and how much that will cost (or you can offer to dig the tree up yourself). Find out if you can order a tree to be picked up a few days before Christmas.If they have living Christmas trees available, visit to check the condition of the trees.
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    Inspect the trees. Whether they're in the ground, recently dug, or container grown, you should carefully inspect the trees to make sure they're healthy.
    • Feel the soil with your fingertips. It should be soft and moist. If it's hard and dry, it means the tree hasn't been watered properly. This may indicate poor practices on the part of the nursery or farm, so you may want to look elsewhere.
    • Check the firmness of the root ball if the tree's roots are bound in burlap. It should be tightly packed. Trees with loose root balls are less likely to survive.
    • Observe the needles. When shopping for any real Christmas tree, living or cut, you should run your hand gently along the branches. No more than a few needles should drop. Most of the needles should be green and firm, not brittle, yellowing or brown.
    • Bend a branch gently. It should bend flexibly, not snap.
    • Look for live buds.
    • Determine the type of tree you're looking at. Most cut Christmas trees are Douglas and balsam fir, pine and spruce. Normally, the type wouldn't matter other than in terms of aesthetics, but since you might be planting this tree in your backyard, you'll want to consider how this particular type will fare in your environment.
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    Dig the tree properly. If all you can find is a tree farm, you may need to dig the tree yourself. If someone else is doing the digging, you can watch carefully to make sure it's being done properly. Otherwise, the tree's chances of survival can be severely decreased through incorrect digging.
    • Make a circular trench that's a foot deep and six inches out beyond the drip line (where the tree's outermost branches will drip water onto the ground).
    • Start from the outside in. Towards the trunk, you will encounter roots that dive into the ground--a small saw may be needed to cut these.
    • Work a tarp in between the severed roots and the soil and use the tarp to hoist the tree onto a burlap square, which can be tied tightly around the roots.
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    Handle the tree carefully. When handling the tree, lift it carefully by the roots (not by the trunk). When you put it down, do so gently--don't let the roots hit the ground forcefully.


  • There are some innovative business arising that rent living Christmas trees out and pick them up when the holidays are over. They coordinate the planting of the tree so you don't have to worry about it.
  • Living Christmas trees are usually more expensive than cut Christmas trees, but they also provide more value and create less waste. Not only will it enhance the landscape and reduce greenhouse gases (by processing carbon dioxide), but it will make the memory of each Christmas last for years to come.
  • Care for your living Christmas tree from the second you bring it home. Since the tree can live for decades, a few weeks of good care will go a very long way.


  • Be aware of "bargain" trees, which could be leftover from the previous season and are probably not in good health.

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