If you really want a Christmas tree in your home, a living Christmas tree could be the answer. Without a doubt, if you want a tree to decorate your home, the most ethical and sustainable option is to choose a real tree that has not been cut down. Increasingly, it is possible to find real trees in pots. These can be brought into your home in winter, then popped outside in your garden and nurtured for the rest of the year. You can then bring your tree inside again for Christmas year after year.
Why Choose a Living Christmas Tree
Generally speaking, Christmas trees raised in pots will be grown in dedicated nurseries, often as a side-business on a smallholding or farm. Purchasing trees from local farms can help them to diversify and make a profit.
More than this, choosing a living Christmas tree can provide an alternative to less green and more environmentally damaging options.
A Living Tree as an Alternative to an Artificial Tree
There is an ‘urban myth’ (largely propagated by the artificial tree industry) that artificial trees, when kept for years, can be more environmentally friendly that (or equally environmentally friendly to) real trees. Unfortunately, however, the materials that are used to make most artificial trees are hugely problematic from an environmental perspective. And the claim for the superior sustainability of the majority of artificial trees simply has no basis in fact.
Most artificial trees are made from plastic – most often PVC film. Like other plastics, PVC is made from fossil fuels. High levels of greenhouse gases emitted during the process of creating the material in the first place. Around two thirds of the carbon footprint of an average artificial Christmas tree comes from the plastic it is made from. The metal frame and transportation also take a lot of energy – not usually green.
Since plastics do not biodegrade, and stick around in our environment – disposing of them is a major problem. While PVC can be recycled, most Christmas trees are made up of composite materials, and so cannot be easily recycled at the end of their useful lives.
A Living Tree as an Alternative to a Cut Christmas Tree
A real, cut tree is a far better option than an artificial one in terms of carbon footprint. But these trees can also be problematic from an environmental perspective. Christmas tree plantations are not like natural forests. They are essentially mono-crop systems. And just like other mono-crop systems, they generally require the use of controversial herbicides and pesticides (such as glyphosate). Christmas tree plantations sequester carbon. But they do not have the benefits to wildlife or the wider ecosystem that real woodland and real forest can do.
Christmas trees in pots are different to those that are cut down in that they do not cover large areas of land that could be used for more ecologically beneficial uses.
So, a real, living tree can be the best option. But if you choose a Living Christmas tree, it is important to realise that not all options were created equal. It is also important to understand how to care for your living Christmas tree once the festive season is over. Read on to learn more and make sure that your living Christmas tree survives until next year.
How To Choose a Christmas Tree
When choosing a Christmas tree in a pot, it is important to choose one from as close to home as possible, and ideally, to choose an option that is certified organic. But which type of tree should you go for?
Some living trees that could consider include:
Leyland cypress (good for people with allergies to other Christmas tree types)
The Nordmann fir is considered to be an excellent choice and is the most popular option here in the UK. They have a deep green colouration and perfect shape. The Fraser fir is one of the most popular options in the US and Canada, but can be a good, sturdy tree for the UK too. Norway spruces are great for a traditional look and some consider them the quintessential Christmas tree. As cut trees, they tend to lose a lot of needles.
But with a living tree, you should not have as much of a problem with this. These are the most common options, but as you can see from the list above, there are also a range of other conifers that you could consider.
If you are choosing a living Christmas tree that you would like to grow on in your garden, it is important to think about the climate, microclimate and soil conditions where you live. Try to choose a tree that can grow easily where you live, and that will work well with other trees and plants in your garden.
How To Care for a Living Tree
Over the festive period, it is important to remember that it is a living plant. It will need to be watered. You must keep the soil in the container moist, but not too wet, throughout the whole of the festive season.
A living Christmas tree will do best if it is not exposed to wildly fluctuating temperatures or temperature extremes. Try to keep your living Christmas tree in a cool room, if possible, and absolutely avoid putting it too close to a radiator or stove.
It is best not to keep your tree indoors for more than a couple of weeks. The longer you keep your tree indoors, the more stress it will be placed under, and the less likely it will be to survive when you plant it out in your garden.
It is also best to choose light-weight LED lighting strands and minimal, lighter decorations. This too will limit the amount of stress that your living Christmas tree is under.
What To Do After Christmas
After Christmas, it is a good idea to take your tree out of its pot, and replace the soil with some fresh growing medium. This will ensure that there is a good supply of nutrients to see the tree through the coming seasons. If you want your tree to grow taller for next year, choose a larger container in which to re-pot it. Alternatively, choose a good spot and transplant your pot grown Christmas tree into the ground.
Living trees can be grown on in pots or in the soil in your garden. But it is important to consider the needs of the tree, and the conditions where you live. Some soil types and conditions may not be ideal for your Christmas tree, so container growing will be the best option.
However, it is important to remember that trees grown in pots will need watering and feeding more often than trees grown on in the ground. Pot grown trees will also have a limited life expectancy. They will tend not to live more than a few years. If you are growing trees in containers, increase the size of the container as much as possible – going for the largest container that you can move around.
Preparing for Outdoors Growing
Bear in mind that, like any other plant that has been kept indoors, your living Christmas tree will have become used to the warmer temperatures and conditions inside your home. Like other plants, it can be helpful to harden it off before placing it outdoors. Generally speaking, the longer you keep your tree indoors, the more acclimatising it will need to do.
A polytunnel can be useful as it can make the hardening off process a little easier and more straightforward. You can temporarily keep your tree in your polytunnel until the weather warms and it can be placed in its final growing position. The tree will experience colder temperatures than it did inside, yet will be offered a degree of protection from the extremes of the winter weather.
Did you choose a living Christmas tree? Have you succeeded in keeping one alive over a number of years? Share your tips and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.