Gardening - Living Christmas Trees

-Gerald Filipski

Don’t think you can get a Christmas tree into your small space? Don’t want to buy a tree that will drop needles and make a mess in your home? Consider a living Christmas tree to solve your space problems. With so many people downsizing, a living tree may be the perfect solution for that smaller living space. You can get the same effect from a live tree as you can from an artificial one or a harvested tree. The bonus is that you will have a beautiful houseplant to enjoy long after the holiday season has passed.

The other benefit is that the tree will not dry up and become a fire hazard as many harvested Christmas trees do. You can decorate your tree earlier and leave it up longer without fear. You will also be contributing in a positive way to the environment by not using artificial trees that may be made from non-renewable petroleum resources.

One of the best choices in living trees is the Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla). This is an indoor plant well-suited to low light conditions. In nature, the tree can reach heights of thirty or more metres. Thankfully, it is rather slow growing as a houseplant and will tolerate growing conditions that many other plants would balk at. It will grow in warm or cool conditions as well as tolerating low light or full light as long as it is well watered. It is one of the best choices for a living Christmas tree because when the decorations are removed, the lovely green colour makes it a handsome specimen anywhere. It lends itself well to pruning and can be easily trained to take on the shape desired. A well-decorated Norfolk pine can look every bit as good as the most expensive cut tree without taking up the space a full-sized harvested tree would.

Another interesting idea for a living Christmas tree is to use a rosemary plant. By pruning and shaping this plant, you can get the effect of a Christmas tree grown in bonsai scale. If you are not up to the challenge of shaping your own, many local garden centres and even some supermarkets carry these and they are pre-shaped for you. This tree is much smaller than the Norfolk pine but can be very charming when decorated with miniature ornaments, bows, or even some of the ultra-mini lights that are available for decorating miniature Christmas villages. The benefit with these trees is that they not only look good but smell good when the leaves are squeezed. They also make an excellent herb addition to so many dishes in the kitchen.

Keeping your rosemary well-watered and in a sunny spot are the keys to a healthy and long-lived plant. Stick the plant in the sink each morning and water until the water runs out of the drainage holes. Give the pot a little shake and place on a saucer. Rosemary, while hating to have its roots sit in water, will die if the roots dry out.

If you have a small yard or balcony, you may consider growing evergreens as living Christmas trees. Many nurseries or garden centres sell Colorado blue spruce, eastern white pine, Scotch pine, and other varieties of evergreens as living Christmas trees. One of my favourites is the dwarf Alberta spruce that has soft needles and a very full look to it. These living trees are usually available as seedlings or one-year-old stock. There are some available in sizes up to one metre in height. These trees are easily cared for as houseplants during their stay indoors.

Keep them away from heat sources such as furnace vents that will dry the trees and cause needle loss, and keep them well watered without allowing the roots to sit in water. The tree should be in a cooler room in the order of 17-18 C and full, indirect light. Keep the tree indoors until the spring when it can be planted as regular nursery stock or kept as a container plant and trained, with judicious pruning, to maintain its small size and used again the following Christmas season. When choosing the trees, make sure you look for ones that have healthy green leaves or needles. Avoid ones that have any browning tips. I look for ones that don’t have a lot of dead needles in the pot. The needles should also be full, firm, and not easily pulled out.

Your living Christmas tree is limited only by your imagination. If you have a Chinese evergreen, a rubber tree, or even a palm, who says that can’t be your Christmas tree? I have seen some Kentia palms decorated that would put any Christmas tree to shame. Don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t be afraid that it will look silly. ’Tis the season to have fun.

Gerald Filipski, the gardening columnist for the Edmonton Journal and active on X @justaskjerry01, likes to end his columns with a quote — sometimes they make him laugh out loud as well as give him food for thought. Jerry quotes Jim Bugg this time: “I thought I was pretty cool until I realized plants can eat the sun and poop out air.”