How many times have you seen or heard that the big evergreen tree in the front yard was once “Our Christmas tree?” It’s rewarding and fun to plant your living tree after it has served its purpose as the center of your holiday festivities. And, after all, you’re recycling a tree rather than consuming one.
But before adding it to your garden, be sure you know how large this cheery little tree is going to get, and how it performs in your area. If it’s not in scale with your landscaping, it may become a problem after the nostalgia of Christmas memories is long gone. For those with large properties, living trees are an excellent choice, as they fill and soften expansive areas and are mostly deer resistant.
When shopping for a living Christmas tree, go to a local nursery that offers trees suitable for your climate zone. Find out how tall and wide the tree is at maturity, how fast it grows and its water and care requirements.
For example, Bay Laurel Nursery in Atascadero stocks living Christmas trees in varieties selected for North County. Owner Marcia Guelff recommends the slower growing varieties as the Bosnian pine, Pinus leucodermis, which grows one foot per year and is neat and reliable; the Oriental spruce, Picea orientalis, which has lustrous green needles; and the popular Nordmann fir, Abies normanianna, which will reach 30 feet.
Several varieties of fastgrowing trees shaped for holiday use are available as well. These include the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens (Aptos Blue), which zooms up at 2 to 3 feet per year and keeps its beautiful conical shape; the Deodar cedar, Cedrus deodara, with its weeping branches requiring a very large yard; and the native Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, which grows 2 feet per year and makes a great pyramidal Christmas tree, but eventually reaches 80 to 160 feet.
Local arborist and Cal Poly Natural Resources Management graduate Jeremy Lowney cautions living Christmas tree buyers that certain trees are susceptible to disease. The Aleppo pine and Monterey pine are both affected by pitch pine canker and the Leyland cypress is at high risk for cypress canker. He recommends planting the hearty and slower growing Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens, which is not subject to local diseases.
Arborists and landscapers comment that pines, in general, become too large and unruly for typical yards. Landscaper Henry Giacomantonio likes to use the shrubby dwarf drought-tolerant Mugo pine for smaller settings and rock gardens. Another good choice is the dwarf white pine, Pinus strobus (Nana Group), reaching just 7 feet.
Trees in the cypress family, Cupressaceae, are conifers — which means cone-bearing — that are widely used for living Christmas trees. The advantage of the cypress varieties is that they don’t become as big as pines, and they keep their shape as they mature.
Los Osos Valley Nursery is highlighting the Thuja occidentalis (Emerald Green). These reach a height of about 15 feet tall and 4 to 8 feet wide and make a good screen or hedge. Moore’s Western Nursery in Atascadero has Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica (Blue Ice), a fast grower that reaches 30 to 40 feet of beautiful blue-silver color.
Another good option is the Picea, or spruce, genus. The litte dwarf Alberta spruce, Picea glauca (Conica), has a perfect cone shape that makes an excellent tub plant or miniature Christmas tree. It is a slow grower to 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide.
Whatever you end up choosing, remember the old German carol, “O Tannenbaum” as it echoes, “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, How lovely are your branches.” May you and yours enjoy your living Christmas tree and have a happy holiday season. And for 2012, keep gardening!
Connie Pillsbury is a freelance writer who lives in Atascadero.