Preparing To Plant That Eco-correct Christmas Tree

December 15, 1990|By Carleton Jones

If you want one, act right now. Grab a shovel or a post-hole digger. Go out into the yard. Pick an appropriate spot. Then dig a hole, before the ground freezes solid. Save the dirt from the hole.

That's what's necessary if you're a "living Christmas tree" enthusiast this year. Those concerned with the environment particularly favor recycling the trees back to nature. It'll turn a traditional decoration into an environmental plus rather than a disposable headache or a recycling mess.

You buy the tree balled, usually from a nursery or a tree farm. You keep it good and damp in the roots. And after the big holiday passes, you plant it. It's that simple. And it might be more of a positive contribution to a cleaner environment than stopping smoking, tuning up your auto or giving up polluting wood fires.

Tree people have advised on the living tree planting method in detail in recent years. Recognizing the basics of tree planting (they don't differ very much by tree type) are a help in getting started.

How much will you pay this season for a balled-in-burlap tree big enough to make a splash both in the living room and the yard, say 5 or 6 feet? About $25 to $75, depending on dimensions and wood type, say some nurserymen. Typical varieties of living trees are white pine, Scotch pine, balsam fir or Fraser fir. The spruces tend to be rare and more expensive. Among the miniatures sold by mail order, slow-growing Norway spruce is popular.

Whatever its variety, you must look on your tree as an immigrant introduced into a strange environment, one that is used to chilly climates and an attitude of rest and torpor. The tree will be unused to the warmth, dry hot air and strong light qualities of a Maryland December indoors. (The dry air produced in newer, heat-pump-equipped homes is particularly hard on newly uprooted greenery by drying it out.)

Select a balled tree that will fit your room dimensions and place it in a heavy bucket or a galvanized or plastic tub, wrapped in its original burlap.

While your tree is housed indoors, general recommendations are:

*Try to keep the room temperature around the tree at 65 degrees or less.

*More than a week indoors for your tree after Christmas Day is probably not advisable. Twelve days at the outside is one recommendation.

*An absolute must is to be sure that the root ball of the tree is moist -- every single day. This is particularly important for its first few days indoors. The amount of water it needs is usually a surprise, more than expected.

Many experts recommend a gradual break-in period before you return the tree to its original outdoor air environment. Keep it wet, but put it in a garage or a shed to shield it from drying winds and sudden chill. That way it will acclimatize.

When it's time to plant, check the hole you dug for the tree. It should be about twice as wide as the dimensions of the root ball. In planting and nurturing your tree from then on in you should:

*Put a few inches of clean sand in the bottom of the hole to assist in drainage.

*Gently remove the burlap cover from the root ball.

*Mix your dirt with peat moss and peat humus in a proportion of about 1 to 1 and add some of this mixture to the hole.

*Put a concave depression, like a volcano's cone, into the top of the dirt to help support the bottom of the ball and lower tree into hole. The top of the root ball should be about 1 inch higher than the ground level.

*Fill around the root ball with the dirt and peat mixture, tamping it firmly.

*Clear grass around the hole for several feet and build a dike of dirt an inch or two high in a wide circle to hold in water. Water the tree well every other day in mid-winter weather to cut planting stress.

Warning: The majority of evergreens grow very fast. In planting yours, make sure that it is in a spot that won't encroach on a neighbor's yard at maturity, shade the wrong flower bed or hang over a roof when it gets tall.

A closing note: Evergreens make great windshields and your 1990 living tree could be the start of a windbreaker strip made up of subsequent holiday plantings.

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