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How to Choose a Living Christmas Tree for a Festive Season

The most eco-friendly Christmas tree is one that lasts for years. Here’s how to choose, decorate, and care for a living tree during the holidays

Sunset

It’s always nice to bring in some greenery during the cold, dark winter months. Select a living Christmas tree as you’d choose plants for your garden―go with what you love, and have room for.

Look for landscape-grade trees (not sheared), in 5-, 7-, and 15-gallon cans, and transplant into a decorative container. You can use the same tree in a container for four to seven years, depending on how fast it grows. If you intend to plant it outdoors eventually, choose a variety that thrives in your climate. And be sure that you have a sunny spot for it. Here are some of the best choices for living Christmas trees available in the West.

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Dwarf blue subalpine fir

Abies lasiocarpa ‘Glauca Compacta’ is a pretty silver species that makes an outstanding living Christmas tree. Sunset climate Zones A2, A3; 1–9, 14–17.
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Limber pine

Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’. This species has delicate branches and looks elegant with fairy lights. Zones A1–A3; 1–11, 14–21.
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Korean fir

Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’ is another fir that makes a wonderful living holiday tree. Zones 3b–9, 14–24.
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Colorado blue spruce 'Baby Blue'

Picea pungens ‘Baby Blue’. Zones A2, A3; 1–10, 14–17.

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Nordmann fir

Abies nordmanniana. Zones 1–11, 14–24.

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Bosnian pine

Pinus heldreichii leucodermis. This pine is native to the Balkans, and makes a lovely living holiday tree. Zones 2–11, 14–24.
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Colorado blue spruce 'The Blues'

Picea pungens ‘The Blues’. Zones A2, A3; 1–10, 14–17.

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White pine

Pinus parviflora ‘Blue Angel’ is another gorgeous living Christmas tree that looks just as good in your garden. Zones 2–9, 14–24.
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Monterey cypress

Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Wilma Goldcrest’. Best in Zone 17.
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Dwarf Alberta spruce

Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica’. Zones A2, A3; 1–7, 14–17.

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Colorado blue spruce ‘Fat Albert’

Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’. Zones A2, A3; 1–10, 14–17.

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How to care for a live tree

  • Plan ahead. Buy a variety that thrives in your Zone. After the holidays, keep it in a container to reuse year after year, plant it in your garden, or donate it to a local park. If you plan to plant, make sure you have space to allow for the tree’s growth.
  • Do not disturb. Leave your living Christmas tree tree in its nursery container for at least the first holiday season. You don’t want to add transplant shock to the stress of an indoor stay.
  • Limit its time inside. Display the tree indoors no longer than 10 days, keeping it away from heater vents, fireplaces, and drafts.
  • Water regularly. The easiest method for live Christmas trees: Place ice cubes atop the soil. As they melt, they slowly release water, which is gradually absorbed by the roots.
  • Take it outside. Most trees can live outdoors for several years in large containers. Water regularly, when the top 2 inches of soil are dry. When new growth starts in spring, feed with a granular, controlled-release fertilizer.
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How to decorate

Shine theory

Go ahead, gild that little tree. But stick to ornaments in a single metallic finish for a polished outcome. Tuck in twigs spray-painted gold and doused with glitter for extra shimmer.

Tree: Bosnian pine (Pinus heldreichii leucodermis).

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Grow globes

For those with a serious plant addiction, a tree hung with terrariums is meta-festive. This conifer’s sturdy branches easily support the succulents, tillandsias, and activated charcoal that fill each orb. Tree: Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Baby Blue’). Decor: Hanging sphere vases, $11; paxtongate.com.
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Pop rocks

Trade glass icicles for a sweeter variety: rock candies in bright colors, hung with embroidery thread wrapped around their wooden handles. Clear lights and a fiberclay pot keep the look unfussy.

Tree: Limber pine (Pinus flexilis ‘Vanderwolf’s Pyramid’).

Decor: Rock candies, $12/set of 12; hammondscandies.com.

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Pared down

A trio of trees calls for simplicity—just one type of ornament on each. Felted yarn balls, thick wool yarn, and a string of lights give this grouping a touch of modern Scandinavian style.

Trees (from left): Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Horstmann’s Silberlocke’); Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica’); Dwarf blue subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa ‘Glauca Compacta’).

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A tisket, a tasket

A living holiday tree looks even prettier in a basket: Place its trunk inside a bucket, well-secured with large rocks and filled with water, then place the bucket inside a burlap-lined basket.
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More sustainable ideas

Support a Forest Global ReLeaf, a tree planting program sponsored by American Forests, has planted more than a million conifer seedlings this past year in 14 reforestation projects around the West, including in areas ravaged by wildfires. For every $1 donation, American Forests (americanforests.org) plants a tree.

Send a seedling Give a gift tree that’ll keep on giving, and growing, at Mom and Dad’s place or in a friend’s yard. Seedlings of Colorado spruce, deodar cedar, or giant sequoia (about $25 each) are available from NewGrowth, Inc., an Oregon Nursery. Plants are 1 to 2 feet tall, 2 to 3 years old; they’re gift wrapped using recyclable containers and ribbons. newgrowth.com or 800/605-7457.