By Neil Sperry, McClatchy Newspapers
Living Christmas trees, depending on the species, often grow to be full-size evergreen trees — 30 to 40 feet tall and almost as wide. Before you buy a tree based on how it's going to look in your home, think, too, about how it's going to look in your landscape. If it's not a match for both of those places, it's not a match as your living Christmas tree.
University research has shown that living Christmas trees' rate of survival after planting is inversely proportionate to the number of days a tree stays indoors. Ideally, you'll not have it inside more than 10 or 12 days. Warm, dry and dark indoor conditions just don't bode well for evergreens. Keep it as cool as you can (away from hot drafts, the fireplace, etc.) and moist. Buy it early if you need to, but keep it in the patio "staging area," awaiting its trip indoors. After the holiday, keep an eye on the weather, and when you can see three or four days of nonextreme weather coming up, get it planted and watered. It will have become acclimated to the warmth, so you don't want to set it out when temperatures are forecast to drop into the 20s.
WHAT TYPES ARE BEST?
-Hollies Nellie R. Stevens, Willowleaf (zones 6 to 8) and Oakland (zones 6 to 9) hollies trained in pyramidal form are the most dependable. Of all the types, Oakland hollies are the most commonly found trained in Christmas-tree size and shape. Note your soil type and climate as well. Savannah (zones 6 to 9), Foster (zones 6 to 9), East Palatka (zones 7 to 9) and all American holly hybrids (zones vary) need acidic soils and high humidity.
- Arizona cypress (zones 7 to 9). We've grown this soft-textured Southwestern native for decades here in Texas, and through that time, it has almost gone overlooked as a good tree for use at this season. Buy one of the grafted "blue" types for the best color. It must have good drainage and ample room (35 feet tall and 30 feet wide).
- Eastern red cedar (zones 2 to 9) and other junipers. Know the type's mature size before you buy it. Make sure you have the space it will require. Your nurseryman can advise you.
THREE SPECIAL TYPES
- Trimmed rosemary (zones 7 to 10). This wonderful herb grows quite well in many conditions. You'll find the plants sold, perhaps even pre-decorated with bows and balls, as trimmed little tabletop trees. They're great plants, and they can certainly be set out into herb beds in the landscape, but it's difficult to maintain that shape. If you choose to buy one, plant it into the landscape after the holidays and let it grow on its own.
- Norfolk Island pine (zones 10, 11). This is a fabulous tabletop Christmas tree, with its gracefully arching branches and its soft-textured needles. If you have really bright light, you can even grow it as a potted tropical - for a while. What most of us were horrified to learn, after growing these beauties for several years, is that their mature height in nature is 50 or 60 feet or taller. They're huge trees! And, since they're rigidly symmetrical, there is nothing you can do to keep them pruned back. They won't tolerate freezing weather, either. So, if you opt for one, know going in that it will break your heart at some point when you're forced to discard it.
- Alberta spruce (zones 3 to 7). This dwarf conifer makes a wonderful tabletop tree, but it won't tolerate weather extremes — heat or cold. Use it like you would a long-lasting flower arrangement. When it begins to wither, allow yourself the liberty of discarding it.
TREES WITH TROUBLES
- Eldarica (also referred to as Afghan or Mondell) pines (zones 6 to 10) were introduced into the United States landscaping industry 35 years ago. They made sense: They were native to arid areas of Afghanistan, so they had to be tolerant of drought. But they've cropped up with disease issues we didn't anticipate, and they can't handle waterlogged soils. They're not good choices for dry areas that get deluged at times.
- Colorado blue spruces (zones 2 to 7). There's a reason they're named for that mountainous state, where they can thrive at 8,000 feet and 80-degree summer days. They'll live for a while in hotter regions, but they won't be happy, and neither will you.
- Leyland cypress (zones 6 to 10). We all loved it when they were first planted into landscapes. However, Seiridium canker has devastated the once-lovely conifer. They've been toasted (literally), and there is no control for the disease.
According to the Arbor Day Foundation, plant hardiness zones divide the United States and Canada into 11 areas, based on 10-degree differences in the average annual minimum temperature. By knowing what zone you're in, you can find a tree or perennial that can survive in your area. To find your zone, check out www.arborday.org/treeinfo/ zonelookup.cfm.