Tis the season when lots of people drag a real tree into their house and decorate it. Some people buy live trees that are balled in burlap instead of a cut tree. A live tree is a great idea, but many people make serious mistakes when it comes to handling a live tree, and they end up losing their money. The information in this article also pertains to any live tree you are planting, be it now during the winter, or during the summer.
1. Before you even take the tree in the house, dig a hole for the tree where you expect to plant it after the holidays. Put the soil in a wheelbarrow and park it in the garage. You'll need loose soil to backfill the hole, and the ground might be frozen after the holidays.
2. Keep your live tree in the house for as short a time as is possible.
3. Keep the ball plenty moist while in the house, but not in a tub full of water. You don't want the ball to dry out completely, but by the same token it shouldn't be soggy all the time either. Just moist. You can wet it thoroughly, but then don't water again until the water is almost gone.
4. After Christmas move the tree outdoors as soon as possible and plant it immediately. If you were not able to dig the hole earlier, the ground is frozen, and the tree can not be planted, leave it outside and pack bags of leaves or bales of straw around the ball. Find a way to heel it in in such a way that the amount of sun and wind the root ball receives is minimal.
5. Try and plant the tree immediately if you can. You do not want to store the tree on top of the ground during the winter if you can avoid it. Putting it in your garage is not a good idea either, it is likely to dry out in there. The absolute best place for the ball is in the ground, even if the ground has frozen after you dug the hole. Just set the tree in the hole and backfill with loose soil. Make sure there are no air pockets around the ball. Backfill only with small particles of soil. If this can not be done because the soil is frozen, just set the tree in the hole and backfill as soon as the weather permits.
6. Check the ball for nylon string. Cut and remove any nylon string. Sometimes the diggers wrap the string around the stem of the tree. If the string is a cotton type, like sisal twine, you can leave it on the ball but remove it from the stem. If the burlap is nylon it should be cut in many places or removed. If the ball is wrapped with a wire basket I recommend leaving it on. It will help to secure the tree and keep it from rocking back and forth with the wind. The roots will find their way through the wire and the burlap. Just cut the burlap where you can.
7. Do not plant the tree too deep. This is the number one reason for plants that do not survive. They should not be planted any deeper than they were in the nursery. The top of the ball should be one to two inches above the ground level. If you have heavy, wet, clay soil, you should plant it even higher and build a bed up around the ball. When you plant them too deep the plants literally suffocate.
8. Do not fertilize the tree at the time of planting. You can fertilize it in the spring, but only with an organic fertilizer. If you have compost available, mix some in while planting. Fertilizer can do more harm than it can good. I always recommend organic fertilizers. It's hard to make a mistake with organics. It's always a good idea to stake trees when you plant them. If the wind is constantly rocking them back and forth they will have a difficult time establishing new roots in their new home.