You’re upon a busy New Year, and you must do something with the mostly living tree in the front room. Maybe you’ve already moved it to the garage or a cool/cold location with some light. If you haven’t, that’s your next step. Maintain the damp root ball; misting the tree is a good idea as well. It will “rest” here for a week and acclimate, giving you (or some strapping young, strong somebody) a chance to dig a proper permanent home for it. The location – you already decided the perfect one, right? – should be a sunny, well-drained spot, with no power lines above or below it, and no sewer or septic areas close by, allowing ample space for growth and spreading of branches.

The hole should be twice as wide as, and the same depth as the root ball … never deeper. It’s better to be a tiny bit shallow as to be too deep. Remember the trunk isn’t a handle. Pulling and tugging on it can loosen the roots from the tree, ultimately dooming it. If the ball is wrapped in burlap, carefully loosen it, removing all twine or wire, then use the burlap to get the tree to the edge of the hole. Gently roll or slide the root into the hole. If you’ve done your measuring correctly, you won’t have to lift the tree back out.

What about the soil? If it’s heavy clay, it will need a small amount of organic amendment, such as very composted manure, worked into it. That’s why it’s a good idea to have the hole already dug and the soil prepared before you’re ready to plant. The mix should be about 20 percent amendment to 80 percent native (whatever you dug out of the hole) soil. Why? When you dig a hole in east Tennessee clay, you’ve created a clay pot/bowl. Filling it with fluffy amendments will create a soup bowl where water will stand on the roots … and rot them. Be sparing with any amendment. A wheelbarrow to mix it in is nice. No fertilizer. Remember, this tree came from a field where 90% of its roots were left behind! That’s right, it’s going to try to survive on 10% unless you were able to dig it yourself, and got all the root … which would be very heavy and large.

Have someone hold the tree upright in the hole while you begin to backfill with the soil mixture, tamping it firmly into place as you go, to prevent air pockets around the roots. Adding water as you backfill will also help fill air pockets. When you’re finished, the tree should feel firm in its place. Make a berm, a foot or so away from the trunk, with any leftover soil or clumps, to retain water. Mulch around the tree to keep the soil moist and don’t forget to water it from time to time throughout the winter. Mulch should never touch the trunk.

What species did you buy? If it’s a fir or spruce its ideal life is above 3,000 feet elevation. Are you there? Lower elevations aren’t normal and they don’t have the defense to ward off disease and pests. I know, you just love a spruce! Do you love a plant struggling to survive, and spraying or treating it constantly? I don’t. Simple is better. A cut tree, a living pine or small cedar are better choices. I grew up with a cedar for our Christmas tree. You can usually cut a pine or cedar in your own back yard, and add them to the compost, or fish pond, when Christmas is over.

What you’re watching for the first year is just a healthy green tree … not necessarily new growth. The second year is when it’ll take off, if it’s happy. Now you may feed it and grow a keepsake that will probably outlive both of us!

All of us have ideal memories of the “perfect” Christmas tree, because of the emotions it invokes. Humans are funny that way. We romanticize experiences and want to repeat. Some great things aren’t repeatable.

In the future, please select your tree based on research, and what’s best for the tree. Spruce and fir “aren’t from around here,” so steer clear. Do you have a farmer friend who will let you come and cut a cedar or small white pine for your special day? Do it! Make new memories with your family, which includes use and care of this planet and its inhabitants … all of them. Trees too!

Sherrie Ottinger, aka “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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