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Keep A Living Christmas Tree

With the proper care and attention, the Christmas tree you bring into your home this year can be a living Christmas tree you uproot and transplant multiple times.

| December/January 1994

  • 147 living christmas tree - woodcut, cover
    If you're transplanting a wild tree with the intent of using it as a living Christmas tree, a small specimen will have a better chance of surviving the experience.
  • 147 living christmas tree - stump cutting
    Diagram shows method of harvesting second growth branches from a tree stump cut high enough to sustain them.
  • 147 living christmas tree - branch and root pruning
    Diagram shows method of trimming roots and pruning new growth so the tree confines its growth, making it easier to remove from the ground.

  • 147 living christmas tree - woodcut, cover
  • 147 living christmas tree - stump cutting
  • 147 living christmas tree - branch and root pruning

I don't think I've spent good money on a Christmas tree but once or twice in 30 plus years of country living. When I did, it was only because there wasn't time amongst the holiday swirl to track down the big kids, pack the little ones into snowsuits and boots, round up the bucksaw, sled, dogs and all, and mount a proper tree-cutting expedition to the woods. A decade ago, trees were being sold by the Boy Scouts in the square of a central New England country town for about $35. The same tree hauled south a few miles to New York City brings $100 and up these days.

Unless you just can't avoid it, why spend the money if you can keep a living Christmas tree? If you don't kill the tree but instead transplant it (with a brief holiday stopover in the living room) or cut a "stump sprout," you'll be able to celebrate the re holiday and save a tree in the bargain.

Doomed Seedlings  

Young pine, fir, and spruce trees need a shady nursery to grow up in and any evergreen woods and most hardwood forests will contain many young evergreens ranging in size from single-spike seedlings to adolescents 10 to 15 feet tall. However, you'll find few grown tall enough to threaten the mature ones' dominance of available sunlight. The butt-to-butt stand of mature trees in a climax shades them out. Of the millions of seeds they scatter each year, most are eaten by the birds and beasts that the trees shelter. Only a tiny fraction of those that do manage to sprout and grow for a few years will be there when an ancient or diseased nurse tree falls and opens up a spot of sun in the forest canopy. And then only the single one or two strongest of the many contenders on the forest floor will fill the available space. Ninety-nine plus percent of forest seedlings are doomed anyway, and your cutting one for Christmas matters not a bit to the forest.

In reaching for the sun, forest evergreens grow thin, spindly, and off-shaped compared with commercial specimens. Such trees are planted in rows, grow in full sun, and are pruned for five years or more for a conical shape with close limbs and dense foliage. But Christmas is for kids and a spindly tree won't bother them. When ours were little, a sparse tree offered more places to put birds nests and gave us an excuse to add more popcorn and raw currant ropes, homemade paper chains, and flour paper on balloon ornaments.

A Small Price for Happiness  

I always felt that the joy Santa Claus, Rudolph, sparkling tinsel, and twinkling lights bring to little children and the good cheer that they pass on to their elders more than justified cutting down a few trees. Enjoying the tree and then using the fragrant-burning needles, limbs, and trunk for stove fuel or returning it to the forest floor to molder quietly into loam did no real damage — it was just borrowing a bit of nature's bounty for a while and barely interrupting the natural cycle.

But like yourself, perhaps, I'm midway between the parent and grandparent generation. Sad in one sense and greatly relieved in another, nobody in the immediate family is young enough to believe in Santa anymore. And though I never gave it a second thought when the children were young, I don't feel justified in killing a tree for a few weeks' decoration in a small, childless house. It seems frivolous—even if it was a plantation-grown tree that would never have seen life without being planted by a tree farmer or a wild tree doomed to being shaded out in the woods.

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