Jan Groot, owner of El Modeno Gardens in Irvine, one of the largest suppliers of living Christmas trees in California, suggests giving your tree a thorough watering before bringing it indoors. "After you bring it inside, put it in a saucer. From then on, you can keep the soil moist with ice cubes," he said. "They'll melt slow and water won't gush out onto the carpet."
Place the tree as near a window as possible, never in a dark corner.
Keep the temperature as cool as possible. Don't put the tree near a fireplace.
Don't flock or spray anything on a living Christmas tree since this can kill it.
Water the tree thoroughly and remove it from the pot. If it doesn't slide out easily, tilt the tree onto its side, and tap the bottom of the pot to dislodge it. Straight-sided pots may have to be cut off.
Potted trees may have become bound, with roots circling around the root ball in the sides and bottom of the pot. These roots must be straightened out before planting. Pull them loose by hand, or make several inch-deep cuts around the root ball with a trowel or hatchet.
Dig a hole slightly larger and deeper than the plant's root ball. Backfill the hole with enough soil to allow the root ball to sit two inches higher than the surrounding soil. Fill up the hole, but don't place any soil on top of the root ball. Construct a basin around the tree with the rim right at the edge of the root ball. Fill the basin several times with water, allowing it to soak in between waterings.
Correct watering is the key to a healthy tree. Frequency depends on soil type and weather. Dig down about a foot to determine how wet the soil is near the tree's roots. Most problems are a result of over-watering, since pines, once established, are quite drought-hardy. For the first six weeks, water once or twice a week. Gradually lengthen the interval during the tree's first year
To keep the tree compact and bushy; cut back the main top leader if it grows over 12 to 15 inches without producing a new whorl of branches. Side branches may also be cut back 3 to 4 inches.
Most trees can be grown for a couple of years in a large container, but Italian stone pines are most suitable, because of their slow growth rate. A lightweight mix of 50% redwood compost mixed with native soil will provide good drainage. Don't use large amounts of peat moss or organic soil amendments.
Over-watering is the most frequent cause of unhealthy container-grown plants. If the soil is dry 2 to 3 inches from the top, the area around the roots is probably dry enough to receive more water. Water according to need, not by a set schedule. Slow-release fertilizer every two to three months will help.
WHERE TO DONATE YOUR LIVING CHRISTMAS TREE
The Orange County Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks accepts donated trees. Tim Miller, who manages the county's 17 regional parks, suggests purchasing an Aleppo pine, an Italian stone pine, a Canary Island pine, a Monterey pine or a coastal redwood if you plan to donate your tree after Christmas. "There's a grove of Monterey pines in Carbon Canyon that are leftovers from a living Christmas tree farm located there in the '70s. Now they're 60 to 70 feet tall," he said. Information: (714) 567-6204.
Various cities in Orange County accept a limited number of trees for planting in city-owned parks. Contact the city's parks and recreation department, before you purchase your tree, for information on which trees are needed.