Replantable Christmas trees are a sustainable holiday option [Poll]

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Is this the future of Christmas trees?

It’s time for your must-have Christmas mood checklist. Fluffy Christmas movie on TV — check. Yuletide log crackling away — check. Sparkly lights on your bookshelf and a wreath on the door, check and check. Elf on the Shelf even though you’re over 10 years old (we’re not judging) — check.

But you have yet to get the star of your Christmas vibe: the tree. So, what are the options? Cut and artificial trees are always popular. You may have been going back over which is your best (and most climate-friendly option).

But there’s actually a third choice that might be the most sustainable: living, replantable Christmas trees.

You may have seen replantable trees (also known as potted or living trees) at your local grocery or home improvement store and thought about getting one. If so, you’re not alone.

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About 1 in 10 U.S. adults say they’ve used or plan to use a potted pine tree as winter holiday décor this year, and another quarter say they’d consider using one during future winter holiday seasons, according to an exclusive poll from Grid/Harris.

There are two main types of living trees, said Bert Cregg, a professor of horticulture and forestry at Michigan State University, who works with Christmas tree growers and nurseries.

  • One is where growers, often on cut-tree farms, dig up field-grown trees with a tree spade before placing the tree and soil into a plastic container or wrapping them in burlap.
  • The other option is a container-grown tree, like a nursery would. Instead of using dirt, they use a container mix (usually of pine bark and peat moss), which is much lighter than soil.

What does that difference matter to you? Well for one, the latter is much easier to pick up and haul around in the back of their car.

RELATED: Two-thirds of U.S. adults will mail holiday cards this year: Poll

Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow!

The big advantage, of course, is you can plant the tree out after the holiday, said Cregg, which makes it an environmentally friendly option. As long as it’s alive, the tree will continue storing whatever carbon it has stored until that point, he added.

Another perk? They’re nice to look at and enjoy over the years. Cregg said he’s seen customers who buy a new one every holiday season, associating each tree with a different memory, such as a child’s first Christmas. “There’s that sort of tradition and nostalgia that can then go along with a tree that’s still around,” he said.

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Survey respondents also said they’d consider decorating with potted trees because of factors like portability and ease of removal. Urban residents, at 46 percent, are also more likely than suburban ones, at 30 percent, to be open to decorating with a potted tree. Why? Ease of installation and maintenance, primarily.

Deck the halls with replantable trees — but only for a short time

Remember one of those two types of living trees — the option that is dug up and potted? Well, turns out soil is pretty heavy, which makes physically handling this kind of living trees more challenging, Cregg said.

The other thing is, even though we tout these trees as being plantable, there’s some limits on that, Cregg said. Depending on where you live, January can be chilly. Whenever you bring a living tree indoors, it will begin to acclimate.

Where Cregg is based in Michigan, January brings subzero temperatures and snow. Trees that are prepared for those harsh conditions will begin to lose their hardiness within a week or so of being in your cozy 72-degree house. After two weeks or so, they’ll have lost a significant amount of cold hardiness.

Finally, opting for a living tree might be more expensive than a cut tree.

Joy to the world of decorated, climate-friendly trees

You need to take a few things into account specific to replantable trees. First off, you can decorate it as you might normally decorate a cut or artificial tree — deck the halls with lights, tinsel and all that.

But make sure to place a catch basin below the tree for when you water it. Even a single episode of excessive drying can stress out a tree to the point where it won’t recover, according to the North Carolina State Extension, an agricultural extension.

But the biggest thing to remember is that you should minimize the time you keep your tree indoors, Cregg said, especially if you live in a cooler part of the country. You may not want to bring it into the house until shortly before Christmas, like Saturday.

“I know that’s counter to some people’s wishes,” he said. “They want to have the tree around as much as they can, but really about two weeks — if you’re in a cold climate like we are here — is probably about the most you want to have it in the house, and then get it out into a protected area before you then plant it in the spring.”

That protected (but cool) area could be an unheated garage or porch. He’s seen recommendations to dig a hole in the fall and plant right around the holidays, but he advises against this strategy, since planting your tree in freezing temperatures could have detrimental effects.


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Some people have also opted to keep a cut or artificial tree indoors and their living tree outside where it’s visible — and to decorate both for the holidays.

A replantable tree is all I want for Christmas. Now what?

After making sure you have room on your property to plant a whole tree, you need to figure out what type of tree would be best suited for your region to ensure its survival.

The kind of cut trees, like firs, grown on a Christmas tree farm aren’t necessarily great landscape trees, Cregg said, since these trees are a bit finicky and enjoy an acidic pH and drained soils — needs that growers have the tools to address.

Depending on where you live, a Black Hills spruce (which has a classic Christmas tree shape), Arizona cypress or Leyland cypress might be a good choice. To figure out which you should pick, your best bet is to go to your local garden center, since they know what trees will thrive in local garden conditions.

In a pinch, you can also pick a replantable tree up from your local grocery or home improvement store, since the trees are likely adapted to your location and brought in from a local Christmas tree farm or nursery.

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But you might want to avoid the big box stores, Cregg said, which have Norfolk Island pines and similar varieties that don’t typically survive outside unless you live in south Texas or Florida.

“Some, like the Norfolk Island pine — can’t live in the landscape unless your area never gets freezing temperatures — but they do make lovely houseplants that can be enjoyed for years,” Jill Sidebottom, a spokesperson from National Christmas Tree Association, wrote in an email.

Have yourself a merry little rental tree

And finally, if you’re just not ready to commit to raising a tree, you can check if there are living tree rentals, available in select places, including parts of the West Coast and in New York, available in your area.

Some companies and nurseries in Oregon and California, for instance, will deliver a potted Christmas tree and pick it up after the holiday. Customers might receive a guarantee that it’s been planted in a watershed, park or other protected area.

In California, Cregg said, some nurseries let consumers rent the same tree a couple of years in a row. “Of course, you can only do that so many times when a tree is too big that you can’t have it in your house anymore,” said Cregg.

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Of course, tree rentals come with increased labor, which also drives up the cost. The Living Christmas Tree Company sells its inventory of 600 to 1,000 trees each year at a starting price of $155 per tree, though they offer some “misfit trees” with lower price tags.

Regardless of what type of tree is right for you, you can learn more about selecting and caring for living trees from your local garden center or agricultural extensions, like Michigan State University Extension and North Carolina State Extension.

Happy tree picking!

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.


  • Anna Deen
    Anna Deen

    Data Visualization Reporter

    Anna Deen is a data visualization reporter at Grid.