Talking Trees with Davey Tree

Live vs. Cut Christmas Trees + How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh

November 18, 2021 The Davey Tree Expert Company Season 1 Episode 45
Talking Trees with Davey Tree
Live vs. Cut Christmas Trees + How to Keep Your Christmas Tree Fresh
Show Notes Transcript

R.J. Laverne, Manager of Education and Training at the Davey Institute, talks about the difference between caring for a live Christmas tree versus a cut one, as well as how to care for them once they are in your homes.

In this episode we cover:

  • Live Christmas trees - what to consider (1:08)
  • Cut trees from a nursery (7:21) 
  • Christmas tree industry (9:12)
  • Benefits trees offer while they are growing (11:03)
  • Tree recycling (11:50)
  • Keeping the tree fresh inside (12:14)
  • Trees that lose their needles quicker (14:50)
  • Canaan fir (16:55)
  • R.J.'s job (18:37)

To find your local Davey office, check out our find a local office page to search by zip code.

To learn more about planting a balled-and-burlapped tree, read our blog, How to Plant a Live Christmas Tree with Root Ball in the Ground.
To learn more about keeping your Christmas tree fresh, read our blog, How Do You Preserve a Christmas Tree and Keep it Fresh and Green?
To learn more about stopping needles from falling, read our blog, How to Stop Needles from Falling Off Your Christmas Tree.

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Have topics you'd like us to cover on the podcast? Email us at We want to hear from you!

Doug Oster: Welcome to the Davey Tree Expert Company's Podcast, Talking Trees. I'm your host, Doug Oster. Each episode showcases one of Davey's certified arborist sharing advice with everyone about caring for your trees and landscapes. We'll talk about everything from introduce pest seasonal, tree care, deer damage, how to make your trees thrive, and much, much more. Tune in every Thursday to learn more, because here at the Talking Trees Podcast, we know trees are the answer. Well, another returning engagement for RJ Laverne. He's the manager of education and training at the Davey Tree Expert Company, located at the main campus, Kent, Ohio, but probably recorded from home today is going to be my guest, RJ.

RJ Laverne: You got that right. I am in the comfortable confines of the spare bedroom upstairs with cats wandering around and [unintelligible 00:00:59]

Doug: I've got guys working on the house today. We set this up so they'd be at lunch, and they just left for lunch so no sauce, no pounding. Today we're talking all about Christmas trees. We're early for our Christmas trees because I wanted to ask you first about using a live tree, a balled and burlapped tree as a Christmas tree. Is that something we can do and is it something that you advise?

RJ: Well, the short answer to your first question is yes. It is something we can do. The better answer to your second question is, well, maybe, maybe not and it's probably a good thing to think this through. If you were going to a nursery, for example, to buy a balled and burlapped six-foot-tall pine tree to plant in your yard, and let's say that the diameter of the trunk at the bottom of the trunk on that pine tree was four inches. If we were really serious about picking out a good tree and expecting it to survive, we would want the root ball on that 40-inch diameter tree to be at least, if I'm looking at my table correctly, 42 inches wide, three and a half feet wide on root ball, which is probably going to be at least 12, 14 inches deep.

If you select a tree of that size, with a smaller root ball, that means that a much higher percentage of the root mass has been cut off at the time the tree was done. That tree is going to have a more difficult time surviving once indeed you do plant it. Assuming that you select your six, seven-foot-tall Christmas tree with a four-inch diameter trunk and you have a three and a half foot wide root ball, you're going to need several burly men, and a child or two, and perhaps a pony to lift that up and move it and get it into your living room or wherever you happen to keep it.

There's a couple of tricks there. Number one is that the root ball is going to be very heavy and number two, the tendency is, at least for me when I'm getting my Christmas tree in through the front door, is you grab a hold of the trunk and you give it a good yank. Well, when you do that, you're going to do damage to the circulatory system of the tree that's right underneath the trunk. If you do have a live tree with a root ball, the proper way to move it is to pick it up by the root ball and not by the trunk. You're going to have to pick it up by the root ball and manage to carry that root ball through your door and tip the root ball in order to get the tree in.

It's going to be an exercise in physics and muscle but, it can be done. Now, the bigger challenge- well, not so much, but another challenge is that once you get inside the house, that tree is going to get nice and cozy by the fireplace as your chestnuts are roasting. It's going to think, "Spring's arrived early this year." As the roots warm up as the shoots and the buds warm up, in a matter of a few days to a week, that tree is going to start waking itself up out of dormancy and it will want to swell those new buds and start pushing out new foliage.

Then when the Christmas season has passed, you'll then once again be forced to navigate that huge root ball out the door and outside. Well, unless you do that within a week or so after you get it in and the tree starts to acclimate to the warmer weather on the interior of your house. Unless you get it back outside before it starts getting ready to greet spring, when you take it back out into the winter cold, those new buds that are about to swell and put out new foliage are going to freeze and that new foliage will die. You've woken up the tree in the middle of night, so to speak, and dragged it outside in its nightgown, and left it there to freeze.

Number one, if you're going to use a live tree with a root ball, make sure that you get either a small tree with a relatively small root ball that's appropriately mid-sized or a bigger tree with a bigger root ball. Then once you get it in the house, make sure that you get it back out of your house in probably a week or less, so that it doesn't start warming up. Otherwise, when you take it back out it's not going to be happy. That's a rather long answer to your second question.

Doug: Well, I'm just getting the idea that people ask me this because they think that it's an environmentally better thing to do to get this live tree, or it's the first Christmas and they want to have this tree planted-- Planting a tree in the east, at least in December. that's what we're talking about it now. You'd have to dig a hole out. Could you talk about getting a cut tree and looking at it as really more of a sustainable crop? We're growing this tree like we would grow corn for this purpose. I guess my first ask is, is it okay, just for us to get a cut tree because it sounds so much easier?

RJ: It sounds so much easier. Yes. Let me add that if you do have the tree with the root ball, once you get it outside, you can't just prop it up against your garage and wait until spring. You're going to have to cover up that root ball with mulch. After wetting it down, you're going to want to make sure the root ball doesn't dry out and doesn't freeze. Getting on to whether it's a good idea to harvest a living tree to cut it down and then take it in, use it for a short amount of time and then discard it. I put this question to my local Christmas tree nursery grower, a great local family that's been in the business for a long time. For some number of years, they did sell.

They would dig up some of their Christmas trees with an appropriate-sized root ball and they did sell those. The message that they got back from many of their clients that purchased those trees was, "Well, why did my tree die? You sold me a tree and then I planted it and it died." Well, it died because of all the reasons that we've spoken of. The local nursery has no longer offered that option. They simply sell cut trees. You can go and cut your own. That's what we do, we've done for the last 25 years. The reality of this is, is that in the Christmas tree industry, these nursery professionals are planting a crop that is intended to be harvested in a short amount of time.

Just as you plant your carrots in the rows in your garden and you expect to harvest them some months later and in a similar fashion when we plant pine trees or spruce trees in a plantation for the purpose of growing large trees and then harvesting them to make paper. Christmas trees are somewhere in between. You're not going to harvest them the same season, but within 8 or 10 or 12 years we're intending to harvest those. If those trees do not get cut and sold, there's a relatively small window of two or three years where they're going to be the appropriate size that they're marketable and then they're going to grow to be bigger than what most people want.

Eventually, those trees will be cut down, never having been used as a Christmas tree, in order to make way for the next crop of trees that will get planted in the field. Whether you're cutting the tree and using it as it was intended as a Christmas tree, or whether you are not cutting the tree and that tree never gets harvested for use as a Christmas tree, it's going to be cut down before it reaches its full maturity. That's just the way of growing these particular crops. The good news is that for the decade or so that the Christmas trees are growing, they're providing oxygen to us, they're absorbing carbon and holding it in their wood, and then when we harvest them, we get to enjoy them as a tree in our homes for the Christmas season.

Then you can take those trees, don't take it to the landfill, but take it to a place where you can grind those trees and use them for mulch in your garden. I'm all in favor of supporting the nursery industry and the Christmas tree industry and cutting a live tree each year.

Doug: In my case, living in the woods, what I do with my tree is, of course, certainly take off anything that's on their tinsel, that sort of thing and I just make it a habitat for usually the bunnies.

RJ: Oh, yes.

Doug: I want to keep them away from the garden, but I still have to give them a nice spot to spend the winter. That's another way to use that Christmas tree. When we do bring that cut tree in, do you have some tips to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible and how long should we expect that tree to last indoors?

RJ: Sure. Well, the answer to the first part of the question is easy. It's a four-part process. The first part is to water it every day, the second part is to water it the next day and the third part is to water it the next day and the fourth part is to water it for every day that follows. That's the easiest way to keep your tree looking green and keep it without dropping the needles, water it, water it, and water it. If you are buying a tree from a lot that perhaps was cut some time ago and bundled up and transported and then you're picking up from the lot, maybe it's been cut for a week, two weeks, a month.

Growing up in Detroit, my dad on the way home from the auto factory would stop at a local lot and pick out a scotch pine tree every year. Well, those trees have been cut for some period of time and the base of their trunk has now sealed off with sap. Even if you water that tree every day, it no longer has the capacity to soak up the water. If you're buying the tree from a lot, take a sharp saw and cut off the bottom two or three inches of the trunk, and open up a fresh cut so that the vessels that take up the water are now open and free of sap.

If you're cutting a tree at the local nursery, at the Christmas tree farm, you're out there doing it yourself, usually what I do is within two hours of the time that we cut the tree, it's in a stand and has water in the stand. The quicker that you can get your fresh cut tree into the stand with water, the better it will be and then keep it well watered. You'll recognize that a freshly cut tree will drink a lot, especially after it's been in the house for a while and it's warmed up, it's going to take up a lot of water. Now, the second part of the question was how long can we expect to keep a tree before the needles start to fall off? Much of that is dependent on the species of the tree that you select.

If, for example, you select a Colorado blue spruce, those needles will probably stay on a good long time. Now, you're going to go through a lot of bandaids because when you put the decorations on that blue spruce, those really prickly needles are going to chew up your arms a good bump. To get a nice bluish color, we got a concolor fir, otherwise known as white fir, a couple of years ago. Much, much softer needles kind of a rubbery texture with that bluish glow to it, really a beautiful tree, but within probably 10 days of the time that we had it in the house, even with constant watering, the needles started to shed pretty quickly.

What I find is a really good choice is something like a Fraser fir, or a Canaan fir, a balsam fir, they all have relatively soft needles and they will hold onto those needles if you keep them watered for, in our case, we keep the tree in the house for four or five weeks.

Doug: Wow.

RJ: They tend to hold up pretty good. Eastern white pine is another one that I've had really good success with. They'll hold onto their needles, even if they start to dry off. If you shake the tree, it's going to look like the Charlie Brown tree, but as long as it's in place, it'll keep those needles, so choose wisely.

Doug: I've heard of, I think a growing popularity for Fraser fir but also, is it pronounced Canaan fir or Canaan fir?

RJ: That's an interesting story because it's spelled C-A-N-A-A-N. The biblical term is Canaan. This fir is actually a variety of balsam fir, so it's a subspecies if you will, of balsam fir. Now, the story goes, and see, I asked this of the Christmas tree grow. How do you pronounce this word? A gentleman came over from Germany, I think it was, and settled in in Pennsylvania. He named the town after the biblical place of Canaan, but the locals that started to live in the town did not pronounce it Canaan, they pronounced it as Canaan or Canaan, something like that, a different emphasis on the syllables. Since that is where that tree grows, that's where its geographic region is in Northern Virginia, Southern Pennsylvania, that's where the common name of Canaan fir comes from, but its origin goes back to Canaan, the biblical place in the holy land.

Doug: Well, not only did I get schooled about live trees, cut trees, but now naming trees too.

RJ: Sure.

Doug: Before we go, RJ, I want to know a little bit about your job. That sounds interesting.

RJ: I have the most interesting job in the world, in my humble opinion. As manager of education and training, I am responsible for keeping our 11,000 plus employees educated and trained so that they can do their jobs, number one, more safely and number two, more efficiently. That takes me all over North America. One of the biggest programs and most important programs that I teach is called Factors in Forces. It's a program for our field crews so that they can recognize structural weaknesses and defects in trees before a climber ascends the tree.

As you can imagine, climbing trees, especially when you're carrying chainsaws and operating that type of power equipment way up at the top of a tree, it can be pretty dangerous. That's one of the programs I teach that hopefully will result in safer work practices. Then as an example of a really fun project, every day this week, except today, I've been inspecting trees at the Akron zoo. Helping the Akron zoo identify trees that have some problems, broken branches, decay, that they can take care of so that the trees are not falling on the animals or even more seriously, the visitors to the zoo. It's all good. Every day I wake up and thank for and thankful for all the blessings that I have in my professional life, as well as life in general, it's all good.

Doug: I couldn't think of a better place to end this interview. That's good stuff. One real quick question though. I think you might have answered it already though. Are you buying the tree off the lot or are you going to that farm and cutting it yourself?

RJ: Yes, so we have a really nice Christmas tree farm that's just down the road from us. Every year we've been taking our kids there and now we're taking the kids in and their kids there. It's more than just going and cutting the tree. It's a family gathering. It's a day that we look forward to every year. We don't cut the first tree that we come to. We can't, because with eight people in our family going there, everyone wants a different tree and we have to negotiate and go back and forth up and down the rows. We might be there for an hour or more if the weather is pleasant, 5 minutes to 7 minutes if the weather is not. We just make a great holiday tradition of selecting and bringing home the tree.

Doug: RJ, That's great. It was so great to talk to you again and I know that as the podcast progresses, we'll be talking again, thanks so much for your time.

RJ: It's always a pleasure to be with you and talk trees. To those of you that are listening, I wish you the greatest of blessings for the holiday season and however you choose to celebrate that.

Doug: Thanks again.

RJ: You bet, talk to you soon.

Doug: What wonderful holiday sentiments from RJ, nicely put for sure. Now tuning in every Thursday to the talking trees podcast from the Davey tree expert company, I'm your host, Doug Oster, and do me a favor, subscribe to the podcast. I hope you're having as much fun listening as I am hosting the show. Next week, we'll talk all about the reasons we're thankful for trees. There certainly are many. As always, we'd like to remind you on the talking trees podcast, trees are the answer.

[00:22:57] [END OF AUDIO]