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Has your living Christmas tree grown cramped in its pot.

Has your living Christmas tree grown cramped in its pot?

Over the years, a living Christmas tree can become a treasured part of your family's holiday tradition, like an old friend who dresses up to join you during holiday festivities.

But being cramped in a container can take its toll on your needled friend. While many slower-growing conifers, such as noble and white fir and dwarf Alberta spruce, can do well in a container for years, others, such as Monterey pine and Douglas fir, need special care to remain healthy.

Most just get too big for their containers. Their growth slows and they begin to look ragged. Sooner or later you'll have to decide whether to repot the tree or plant it outside. Here's how to tell if it needs help--and how to provide it.

Signs of trouble with roots and top

When needles get smaller and more compact as they near the tip of a branch, it often means the tree is rootbound. Other signs include yellow or poorly colored needles and open, sparsely needled branches. Because a rootbound tree is difficult to water and fertilize properly, it's likely to grow poorly and decline in health.

Another indication of trouble is the absence of a leader--a central, upward-growing shoot at the top. The leader produces hormones that organize the growth pattern and the position of branches; without one, a tree usually loses its conical shape.

Root-prune to rescue rootbound trees

To save a rootbound tree, you can transplant it into a larger pot, but this means more weight and less mobility. A better solution may be root pruning, which keeps a tree healthy in the same-size container.

To remove a tree from a metal can, slice the sides with a can cutter (a nursery may loan you the tool), metal shears, or saw. Wear work gloves, and watch out for sharp edges.

It's more difficult to remove a tree from a clay or wooden container without breaking the container, taking it apart, or harming the tree. For easier removal, water the soil several days before transplanting, moistening but not saturating the rootball. With help from a friend, tip the tree on its side, grab the lower trunk, and pull gently while your friend holds the container. If the rootball doesn't separate easily, sacrifice the container rather than damage roots by pulling too hard.

Once the tree is out of the container, use an old knife to shave 2 to 3 inches off the bottom and all around the rootball. Trim off any large circling roots with pruning shears.

To prevent soil from washing out of the new or reused container, partially block drainage holes with pot shards or wire mesh. Put fresh potting soil in the container, replace the tree, fill in edges with more potting soil, and water well. Remove air pockets by tamping soil around the edges with a stick. Apply a complete fertilizer and water again.

To compensate for lost roots, thin branches lightly as directed below.

Creating a leader and pruning for shape

To reestablish a dominant leader, select an upright shoot at the tree's top and cut back competing ones. If no upright shoots exist, select a side shoot and stake it erect, as pictured at top right.

Most living Christmas trees need occasional pruning to keep them compact and shapely. The way you prune yours depends on how it branches.

The most common choices--firs, true cedars, spruces, and pines--branch in whorls: several shoots originate at one place on the trunk or on a branch. If you cut into old wood at midbranch, such trees rarely form new shoots. To shorten a limb properly, cut back to a lateral branch. If you want to keep these plants compact and bushy, pinch back new growth before it hardens in spring.

Evergreens that form shoots randomly along a branch, including hemlocks and podocarpus, can be pruned harder. New growth occurs near a cut if it is made in a needled part of the branch.

Should you plant the tree outside?

Before planting a Christmas tree in your garden, ask yourself two questions: Is the tree adapted to the area? and What effect will it have on my landscape?

To learn if the species you have grows well in your area, check the Sunset Western Garden Book. Planting a poorly adapted tree can lead to maintenance problems and possibly an early death.

Also, many conifers popular as living Christmas trees quickly grow too large for small gardens. Removing a big, established one can be costly. And even if you have room, the tree can dramatically affect your landscape. Consider what the mature tree will look like, the shade it will cast, and its soil and irrigation requirements, then decide if it will fit in.

If the tree grows in your area but you no longer want it, you may be able to find it another home. In the West, some communities have programs to relocate donated living Christmas trees in parks. Talk to your local or county department of parks and recreation to explore the idea.

Photo: Stripped of decorations put on for its fifth Christmas, Colorado blue spruce shows signs of distress: small needles, lack of a single well-defined shoot at top

Photo: Create a distinct top shoot by staking a side branch upright. After about a year, it should stay up by itself

Photo: Rootbound tree, removed from can after holidays, gets 2 to 3 inches sliced off bottom and sides of rootball to encourage new root growth

Photo: In spring, root-pruned tree develops lush tip growth. Small needles are last year's growth

Photo: After root pruning, place tree back in a container the same size as the old one

Photo: Gently pack fresh potting soil around edges of the rootball, water well, and tamp again to remove air pockets
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Dec 1, 1986
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