Those who celebrate Christmas know that the holiday wouldn’t be complete without a tall, wiry coniferous tree, draped in lights and decorations. Despite the convenience of owning an artificial tree, many Americans still appreciate the authenticity of having a real one in their homes. Last year Americans bought 26.2 million real trees, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
There’s no denying that an annual trip out to the farm to pick the perfect tree makes for a memorable family outing, especially during a pandemic. But if you’re up for a challenge and have some patience, you could start a new tradition by growing your own.
It’s important to know that reaching the size of a full grown Christmas tree from a seed or seedling takes anywhere from four to 10 years, so this will be a long-term project. If you’re still interested, here’s our guide to growing your own tree for a future holiday.
Choosing your tree
The tree you decide to plant will depend on the hardiness zone and climate in your location. Using the USDA’s Hardiness Zone Map, you can find out which tree is best for you. If you purchase your seeds or seedlings from a nursery or greenhouse, the tag will usually tell you which zone the tree thrives in. Here is a general overview of your options.
Fir trees: These trees are best for cooler climates and are generally well suited to fertile, well-drained soils on upland sites. Depending on the variety of fir you decide to grow, zones three to six, are best. It takes about seven to 10 years for this one to reach a notable Christmas tree size around six or seven feet. Firs are also notably fragrant and have a naturally symmetrical, cone-shaped form.
Pine trees: These trees are hardy and can be grown in both warm and cooler climates. Known for having the ability to adapt to a variety of soils, they thrive in zones anywhere from 3-10, depending on the pine. Pines are quicker growing and can reach full size in around six years.
Spruces: They grow well in areas with cooler climates and are a good fit for zones ranging from two to seven. Spruces are more site demanding and slower growing than most pines. They will be ready to be cut down in seven to 10 years. Their short, single-needle foliage is stiffer and their thick, stout branches can support heavy ornaments.
Cypresses: Cypresses are hardy trees. They adapt to a variety of soils, but thrive in well-draining and moist environments. Depending on the tree, they can be grown in USDA zones five through 10. They are quick growing and can reach an average Christmas tree size in about four years. Their color ranges from yellow-green to blue-green and deep green and they have a scent that has been described as spicy and citrus.
Cedars : These trees can be grown in hardiness zones ranging from two to nine, but are more commonly grown in warmer, southern climates where fir trees cannot grow. Despite being a coniferous tree, cedars have more fernlike limbs. Like cypresses, the average growing season is also about four years. The most well-known cedar is the Eastern Red cedar, which has a natural pyramidal crown, making it a low-maintenance choice for pruning.
If you are curious about specific varieties of certain trees, Michigan State University has an in-depth guide.
Growing your seedling
To mimic a cold dormancy period and increase the chances of your seeds germinating, put them in a damp paper towel in the fridge for a few weeks. Check on them periodically and when you start to notice that they have little green roots, you can take them out to get them ready for planting.
You will need to plant your seeds in a potting mixture (equal parts peat, vermiculite and perlite). You can also use soil from a nearby field or forest. For a container, use a small pot with drainage or small plastic cups and poke holes in the bottom.
Place a few stones in the bottom of each container and add an inch or two of soil. Place a few seeds in each pot and cover them with more soil. Ensure they are about a third of an inch apart from each other.
Give them some water and then cover the top of your pots with a layer of plastic wrap. You should ensure your containers are kept in an area with full sun. If that’s not possible, consider purchasing some fluorescent bulbs as a light source to help heat the seeds.
When your seedlings start to poke up above the soil after a few days, you can remove the plastic wrap. Water them once a week.
Alternatively, if you’ve purchased a seedling…
If you’ve purchased your seedlings from a nursery, the University of New Hampshire Extension suggests keeping them in a cool dark location until they can be planted. We recommend you purchase a tree seedling advertised as having a 2-2 ratio. This means it has spent two years in a seedbed and two years in a transplant. If you are storing the seedlings for more than a few days, dampen the roots periodically, but don’t leave them soaked or submerged in water.
Prepping your site
Plant your seedling in an area with a slope and full sun. This ensures there will be good water drainage and air for your tree’s growth. You’ll also need to mow the area before you plant in order to remove any other plant growth. Your soil should have a pH between 5.1 and 6.5. See our guide on how to test your soil.
According to Michigan State University, seedlings or transplants must be planted outdoors in the dormant season around early fall or late spring. Dig a hole the same size the seedling was planted at the nursery or in its current container. If you don’t know the depth, look for a change in color on the trunk to know where the surface level is.
Place the seedling in the hole and spread its little roots apart to ensure they aren’t crowded. Cover the hole back up and pack the soil firmly to exclude any air. If you are planting multiple trees, ensure there is a 7-8 feet space between each one.
Caring for your tree
In the first year after you’ve planted your tree seedling outside, you will need to water it weekly from late spring to early fall in its first year. We recommend giving it one to three inches of water each time, unless it rains. After that, only water the tree during dry months or during a drought.
Maintain the planting site so there are no weeds or growth competing for your small tree’s nutrients. After the first two to three years after planting it, you can start to prune and shear it. To keep it at an ideal shape, the base or the tree’s crown should be about two thirds as wide as the height of the full tree. So an eight-foot tree should have a base width of five feet.
Harvest your tree
Harvest time will depend on what tree you’ve decided to grow, but it’s best to cut it down in late fall when it is full of moisture. This ensures your tree stays as green as possible during the holidays. Use a chainsaw or a handsaw to cut it down.
Place your tree in a container with water as soon it’s cut down. This ensures it still is able to take in water before it reseals from the place you recut it.