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I live in Massachusetts, Northeastern United States, in Hardiness Zone 6, where the temperatures get down to −10°F (−23.3°C). We're getting to the coldest time right now, although so far this year has been a bit warmer than usual, so the ground isn't fully frozen.

On Friday, December 16th, we purchased a 4 feet tall living Blue Spruce (Picea pungens), to use as a Christmas tree. It was dug up on that day. (The tree was referred to in my previous question).

Since the whole point is to keep the tree alive, we've been careful to follow the instructions of the arborist from whom we purchased it.

While inside:

  • Keep the rootball intact in its original burlap
  • Put it in a tub with a diameter just a few inches larger than the rootball
  • Water it every few days from the top, keeping the rootball moist but not soggy or sitting in a lot of stagnant water
  • Keep it in a cool room if possible. (Our 3-season room stays in the 50s or so during the day and 30s at night. We've only heated it to room temperature for a few of the total number of days.)
  • Don't use hot Christmas lights, and only leave them on for short periods of time

For planting:

  • Before purchase, dig a hole at least 36 inches wide and 24 inches deep
  • Plant the tree outside within 10 to 12 days
  • Set it into the hole with the rootball level with the ground
  • Backfill the hole with its own dirt and some light mulch or shredded leaves
  • Don't water the hole, the dirt, the rootball, or the tree during planting
  • Don't water the tree at all until about 3 months from now, at the end of March

We're planning on putting it out in a few days, and I have a question about the watering instruction. Is it true that we shouldn't water it? (Out of curiosity, if it shouldn't be watered, is that true of all trees or just evergreens?) If in fact we should water it, what would the regimen be?

I've never planted or transplanted a tree. However, in my experience with bushes and other plants, the hole and surrounding area should be wet, and once planted, a good soaking is required. Also, the area should be kept consistently moist during the initial settling-in period.

Obviously we don't water our other trees during the winter, so it makes sense that, once established, it would rely on the elements. What I don't understand is why we shouldn't add water after planting. How will the roots spread in the cold dry ground without an initial burst of assistance?

The pictures are of the tree inside; a close-up of the root ball in the pot; the entire planting hole; and a close-up of the bottom of the hole. The soil in the bottom of the hole seems clay-like. It's thick and slimy. It almost feels like mud, just not quite as wet.

Click on all pictures for bigger, closer views.

Tree Close-up of burlap base

Hole Bottom of hole


Update: The tree is fine!

My husband planted it on the 11th day after it had been dug up. He did it by combining the advice from the arborist from whom we purchased it, the generous people who answered me here, and this excellent question/answer. He unfolded the burlap gently. It had no nails and no mesh bottom. Since the rootball was moist and holding together nicely, he removed the entire burlap. Without watering the hole, he gently laid in the tree at the proper depth, and backfilled it with the dirt from the hole, together with some other loose dirt and crushed leaves. No needles dropped and no branches fell. We're glad we didn't water it, as it rained the next day. We had our first deep frost that night, so the timing was perfect! It was a wonderful experience all around. I encourage people to use this method for their Christmas trees. The tree costs much less than it would from a regular nursery; adds to the landscape; provides a great place for birds and squirrels; and doesn't become a side-of-the-road casualty.

I didn't get any great pictures, but for reference as to location, we put it exactly where last year's pre-cut (not planted) Christmas tree was just sitting dead on top of the ground! More pictures of the area can be found in my previous question.

Click on the pictures for bigger, closer, views.

Original spot with dead tree on top of the ground New tree happily planted

  • It depends on the soil type, and what the current moisture content is. I can go onto details in an answer if I have time. Do you have a clay based subsoil? – J. Musser Dec 25 '16 at 6:51
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    @Sue pretty much looks as expected, a bit wetter. My answer will be the same (also, I think I may do a q/a on how to plant a b&b tree, so people can see how I've done it for so long) – J. Musser Dec 26 '16 at 5:58
  • I meant, my answer would be the same as before I saw the pictures (they were just how I imagined). Writing up the answer now, although it's kind of short, The question isn't complicated. – J. Musser Dec 27 '16 at 19:55
  • Reviewing this question I just have to say NOT watering this tree before and after planting in ZONE 6? That 'expert' should be shot. Well, at least educated. – stormy Oct 13 '18 at 2:05
  • Think about this poor tree having gone through 'dormancy' preparing to deal with winter and chopped out of the ground, dragged into a dry desert atmosphere for a couple of weeks or more and then expected to go back out side and LIVE? No acclimation whatsoever and now NO WATER? Cut Christmas trees have more of a chance than these poor live Christmas trees. People actually REFILL the reservoir for cut xmas trees so the tree doesn't become a fire hazard because they remember these trees dry out and the leaves fall off making a mess. Acclimation and a soaked rootball first, only 1 week indoors. – stormy Oct 13 '18 at 2:12
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In my 25 years as a landscaper in the Pacific Northwest, I have never heard of such a treatment. With that said, the only thinking I can come up with is that the arborist feels that by watering in the tree, you will be overly compacting the soil, destroying the larger air pockets, and trapping excess water around the rootball which might cause rot. I would suggest calling the arborist and asking them to clarify their thinking.

I also wanted to comment that when you do plant the tree, after placing it in the hole, but before back filling, gently fold back the burlap and fold it down into the hole. I usually use the top of the vertical edge of the rootball as the line around which I fold. Often times the wrapping around the trunk is secured by a nail or two. Folding back the burlap is important because if the burlap is exposed to light/air the water around the tree will wick out through the exposed burlap.

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    @Sue - happy to be here, I just discovered this forum. The posts below make total sense about the tree being dormant. We don't get much freezing weather here, so I I tend to go with water related issues. If you're interested in learning what type of soil you have, it's super easy - gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/…. If you want a little more info try using a soil triangle. – Ben Dec 26 '16 at 14:01
  • There is also the fact that most burlaps, tree roots are covered with are soaked in a copper sulfate...or similar that prevents roots from growing out of the burlap. There is no reason whatsoever, Ben, you know this, that that burlap should stay on. That entire idea of leaving the burlap is for the landscape installers. If they get a call back or have to move it then that burlap comes in handy. Definitely would never attach it to the trunk. Once the tree is lowered into the hole it is easy peasy to completely remove. They don't disintegrate easily either!! And I would never stake it... – stormy Dec 27 '16 at 21:29
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    @stormy - Yes I do know all about the burlap not decomposing well. It may be best for the plant to remove it all, but personally I've found that that plants who's clay root ball break apart when the burlap come off tend over the years to do worse that plants with the burlap left off. This is just personal observation, nothing I've tracked over the years. – Ben Dec 28 '16 at 14:00
  • Yeah, and that is understandable. I've never seen a problem with root balls breaking apart when planting. Not once. I had to keep track of everything and not once was that ever a problem. Leaving a barrier to the soil of the hole and the root ball by leaving burlap WAS. – stormy Dec 29 '16 at 22:18
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Based on the picture, your soil looks quite moist enough already. By watering, you could cause problems in winter with constant saturation, because of the ground freezing. I'd say, if the soil holds its shape when squeezed into a ball, do not water. If the soil is crumbly and dry, then yes, water it even in winter. Sometimes I water a root ball before planting, because the root ball is dry and the soil it's going in is wet. In your care, the root ball has been kept moist so I also do not see any watering necessary.

Spruces have comparatively shallow roots, and generally grow much fuller if the top layer of soil is watered when dry, especially in the fall/early winter before the ground freezes. This year, the northeastern US had a wet fall. Waiting until the end of March was probably an estimation for when the ground would be drained and start drying out (you should never water soil when there's a frozen layer). Whenever that happens, you can water it.

It looks like your arborist knows what he's talking about. All of his instructions are good, for the conditions and situation you have. I'd just say that about using shredded leaves or light mulch in the backfill soil, if those are the materials you use, don't let pockets form, they will not only settle later, but could decompose improperly and slow root growth. I'd just sprinkle it in as the soil's going in, with no heavy layers. (I usually use near finished cold-compost for this).

For further reading on planting and care, see What is a good method for planting Ball and Burlap trees?

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Sweet Sue! Now is not the time to be transplanting that tree into the garden. This is a bit more work and complicated than that help sheet. Yes, soak that tree. The burlap should be moist right now. You also have to acclimate this tree back to the cold temperatures. That will take at least 2 weeks.

Dig that hold wide and deep enough to accept the entire pot. To be transplanted next year. Get the heated christmas tree lights back on, primarily on the top of the roots, wrap entire tree in burlap.

After acclimating for 2 weeks, put pot and tree IN THE HOLE and as best you can dump soil over and around the pot. Mulch as well. Don't worry about soil/bark contact now. You could use straw or barf me bark to help. Then add the lights as close to the mulch and soil as possible without touching. Then add the burlap around the tree, snug but not too tightly...need air spaces to accumulate the heat of the lights and decomposing organic matter. Water this tree really well at the beginning of your acclimatization and that should be enough to hydrate your tree for surviving the winter...I'd do this in your tub, done it my tub. Grins.

When you transplant your tree after the soil has thawed take off ALL of the burlap and twine. Loosen any circling roots or make a few slices into the roots with a knife. If there is a metal root ball support leave that but ALL of the burlap comes off. Make sure the root ball sits on undisturbed soil so it doesn't sink any deeper.

These trees are meant to die, sadly. Hey I know the thinking from the other side of this equation. Where do you think I get my snarl? All about money. Did you acclimate this guy before you brought him inside? If not he'll be stressed and all the more importance to truly do a great job acclimating back out of doors. 2 hours for 2 days, 3 hours for 3 days, 4 hours for 4 days, etc. Would be nice to have this tree and pot on wheels. I know you've seen Christmas trees still green by spring cut and thrown out. They weren't alive alive with roots and hope to continue.

Make note; that tree was grown in clay in the nursery to keep a tight rooted root ball. Also is great for weight and stability. Clay to clay is perfect. If you go and try to 'improve' the soil in that hole you will be ruining this tree's chances. Clay to clay is very good. Clay is a good soil just need to know how to manage it. But to put a clay root ball into a sandy soil/different soil, the water when watered will skirt right over that clay and into the easy to drain pumice, sand, unnatural soil. This tree is a perfect size and has great chances to survive. Do not allow that tree to stay out side with freezing temperatures or the cold will kill your roots. During acclimation, burlap and christmas light that pot when the time comes to spend longer out of doors during the freezing. It is really a headache that they NEVER explain so that you will fail and have to try again next year. But this should help to ensure your tree lives. Hopefully, this location has lots of light...and watering once transplanted can be augmented with pvc pipe drilled with holes, mycorrhizae. Hold off on fertilizer until summer. Even then be frugal. Expect lots of needle loss...that burlap as dry as it is is worrisome. Soak these roots. Remember the root ball is clay and will have a hard time absorbing water if this tree hasn't been watered for awhile during its stink in a dry, warm atmosphere. TUB WORKS WELL.

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    It would definitely winter better in the ground, in my opinion. Comon practice after Christmas in my area at least. – J. Musser Dec 27 '16 at 19:36
  • Yup, if they don't have a cool greenhouse with sawdust beds that tree needs to be put in the ground for the winter. This is my problem with potted Xmas trees. The ground is usually frozen. This watering, then acclimating, planting the entire shebang in the pot, mulching and if one wants better chances the burlap and christmas tree lights for a few months to protect the needles. Acclimating to freezing temperatures is tough but gee, why has no one talked about this, yet? That tree needs acclimation back to the cold. I hope it was acclimated before going inside. – stormy Dec 27 '16 at 21:43
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    Who plants it in the pot? – J. Musser Dec 27 '16 at 21:44
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    For what it's worth, it's 63 degrees here today (warm week on this end of the US) – J. Musser Dec 27 '16 at 21:45
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    I'm not sure you're understanding the situation. You can hit me up in chat – J. Musser Dec 29 '16 at 22:25
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In preparation for removal, the tree roots are watered so that the roots can be removed with the soil clumped around them minimizing damage to the roots. They are then wrapped in burlap. If not planted immediately, the root ball is kept covered to prevent sun and wind damage. Freezing should not damage it.

It will need to be regularly watered while enduring inside temperatures. But once you take your tree outside and plant it in winter, the tree will go dormant in the sub zero temperatures. And once it's dormant you don't need to water it.

The needles of evergreens are covered with a heavy wax coating to help prevent moisture loss, and the fluids inside the cells contain substances resistant to freezing, essentially evergreen antifreeze. Evergreens shut down for winter dormancy but continue most basic metabolic functions; the plants super-cool. Water in the cells is chemically maintained in a liquid state below 32 degrees F. (1)

Any moisture lost in spite of leaf adaptations can be replaced from the moisture in the ground that comes with winter weather.

Once spring appears, and the tree wakes again, then you need to start regularly watering it depending on the ground conditions.

1 - Sleep cycle of trees

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    Spruce trees go dormant in late summer, and uptake water throughout the winter as long as it's in liquid state. Even while dormant, they lose moisture through the leaves and continuously intake. (Also, sap freezes at a lower temperature than water, and wood is very insulative - even at below freezing temperatures, there can be vascular transportation to and from roots) – J. Musser Dec 26 '16 at 5:47
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    Also, having done nursery work for a number of years, I'm kind of curious about your statement about watering newly dug trees. Ours always needed plenty of water (more when out of the ground than in). Not trying to not pick, sorry. Possibly because in my area (zone 6b) the ground is always cycling through freezers no and then thawing, not a constant hard freeze – J. Musser Dec 26 '16 at 5:53
  • Rewritten to hopefully make it clearer. – Graham Chiu Dec 26 '16 at 8:11
  • The change in temperature for that root ball needs to be minimized as much as possible. That is major stress. It is the CHANGE in temperature, not just freezing temperatures. We've got an INDOOR tree to be planted out in the wildly fluctuating temperatures. A very confused tree. Like a puppy it needs training so it doesn't get so wigged out that it decides life ain't worth the trouble. What about acclimatization of this tree? – stormy Dec 27 '16 at 21:35
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    It's only been inside in a cool room for fewer then 11 days according to the instructions. – Graham Chiu Dec 27 '16 at 21:51

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