Opt for a potted living tree for the holidays

December 23, 2020

It is holiday time and time for gifts and flights of fantasy. During World War II the American playing card company Bicycle sent decks of cards as gifts to American prisoners of war held by Germany. The cards, when soaked in water, showed maps of escape routes. And in 1955 Sears ran an ad telling kids to call Santa directly, but the phone number was a misprint, and instead of getting Santa, kids spoke directly to Colonel Shoup who manned the hotline of the Director of Operations for the U.S. Continental Air Defense. Colonel Shoup ordered his staff to give the children updates on the flight coordinates of Santa's sleigh. It is a tradition carried on to this day.

And finally, there is the dilemma of whether a cut Christmas tree or an artificial tree is more environmentally friendly. Because trees grown on Christmas tree farms take up to eight years before harvest, they provide shelter for birds and animals, and remove carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen. Artificial trees are made from non-biodegradable plastics. So artificial trees actually are slightly worse for the environment because they take more energy to produce.

You can take the real vs. artificial tree conundrum further and opt instead for a potted living tree. But keeping a pine tree or a balsam fir indoors isn't practical, so instead, many are turning to a sub-tropical conifer tree, the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla). Native to Norfolk Island, which is between New Zealand and Australia, this picture-perfect evergreen makes an ideal living, breathing Christmas tree. As an indoor houseplant the Norfolk Island pine will stay a quite manageable five to eight feet indoors. Because they are naturally tolerant of droughts, they get by on less water.

To imitate their island home, mist them regularity. Set them in spot where they get bright indirect sunlight or under grow light bulbs. Choose a well-draining potting soil, such as one that contains half peat moss or some sand.

For healthy growth keep the soil somewhat moist but not soggy. Only water when the top inch or so of soil is dry. Besides misting with water, you can set the pot on a tray of pebbles. Add water to the pebbles, but not so high that it wicks into the soil. As the water evaporates, it will increase the humidity around the plant.

When your Norfolk Island pine is actively growing in spring and summer, you can feed it with a liquid organic fertilizer every two weeks. Never feed Norfolk Island pines when they are dormant over the winter. Turn the pot every few weeks so the trunk grows straight rather than bending toward the light.

Avoid rooms with drafts or where the temperature goes down near freezing or above 85 degrees.

When it is time to repot, choose a pot that is one size larger than the pot it is in.

So, forgo the artificial tree and give yourself and your home a real live Norfolk pine. You can put a few ornaments on and even small strings of lights. You can even evoke the realist Christmas trees and decorate them with small apples and other colorful fruits. Pull out the playing cards and call the Santa hotline knowing that your small living tree just might help save the environment, and that is a present for the ages.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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