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Outdoor Christmas Tree Lights

And Tips for Planting Live Trees

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Photo of Santa, sleigh and reindeer with outdoor Christmas tree lights on shrub in background.

Photo of Santa, sleigh and reindeer with Christmas lights.

David Beaulieu

In 1882 Thomas Edison’s assistant, Edward Johnson, developed the idea of Christmas lighting that ran on electricity. This innovation made outdoor Christmas tree lights possible and fostered the idea of decorating the trees in your yard (as well as other objects) to create Christmas light displays.

The Virtual Museum writes, "As early as 1912, the first illuminated trees appeared in Boston's public areas. Outdoor Christmas trees quickly became commonplace in North America. After the First World War, this novelty reached Europe and became widespread towards the middle of the XXth century. In Canada, the fashion of the illuminated outdoor tree is very widespread.... In the suburbs, there are almost as many Christmas trees outside as there are inside."

The now well-established tradition of outdoor Christmas tree decorating complements the indoor Christmas tree decorating discussed on Page 1. The emergence of this tradition reflects the increasing appreciation people have for the importance of landscaping. In the North, we need to brighten our lives during winter outdoors, as well as indoors. Electric lights are an excellent choice for outdoor Christmas tree decorating. Not only are they durable, but they also can supply commodities often lacking on the winter landscape: color and light. Indeed, evergreens and outdoor lighting, whether used in conjunction or not, form the backbone of winter landscaping.

Many a Northern homeowner is now planting a Christmas tree in the yard, providing the landscape with a source of visual interest throughout the year -- but especially during the otherwise barren winter months. Some of these homeowners decorate their outdoor Christmas trees almost as profusely as they would indoor trees. One trend for homeowners is to buy a live Christmas tree for display inside, and to plant the tree outdoors after the holiday. This trend should only grow in strength in the future, as the real estate industry makes us more conscious of how much value landscaping can add to our properties.

Note that, when I say, "live" Christmas trees, I refer to those with roots. Many people refer to real Christmas trees that have been cut as "live," to distinguish them from artificial Christmas trees. But although cut Christmas trees were once live, they aren't anymore.

Tips for Planting Live Xmas Trees:

  • Dig the hole in the ground for planting well before Christmas, so you won't have to dig through frozen dirt. Bring the dirt that you remove from the hole inside, to keep it from freezing.

  • Don't forget that, as a living plant, your tree will need to be watered. Keep the rootball damp.

  • In terms of placement in the house during its stay inside, remember that avoiding extreme temperature transitions will be the key to your success in this project. Place the tree in the coolest spot that you can find in the house. And the less time the tree spends in the warm house, the better.

  • The day after Christmas, and before planting, the tree will need to go through a transitional period (for about 2 weeks) in terms of temperature: it needs to get out of the warm house, but it should not be put out into freezing temperatures immediately. A garage attached to a house (i.e., a sheltered yet unheated structure) might be the ideal intermediate storage facility for the tree during this transitional period.

  • When planting, the top of the rootball should end up level with the ground, or just slightly above.

  • If the roots came (balled-and-burlaped), this is the time to remove the burlap.

  • Water the newly-planted tree and apply mulch. Don't pile the mulch up against the trunk. About 3" of mulch is ideal: more than that can cause more problems than not mulching at all.

  • If decorating the tree with outdoor Christmas tree lights, choose small lights. The big ones give off too much heat -- they could damage the tree's needles.

Safety Tips for Outdoor Christmas Tree Lighting

  • Have a certified electrician install a GFCI outlet, if you don't already have one.

  • Make sure product is intended to be used for outdoor Christmas tree lighting and follow all manufacturer's instructions.

  • Any extension cords used for outdoor Christmas tree lights should also be intended specifically for use in the yard.

  • Water and electricity don't mix, so keep any connections out of the snow/puddles and insert bulbs into sockets such that the sockets point down.

  • Unplug outdoor Christmas lights before replacing bulbs.

  • Don't string outdoor Christmas tree lights on trees that come into contact with power lines.

  • If re-using old outdoor Christmas tree lights, inspect the wire to ensure that there are no wear spots.

Even if a live Christmas tree doesn't figure in your plans, you can at least find ways to re-use a cut Christmas tree, as I discuss in my article on recycling Christmas trees.

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