Gardens Illustrated
Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans Compacta’

Alternative plants for a potted Christmas tree: expert's choice

Published: December 10, 2021 at 7:16 pm

Looking for an alternative to a cut Christmas tree? Here are some attractive conifers that will grow in pots which you can enjoy in the garden all year round, and bring indoors for the festive season

Christmas isn't complete without a real Christmas tree – but which type to go for? Many of us are looking for greener, more eco-friendly options these days, and a pot-grown Christmas tree is the most sustainable solution. Once the festive season is over, you can grow your tree outside before bringing it indoors every Christmas for years to come.

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And you don't need to settle for the usual Norway spruce or Nordmann Fir, either. We asked Helen Tate, who runs the specialist conifer nursery Lime Cross Nursery in East Sussex with her sister Vicky, to recommend unusual and attractive potted evergreen trees that aren't just for Christmas but will look good in your garden all year round.

"Our top tip for bringing pot-grown conifers inside is to top them with moss," says Helen. "This looks great and helps to retain moisture. We also wrap them in hessian, just for aesthetics."

6 top alternatives to a Christmas tree

Spanish fir
Abies pinsapo 'Horstmann'

Abies pinsapo 'Horstman'

Helen says: "This adorable and compact Spanish Fir has the quirkiest shaped branches. It will happily live in a pot as it is slow growing. It will need repotting in three to five years into a bigger pot. Give it a regular foliar feed."

Ultimate height: 60cm.
Conditions: Any fertile, well-drained soil; full sun.
Habit: Spreading and rounded, becoming pyramidal with age.
Foliage: Vivid blue needles are arranged radially around the branchlets.
Perfect for: Growing in a pot or a rock garden.

Japanese cedar
Cryptomeria japonica
'Elegans Compacta'

Cryptomeria japonica 'Elegans Compacta'

Helen says: "This is a really affordable option. The gorgeous colours will look stunning with fairy lights."

Ultimate height: 2.5m.
Conditions: Any fertile, well-drained soil; full sun. Avoid exposed sites.
Habit: Bushy.
Foliage: The springy, long and soft foliage turns purple in summer.
Perfect for: Growing anywhere in the garden or in a pot.

Alberta spruce
Picea glauca
var. albertiana 'Conica'

Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica'

Helen says: "Picea glauca var. albertiana 'Conica' grows into a perfect cone, making it an excellent tabletop Christmas tree alternative."

Ultimate height: 2.5m.
Conditions: Any fertile, moist well-drained soil; full sun.
Habit: A perfect cone.
Foliage: Light green young needles, later turning blue-green.
Perfect for: Growing in a pot or mixing with heathers in the garden.

Himalayan white pine
Pinus wallichiana
‘Vicky’

Pinus wallichiana ‘Vicky’

Helen says: "Pinus wallichiana ‘Vicky’ was discovered here at Lime Cross Nursery by founder Jonathan Tate and named after his daughter (and my sister) Vicky. The whorls of needles are soft and shaggy and are said to have reminded Jonathan of his baby daughter's striking ginger mohawk."

Ultimate height: 8m.
Conditions: Any fertile, well-drained soil; full sun.
Habit: Witch's broom.
Foliage: Lime-green with sunset-yellow hues. Deciduous.
Perfect for: A garden border or growing in a pot.

Bosnian pine
Pinus heldreichii
'Schneverdingen'

Pinus heldreichii 'Schneverdingen'

Helen says: "Pinus heldreichii 'Schneverdingen' is a dense multi-stemmed evergreen tree with a distinctive and refined form. Its relatively fine texture sets it apart from other landscape plants with less refined foliage."

Ultimate height: 6m.
Conditions: Any fertile, well-drained soil; full sun.
Habit: Pyramid.
Foliage: Dark green with a fine texture.
Perfect for: Around the garden or growing in a pot.

Willow podocarp
Podocarpus salignus

Podocarpus salignus

Helen says: "We think that Podocarpus make a really cool alternative Christmas tree. Its lush, striking foliage works well with fairy lights."

Ultimate height: 8m.
Conditions: Any fertile, well-drained soil; full sun.
Habit: Spreading and rounded, becoming pyramidal with age.
Foliage: The new, willow-like foliage is lime green, becoming darker green with age.
Perfect for: In a mixed border or pot.

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Bringing conifers indoors for Christmas: top tips

  • Bring your tree indoors as late as possible. Try to limit the tree's time indoors to around 10-12 days.
  • Display your tree in a cool room, away from radiators and fires or log burners.
  • Acclimatise the tree before putting it outside again – if possible, put it in a cool greenhouse or porch for a few days.
  • Either plant the tree out in the garden after Christmas, or grow it on in a pot, potting it on into a larger pot as it grows. A soil-based compost, such as John Innes No 2, is ideal.

Lime Cross Nursery

At Lime Cross Nursery Helen Tate and her sister Vicky grow and propagate more than 500 varieties of conifer. The nursery is open for visits by appointment or you can visit the online shop.

Helen Tate, Lime Cross Nursery
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