People have been arguing the merits of artificial Christmas trees vs. live trees for decades. But the debate should really be about fake trees vs. dead trees, because once a tree is cut, it is no longer alive.

But there is a third option - an actual live Christmas tree, brought indoors roots and all, decorated, then planted in the yard after the holidays.

While still relatively uncommon, it's a practice that appeals to those looking to minimize their environmental footprint.

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Live trees can be purchased at garden markets, nurseries and Christmas tree farms. Some places sell them already dug with a root ball. A few will even let you dig your own, but beware: It can take a lot of energy to dig up a 6-foot evergreen with a shovel. And be prepared to do some heavy lifting.

"There's some weight to that root ball," says Bill Eisele, who, along with his family, runs Eisele's Tree Farm in Petersburg, Cape May County. "The ball on a 6-foot tree can weigh over 100 pounds."

The weight factor is one reason why it can be impractical to buy a live tree more than 6 or 7 feet tall. Eisele notes that the root ball typically adds 18 inches to the height of the tree when it's in a house.

"By the time you put it in a wash bucket and put a star on top, a 6-foot tree can be 8 feet or more," he says.

Eisele, who grows Douglas fir, white pine and concolor fir at his farm, says more than 85 percent of his customers buy cut trees. Of those who buy live trees, only a handful dig them themselves.

"Most people pick out their tree and we dig it for them," he says. "But we have a few. One fella comes in a couple of days before Christmas to dig a tree and a couple days after Christmas it's out in his yard."

Obtaining a dug tree is only the beginning of the process. The tree has to be prepared for its move indoors, placed in the proper location and watered daily. Before the tree is brought indoors it should be placed in a washtub or similar waterproof container.

"Put a layer of rocks a couple of inches deep in the bottom of the tub for drainage," says Peter Paugh, who owns Galloway Nursery in Egg Harbor City. "You don't want the roots sitting in a puddle of water. That could drown the tree."

Charles Dupras, who owns the Evergreen Acres Christmas tree farm in Mays Landing, recommends keeping the tree in an unheated garage, shed or basement for a day or two before bringing it indoors. That lets the tree adjust to the rapid temperature and humidity change.

The placement of a live tree in the house is also important.

"Don't put it next to a heat source," says Dupras, who was the Atlantic County agriculture agent for 30 years. "And the house should be cool, 65 to 68 degrees is best."

Experts agree that for a tree to have a good chance to survive transplanting it should spend as little time indoors as necessary. Dupras says five to seven days is the maximum. Paugh recommends three to four days.

"Even then a tree only has about a 75 percent chance of survival," Paugh says.

Dupras says a hole should be dug well in advance of replanting the tree. "The hole should be about twice the size of the root ball," he says. "And when you fill the hole make sure you cover the loose soil with burlap so it doesn't freeze."

Location is very important when planting a Christmas tree in the yard. Many evergreen trees can grow to be 50 feet or taller.

"Don't plant it too close to a fence or the foundation of your house," Eisele says.

For those who don't want the hassle of replanting their Christmas tree there are smaller, slow growing evergreens that can be left in the pot all year round and brought indoors every Christmas.

"A three-or-four foot tree like an Alberta spruce can be left in the pot," Paugh says. "Just remember that when you put it outside you have to water it every day in the summer."

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