The key to successfully maintaining a living tree and enabling its survival outside once the holiday passes is proper care. If you plan to keep a tree up for several weeks, do not consider a living tree. The biggest problem with living trees is the foliage drying out. To be kept in prime condition, a living tree should be in the house no more than 3 to 5 days and positioned away from heat sources and drafts like with cut trees.
Living trees are commonly purchased as “balled and burlapped”, meaning that the root system is in a ball and it has been covered with a burlap materials to keep it together. When brought home, make sure that the soil ball is kept moist. Place the soil ball in a shallow pan and place a small amount of water in it. Avoid handling the ball when it is wet because it is likely to break apart. If the ball is frozen when taken home, let it warm up gradually in a cool room, like an unheated garage, before bringing it into the house. A drastic change of conditions will cause more problems than slower changes in temperature and water supply. With the pan underneath the root ball, cover the top with a sheet of plastic to retard rapid drying. A skirt can be used to hide the plastic.
After 5 days of indoor enjoyment, the decorations should be removed and the tree placed into a cool area for about one week prior to transplanting outdoors. Transplanting should be done when the weather is mild and not excessively cold or windy. Preparing a backfill from a bagged soil mix is not advised. Better long-term survival results from using the native soil in which the tree will have to grow in. Soil mixes are also typically much lighter and may not support the weight of ice, snow or the forces of wind during the winter period without staking.
Lastly, be prepared for the worst. It is not easy for trees that have warmed up to room temperature to endure the elements outdoors. Expect some branch or tip dieback to appear the next growing season. If done properly, however, the tree will recover.