Guest post by Joe Lamp’l
Buying an artificial Christmas tree and reusing it for years may seem like a more environmentally friendly option than buying a real, cut tree every holiday season, but when you dig a little deeper you’ll find that real trees are truly the sustainable choice. In this podcast I explain the benefits of real trees as well as how to care for a live tree in your home so it retains needles and looks great through Christmas.
Real Christmas trees are not only things of beauty, they smell great too. That may be why, in 16th century Germany, trees were first brought indoors and decorated in the fashion that continues today. These days, real Christmas trees come from farms, not forests, and they are grown in a sustainable way.
Real vs. Artificial
Artificial trees are made from plastic and metal — nonrenewable resources — and are produced in polluting factories before they are shipped overseas, creating even more air and water pollution. The components are often packaged in difficult-to-recycle plastic bags as well.
The average artificial tree is kept in service for just six holiday seasons. Meanwhile, a 2009 Ellipsos study found that an artificial tree would have to be reused for about 20 Christmases before it became a better choice in terms of climate change impacts. (Though for the record, my tree is artificial, still in use after 23 years.)
Even if you do keep an artificial tree for many years, invariably it will end up in a landfill, where it will remain indefinitely.
Real trees, on the other hand, are a carbon-sequestering renewable resource, and they can be recycled as well. (More on recycling trees below.) According to the National Christmas Tree Association, there are approximately 350 million trees growing in the United States that were planted by Christmas tree farmers, and between 25 million and 30 million are sold annually.
How Cut Trees Can Be Recycled After Christmas
About 4,000 local municipalities across the United States have Christmas tree recycling programs, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Many Scouts BSA troops will also pick up trees for recycling, in exchange for a small donation. If such programs do not exist in your area, you can still recycle the tree yourself quite easily, a number of ways.
Around the country, used trees find new purposes to meet local needs. Trees have been used for dune restoration in beach communities and marsh restoration in Louisiana, and even for salmon spawning habitat in streams.
Some recycling centers chip trees and give away the mulch. Mulching is an option that you can also implement at home if you have the right equipment. Organic mulch can be used in flower and vegetable beds to suppress weeds, retain moisture and prevent erosion, among other benefits, and will eventually decompose and enrich your soil.
If you don’t have a chipper, you could saw off individual boughs to lay down on leaf or straw mulch to ensure it does not blow away. If you have space on your property to leave out a whole tree, it will provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife.
You could chop up a tree for firewood and, after burning, save those wood ashes to add to compost or spread over your lawn to provide calcium, potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients.
Selecting and Caring for Live Christmas Trees
You can have all the joy of a real tree for Christmas and none of the concerns about cutting down a healthy tree. Live trees are available with their roots in containers or balled and burlapped so the trees can be planted after the holiday is over.
Many live trees, unfortunately, don’t survive the holiday season — but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you learn how to properly care for a live tree, it can grow successfully in your landscape for years to come.
First, be sure to buy a tree that will grow well in your area. A big box store may be selling live trees that are not suited to your region and not intended to last, while a nursery is likely selling trees that are adapted to local growing conditions.
Consider the mature height and width of the tree and gauge whether that will be a good fit where you intend to plant it in your landscape.
The most common types of trees used for living Christmas trees are spruce, pine and firs, although many garden centers market any cone-shaped tree as an option for Christmas. Although these may not be considered “traditional” choices, they could be the best option for your area.
Before you buy, inspect live trees for good color, needle retention, and soft flexible branching. If you can see the roots, ensure that they are not bound in their container or dried out. Look the tree over for any sign of damage from pests or diseases.
Keep the tree outdoors until just before Christmas in an area that is protected from wind and direct sun, and keep the soil moist, but not wet. Three to four days before you intend to bring the tree inside the house, place it under a covered porch or inside a garage so it will begin to acclimate to warmer temperatures.
An anti-desiccant or anti-wilt spray can protect the tree from drying out and reduce needle loss. If you decide to use a spray, apply it before the tree is moved inside and while it is acclimating to the warmer temperatures. These products are sold under several names, including Wilt Pruf and Cloud Cover.
Even when you take these proactive measures, a house is still an inhospitable environment for a living tree. To look its best, a live tree should not be kept indoors for more than about five days.
Keep the tree watered. If the roots are in burlap, place the root ball in a container and apply mulch to the top of the ball to retain moisture.
Once indoors, keep the tree away from radiators, heat vents and any other heat source that can dry out your tree and stimulate growth. You can decorate your live Christmas tree as you normally would.
Once you take the tree back outdoors, give it a week to 10 days to acclimate to being outside again, while avoiding desiccating wind and direct sun. Then it will be ready to plant.
Dig a hole that is the same depth as the container and twice as wide. Plant the tree with the root collar slightly above ground level, and be sure to apply mulch and water regularly. (Even during winter, a newly planted tree will be thirsty until the ground freezes.) Something else to consider, if you live in an area where the ground freezes, you may want to pre-dig the hole.
Whenever you plant a tree, refrain from amending the soil. It is better to backfill the hole with native soil so the tree roots will reach out for nutrients, providing a strong anchor.
The idea of a live tree is wonderful but in my very cold climate where the ground freezes solid several feet down and is usually covered by snow it is not really practical. So we support Christmas tree growers and buy a real tree every year. The remains of many past trees are slowly moldering back into the soil in our woods.
Wait a minute, did I read the author has a fake tree?? Seems a bit hypocritical to tell others to buy a real tree no matter how long you keep it. Tree farms provide many benefits besides the end product
We learn as we go, Marianna and I know a lot more about a lot of thing than I did a couple decades ago. Yes, I still have a fake tree – 23 years of service so far. We’d love to get back to a real tree soon. And we will as soon as this one is no longer able to stand up to the challenge of another season. But so far I can’t justify sending “Big Green” to the landfill and consuming new resources just yet. No doubt it has surpassed it’s expected useful life. While I support the many benefits of having a real tree over a fake one, the most environmentally responsible thing I can do now is to try and continue to use this old guy for season 24 and beyond. I see nothing hypocritical about that.
My first thought was about all the birds that probably nest in the trees in a tree farm. I know that robins like a good pine tree. A tree farm that I go to in summer offers you-pick blueberries – so thinking about it, they offer both shelter and unintended food for the local avian population. I don’t have a Christmas tree as yet, either artificial or natural, as I have a space problem. I have thought about getting a natural tree – after the holidays – and using the branches as a natural deterrent to my local bunny population who enjoy pruning for me. I understand their noses don’t approve of the prickly branches. Happy Holidays to all!
I agree with your rant 100%. I am in my 60’s and have never owned an artificial tree. As alternatives to the standard live pine, spruce, etc. tree, I’ve used several cedar trees, a Yaupon holly (eventually planted in the yard), and a leg lamp my kids and I made in 2001.–I still have the lamp and am using it this year. The only thing you didn’t mention that also bugs me about artificial trees is I bet most are manufactured in China, a country I don’t agree with politically and who is reputed to treat its own people and certain groups of immigrants poorly.
I agree 100% with Joe’s reasoning, yet have to admit that for the past 30 years or so we’ve gone over to the dark side with artificial trees. You see, we set up our Christmas tree around December 1st and keep it up until about mid-January … too long for a real tree.
There are a couple of tree farms around us. One, which is also an apple orchard and pumpkin farm, stopped its Christmas tree business last year due to a lot of their trees being ruined by some sort of disease. They now close for the season just before Thanksgiving.
I grew up in Maine where we just went to our or a friends’ woods and cut a tree. I miss the natural trees. Later in Maryland and Virginia I bought farm grown trees. I cut out branches to open them up. I don’t like how dense, and fake looking, they are.
But now they are cut in mid-November. I don’t put my trees up early; I want them to last ’til Twelfth night. Last year the needles were falling off by Christmas day so i had to take it down on the 26th. So, between that, and the cost, I bought a metal tree this year. I don’t begrudge the tree farmers making a profit but resent the mark ups by dealers & box stores.
Metal pole for Festivus.
Just for the rest of us? LOL
We have lived on our land for almost 40 years and have had, every year, the luxury of cutting our own tree from it. Sometimes it was a big balsam fir that was shading out other trees that we wanted to see grow, other times it was a smaller one that was “just right”. We don’t cut it till the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th week of Dec. so it stays green well into January when I finally get around to undecorating it and using the branches for mulch.Or we prop it next to the bird feeders for extra cover for the ravenous hordes that come in for seed. I feel very lucky to live in a place where we’ve been able to do this year after year. When we get too old to drag it home ourselves we’ll have to enlist our son, daughter and son-in-law since they love the tradition, too. Merry Merry to all who love Christimas trees.