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 week’s podcast, I’ll 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. (For the record, my tree is artificial, still in use now for 21 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.
Do you buy a real Christmas tree each year? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
20 Gift Ideas for the Gardener in Your Life – You can also text GIFTGUIDE to 44222 to receive it.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out.
Wild Alaskan Seafood Box – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code “Joe” at checkout for two special bonuses just for our podcast listeners – 2 pounds of Dungeness crab with your first order and free scallops for the life of your subscription.
*Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, and Wild Alaskan Seafood Box. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.