by Whit Gibbons

December 25, 2005

What do you do with your Christmas tree next week? The question is of course inapplicable to the one-third of the nation's households who have no Christmas tree in their home and is easy to answer for the multitude of families who have an artificial tree that goes back into storage. But in the more than 30 million homes that have real Christmas trees, where should the trees go when their job is done? The question has an ecologically gratifying answer. Although more than a million acres of the United States were used this year to grow trees that were cut down and kept less than a month, no matter what you do now, your action will be environmentally sound.

One thing about living organisms is that they die. Of course, a Christmas tree is functionally dead before you take it home, unless you happen to get a rooted one you can plant in the backyard after Christmas. (In my experience, these do not die until the next summer.) But during this season most people have to deal with a dead tree in the house. Despite the "12 days of Christmas," which last through January 5, some people say that if your Christmas tree is in the house past midnight December 31, bad luck will befall you for the entire year. You do not have to be superstitious or a pagan to see that a dead tree with dry, falling needles that make it a potential tinder box for a fire is incentive enough not to go 12 more days.

So, what if you have a dead tree with needles littering the floor each time you jiggle it? Time to get the lights and ornaments off and the tree outside. Once the tree is lying on its side outside the front door, you can begin to make choices. One ecologically sound approach is to drag the tree into an out-of-sight spot in the yard. If such a discreet location is not possible, and the tree ends up in a spot where everyone can see it, tell your neighbors you are using it to create "wildlife habitat." Dead trees do, in fact, create wildlife habitat for wood-dwelling insects, fungi, and occasionally amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, depending on the stage of decay, type of tree, and location. So, you are actually doing what you say, though the inhabitants of your created wildlife habitat may not be obvious.

A second rationale for leaving the tree in your yard is to use the dry branches for building fires in a fireplace. Old Christmas tree limbs make great fire starters because they crackle loudly, burn brightly, and are aromatic. If your tree has been up for a week or more, you can probably start using the branches right away. Be advised that some organizations decry the idea of burning a Christmas tree in the fireplace because of safety concerns about the potential buildup of creosote. So, check into the potential hazards before taking my advice on how to start a fire.

Another approach is to throw the tree into your favorite fishing lake to create habitat for fish. A friend who does this every year claims he catches more fish in that spot. He does not mention whether his hooks are snagged by tiny branches well into summer. But whether better fishing is the result or not, I cannot see any environmental reason not to discard old Christmas trees in a river or lake.

One popular solution many communities use for Christmas tree disposal is to consolidate discarded ones into a giant heap of pine, fir, and spruce in an open park area. The trees are then ground into mulch for landscaping around the city. Finally, a really simple option exists for people who live in a community where trash pickup includes removal of vegetation. Haul the tree to the curb and forget about it. Whichever of these options you choose, you can close out the holiday season with the assurance of having been environmentally responsible.

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