Christmas Tree Compromises

Why do I buy a live Christmas tree? Well, I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t always buy a live tree. I’ve actually owned an artificial tree for almost 20 years. I have lots of beautiful and very fragile old ornaments and I have always been afraid of weak branches allowing my ornaments to fall crashing to the ground. However, a decade ago my husband put his foot down and insisted on getting a live tree in addition to our artificial tree. He missed the smell and the tradition. What kind of Christmas memories, he asked, would the kids have if we didn’t get up one frigid Saturday morning in December and dutifully follow him across a hillside with an ax, arguing about whether he gets a fat tree or I get a more graceful, slender tree? He was right about having a live tree, although don’t tell him that I said so. There are many perks to buying a live Christmas tree.

 1. The smell! Is there anything that says Christmas more than the smell of a fir tree? Well, maybe the smell of gingerbread, but since my entire existence revolves around food, nobody is going to be surprised by the fact that I am willing to go to bat for gingerbread here on the Christmas smell chart.

 2. The experience. The kids do a lot of complaining about getting up before noon to drive to a farm and walk across a field. They argue endlessly about which tree we are getting. One of them usually gets hives. But every year, they want to know when we are getting the tree. If I offer the option of not having the live tree, it’s met with a mixture of disbelief and anger. So out they go, complaining merrily all the way.

 3. The environmental impact. What? How is cutting down a tree good for the environment? Aha! Here it is. Christmas tree farms are a sustainable and environmentally friendly enterprise. Christmas tree farmers plant thousands of trees each year. Those trees grow for almost 10 years before they are large enough to cut. That’s a decade of benefits per tree and when those trees are cut, the tree farmer generally plants at least one more in its place. Tree farms aren’t cutting down old growth timber out of forests to sell to consumers. Think of the Christmas tree as a huge crop, like tomatoes and lettuce. You grow trees intended for harvest and reap all the added environmental benefits of having millions of extra trees growing each year. Artificial trees are made of plastic and millions of those trees end up in landfills each year. The majority of the artificial trees that are sold in the US are made in China and shipped to the United States. Even with the necessary chemical interventions required to keep live Christmas trees at their optimum, the current accepted estimate is that you have to reuse your artificial tree for a minimum of seven years for the environmental impact of a live tree to be equal to that of an artificial tree. To be honest, many of the pre-lit trees that are being sold these days don’t seem to last very long.

 4. The economic impact. This is where your decisions matter to your community. Big box stores generally buy their trees in bulk from states like Oregon where there are massive commercial wholesale tree farms. They ship those trees across the US and then you purchase them at your local big box store. But when you buy a tree from a local tree farm, you’re keeping your money in your community. The family that owns that tree farm is using those funds to support their households. They’re keeping their farmland from being developed into housing and preserving local rural businesses. There is less environmental impact because your trees aren’t being shipped from thousands of miles away, and you are literally keeping the dollars you spend in your own community. The Christmas tree industry is a billion dollar industry. That’s lots of American jobs raising, harvesting, and preparing Christmas trees and that money stays right here at home.

Sure, there are cons to live trees. They’re more work. You MUST water them daily. A dry tree is a dangerous tree and live trees aren’t sprayed with fire retardant chemicals to make them safer (I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a pro or a con). They’re messy, although they’re a lot less messy if you follow rule number one and water that tree daily. But needles drop and they have to be swept up. Some folks have famously had issues with squirrels. I will admit that although I have never experienced a single squirrel issue yet, we do get spiders occasionally. Having the tree farm shake your tree before you take it helps tremendously.

You also have to properly dispose of the tree at the end of the season. Lots of places offer recycling and removal services if you live in the city. We usually use ours as a winter garden mulch. I drag the tree outside and use the cut branches to cover some of my less hardy plants, it keeps the ice off of them and offers them winter protection. During the spring thaw, those branches go to the compost pile or are shredded into mulch for the blueberries. We use the trunk during the summer as logs for our outdoor fireplace where we enjoy roasting hot dogs over our Christmas tree while we look at the stars. If you don’t want to mess with the tree at all while the snow is falling, just lay the tree outside near the woods and let the wildlife use it as a great winter shelter. A bonus if you leave it upright next to a fence and use it to hang your bird feeders or suet cakes, the birds will adore the sheltered space and flock to its branches. I’ve never had a moment of regret about our decision to include a live tree in our holiday festivities. I look forward to seeing you at one of our many local tree farms, many of which offer a variety of activities this holiday season. We will be the family arguing loudly about whether tall or fat trees are perfect Christmas trees. Blessings to you all.

Environmental Conservation Organization

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