Recycling Christmas Trees

G ardeners are a thrifty bunch and don’t throw away much. We compost our kitchen wastes, use our leaves for mulch and compost and, if we are lucky enough to have access to manure, we provide our own fertilizer for our gardens. Then every year at Christmas (unless we have gone artificial) we have a perfectly good tree in our living rooms that has to go some where. So what do we do with it?

Most people who dwell in the city or suburbs put their trees out for curbside pick up or take them to a tree disposal center. This is not necessarily a bad option. Many cities, rather than dumping trees into landfills, turn them into mulch. Huston, for instance, saved almost $200,000 in landfill costs in 2007 by chipping the detritus from 47,000 home yards and gardens. This included 79 tons of Christmas trees. Further profits were made by selling some of the mulch to home and garden centers. San Diego has been recycling Christmas trees for 35 years, turning them into compost and mulch. They are one of the few programs that accept flocked trees. Pittsburgh has a program run by Pennsylvania Resources Council Inc., the state’s oldest environmental nonprofit, that chips the tree for use as mulch in the city parks. In Delaware the state parks collect the trees and chip them. The resultant mulch is used to deter erosion and weeds and for use on trails. Extra mulch is given to state residents.

Environmental and sportsmen’s groups frequently use the trees to provide habitat and cover for animals, fish and birds. The US Army Corp of Engineers will collect trees at Tionesta Lake until the 25th of January to use for wildlife habitat enhancement.. Their web site is The Lions Club in Muncy and Montoursville, PA has a similar collection program. They turn their trees over to the State Game Commission, which uses them in State Parks for cover for small animals such as rabbits.

Dragging your Christmas tree into the woods or tossing it into your fish pond is not littering. According to the University of New Hampshire an effective brush pile that will provide tunneling area, shade and safety to small animals and certain birds is 4 to 5 feet high and the same in diameter. Pile your tree trimmings and old Christmas tree into this size pile and then start another one 10 to 50 yards away.

In fish ponds, lakes and streams Christmas trees provide shelter and hiding places for fish to hide and spawn. When weighted and sunk the trees provide a sort of artificial reef that enhances the bottom environment. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and private groups, such as the BASS Federation, take hundreds of trees and sink them in Pennsylvania lakes to benefit bass, crappies blue gills and almost any other fish found in local bodies of water. One warning however, when placed in streams the disintegrating trees will eventually wash away and can cause problems down stream.

While stacking Christmas trees will provide shelter for birds around your bird feeder, remember that it can also provide a hiding place for the neighborhood cats. A better idea may be to place the tree in an open area and hang it with suet and cups filled with bird seed. You can use paper cups or hollow out orange shells and dry them.  Smear the branches with peanut butter or roll pinecones in peanut butter and hang them from the tree.  Pine cones can also be coated with suet and bird seed. String popcorn or cranberries to further embellish your bird tree. This not only provides a feast for the birds but provides a feast for your eyes, as well.

If you have access to more that one tree they can be set up teepee fashion to provide shelter for small animals and birds. Tie them at the top and plant them securely in the ground. Leave an opening in the south side for access. You may scatter seed in the teepees for the birds, but again remember the neighborhood cat.

Used Christmas trees also play a part in erosion control. Louisiana builds Christmas tree brush fences to prevent further loss of costal wetlands. The trees, piled and tied between slated fences, diminish the energy of the waves and keeps sediment from being washed out to sea. Between 1990 and 2004 approximately 8 miles of brush fences have been built along Louisiana’s costal marshes. The project has utilized 1,574,000 Christmas trees and has helped slow the 25-35 square miles of marshland lost each year

Christmas trees have also proved effective in building sand dunes to prevent beach erosion. A healthy dune, complete with beach grasses, traps sand and holds it in place. A project to retain sand on Bradley Beach, on the New Jersey shoreline, was started by local people after the U.S. Army Corps of engineers replaced 3.1 million cubic yards of sand that had been eroded along the shoreline. Residents placed snow fencing along sections of the beach promenade area and piled Christmas trees on the beach side of the fences. The trees trap the windblown sand and eventually dunes grow. These are then stabilized by the planting of beach grasses and other native vegetation. These dune building efforts are familiar sites all along the eastern coast of the US and are often used on lakeshores as well.

Closer to home Christmas trees can be used along steams to trap sediment and prevent erosion. They can be anchored to bare slopes where they will trap leaves and other organic matter to build up the topsoil. They will also keep the soil from eroding until native plants can get a foothold to provide root systems to hold the soil.

A Christmas tree can also be recycled for use in a garden. If you have a chipper it can be chipped into mulch. Use the branches to decorate pots that are left outdoors all winter. The branches will also hold the snow cover on plants that are too tall to be covered by bark mulches. This is particularly useful on plants that bloom on old wood, such as some on the blue hydrangeas. If last year’s wood freezes there will be no flowers. Covering them with pine boughs will often prevent freezing of those important vestigial flower buds. According to Nancy Rose, a horticulturist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service the branches will “stay in place better than loose leaves or straw.”

Need a tall stake to grow some annual vines? Strip off the branches and plant your old Christmas tree firmly in the ground or tie it to a fence. Leave the branches on and you have a trellis. The branches also make good “pea brush” for anyone with a vegetable garden. Peas are very happy climbing over pine branches.

Your house pets can also benefit from an old Christmas tree. For your feline friends, turn it into a scratching post. Cut the branches down to 6-8 inch stubs and remove all of the needles from the tree. Make sure it is well braced in its holder or nail it securely to some boards. Hang ribbons, yarn,  and small toys from the branches to encourage the cat to play and scratch at the trunk.

To protect your plants from a male dog’s tendency to mark his territory the tree can be cut into “urine posts”. Cut the tree trunk into 3 or 4 foot sections and dig them into the ground close to where the dog is doing the most damage. They can be made more attractive to the dog by placing gravel around them. This also makes it easier to wash away the urine. Painting the posts preserves them from the elements and may pique the dog’s interest.

You also may burn your Christmas tree but do it with utmost caution. It is best done outside in a safe fire pit. Resins in the tree make it burn very hot with lots of sparks. It is not safe to burn it in an indoor fireplace and burning it in a stove will result in creosote buildup in the flue. We are told however that they make great bonfires! A few foot- long branches, tied together with twine, are safe to use indoors as fire starters.

With all of these uses there is no reason to send your Christmas tree to a landfill.  Even if there are no formal programs for the utilization of Christmas trees in our area, there are means to recycle for the least innovative among us.