The days passed very quickly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it may seem you barely had time to wrap the gifts and put up the Christmas tree. So why rush to take it down? Yet there are those who can’t wait to get the house back to normal, and others who worry about fire safety as trees get dry. (If that’s your worry, most trees will stay green if you keep the water bucket filled with fresh water; check every day.) Once you take the decorations down, you have choices to make about what to do with it. Here are 10 ways to use that tree for good, long after its holiday job is finished.
1. Use it as a wind break, for the birds or you. My particular custom is to place the tree, in its stand (that I refill with water after dragging it outside), out to the deck, where it provides a wind break for the back door and the bird feeding station. Think where the wind comes from. A big, fat tree, strategically placed, might be just right.
2. Make it a snack bar. If you are able to feed birds, the tree is a great place to hang suet cakes, or tie on some pine cones and smear them with peanut butter every day. Birds must burn a lot of calories trying to keep warm and find food during cold weather and benefit from fat in their diets.
3. Put it in the woods. If you have property, dead trees are valuable for wildlife. They provide shelter, nesting or breeding places, browsing material or food for many creatures. Eventually they decompose and become part of the soil again.
4. Block soil erosion on a creek or stream bank. If a stream runs through your property, dead trees can form part of a natural barrier that prevents soil from running into the water during heavy rainfall. Lodge the tree firmly against living trees or brace it with a stake or rocks so that it does not fall into the water.
5. Put it in the shrub and flower bed. If you have shrubs or perennials that are especially vulnerable to winter kill (from harsh winds, extreme temperatures and the resulting desiccation), put the tree on the windy side to buffer them. Many needles will fall on the soil in spring before you get around to removing the tree, and they will contribute to the mulch and serve the soil well. (Do not worry that you are making the soil too acidic; it would take many inches of pine needles and a very long time before those needles change the soil pH.)
6. Cut off the branches and place them over certain shrubs or perennials. One of the reasons some hydrangeas don’t bloom very well (or early in the year in the case of the reblooming or ‘Endless Summer’ types) is that the first buds are killed in winter. Covering these hydrangeas with tree boughs is ideal. This kind of mulching doesn’t crush the plant stems or crowns but does buffer the cold and wind. Any shrub’s roots or perennial plants, gone dormant underground, would benefit from tree branches.
7. Use them as props. After they have served as wind breaks or shelter for other plants, the Christmas tree or its branches may be useful in next season’s vegetable or flower garden. Stake the tree upright in the soil, and it’s a support for climbing peas, beans, sweet peas or any flowering vine. Shorter boughs can serve as supports for bush peas or perennials or small shrubs that tend to flop too much. British gardeners and old-timers in America use the term pea brush to describe the use of branches stuck into the soil to support other plants.
8. Compost them. Larger branches may form the base of a new compost pile. A few medium-sized branches provide some aeration throughout a pile. Smaller twigs and needles are valuable composting elements.
9. Grind them for mulch or take it to a recycling location to have this done. I mention the do-it-yourself possibility only with a warning: Many people have lost fingers and hands, trying to feed branches into a mulching machine, or to unclog the machine. If you own such equipment and are skilled and careful, then indeed it’s great to have mulch from your own tree. Better to let a professional do it and take it to a recycling location.
In Buffalo, a tree and electronics recycling event will take place Jan. 18, at the Honeywell Specialty Materials site, 20 Peabody St. near Elk Street, starting at 9 a.m. Some other towns and villages have such events or locations, so check local listings. In some cases you can take your own mulch home with you.
10. The fallback position for many people is to put the tree on the street. If your city or town actually grinds up and makes mulch of the trees, it’s a fine option. Most municipalities ask you to not bag or wrap the tree, but just place it on the curb on a designated day. (Then don’t be surprised if an enterprising gardener picks up your tree to use in one of the first nine ways!)
Finally, what not to do: Your Christmas tree is not a good choice for burning. Bonfires are not legal in most locations anyway. Inside, even the small boughs are bad choices for burning in fireplaces or wood stoves as conifer fires cause creosote buildup in chimneys and often lead to house fires. While Christmas trees, kept fresh during the holiday weeks, are very rarely the cause of fires, burning them appropriately after the holiday is very dangerous.
Thank you for considering how to recycle our beautiful, fresh, locally grown trees. Their value continues as we help them return to the earth.