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The presents are opened, the cookies are gone, and soon comes the question: How to get rid of the Christmas tree?

Many just toss it on the curb and city or town waste departments pick it up and -- ideally -- grind it for mulch for future landscapes. (Check your local policy on when and how to put trees out. In most cases a bare tree -- not bagged -- is required. Do not discard trees in case of a major snow event, when snow piles and parking issues are complicated enough!)

Instead of curbside removal, however, there are several positive things to do with that still-useful tree, and at least one may work for you:

Benefit the birds

Tree branches are a great place to suspend suet treats, mesh bags full of seeds and nuts, strings of cranberries or orange slices, or grapefruit rinds filled with peanut butter and sunflower seeds. (Many bird books, Audubon Society and Cornell Ornithology Lab web sites, and Extension offices suggest bird-treat options.) Just stick the tree in a snow bank or lean it against a support.

Trees may also provide wind breaks to shelter the bird feeder -- but place it at least 8 feet from the feeder so that it doesn't hide predators. Finally, in only a few weeks some birds begin scouting for nest-building materials, and the tree may become the perfect place to drape ribbons, shredded paper, tinsel, cotton, and drier lint.

Protect the plants

You may think it's late to start mulching over plant roots for winter protection, but you're right on time! It's actually wisest to wait until the ground is frozen, which only happened recently. So cut off those tree branches, forage for everybody else's tree if you can, and place them over the perennials, and around the base of recently planted or slightly tender trees and shrubs, or those plants you have saved un-planted.

In winter, the purpose of mulching is to prevent the extreme temperature fluctuations that lead to soil cracking, heaving, and drying out plant roots. And at the very least, your tree left to decompose in the field or woods ultimately contributes to the soil and a whole complex of living things.

Immediate mulch

Thanks to an efficient collaboration between Erie County, Keep Western New York Beautiful, and the City of Buffalo, you may take your tree to the Buffalo Zoo parking lot from 9 a.m. to noon on January 8th and helpers will grind it into mulch for you or somebody else to take home. (Cell phones are also accepted for recycling.)

Are you worried about using fresh mulch, or a risk of spreading plant diseases? For practical purposes I say don't worry about it -- piling and holding mulch is preferable to using it fresh (as there is risk of some slight nitrogen depletion as fresh mulch decomposes) but as long as you use mulch on top of the soil it's a minimal problem.

As for disease, aging is the insurance, as is the loving, watchful eye of the gardener.

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