To Tree or Not to Tree

[by Brenton Ebersole]
It is the holiday season and the time for putting out all the traditional decorations is upon us. Arguably, the most recognized icon in the western world’s Christmas is the evergreen Christmas tree, decorated with lights and ornaments. One great question needs to be brought to light: have you ever considered the cost on our Mother Earth’s resources to create these trees?

Plastic trees are popular because they can be packed away well until it’s time to decorate for next season. They do not, however, last forever. They become brittle or fade in attics after some years and need to be replaced. This in mind, they are not the lasting, clean, time proof alternative they have been presented to be. Once they need to be discarded, they will not biodegrade for many years and will leach chemicals into our land and watersheds. With no substantial recycling programs in place, these become quite large additions to a landfill.

Believe it or not, cut trees can arguably be an even greater impact on our world. Their lifetime before harvest depends upon many factors including the species grown, the weather and the desired size. Most of the trees marketed today in Illinois range from five to eight feet in height. To produce an average size scotch or white pine takes about eight or nine years of care. Spruce trees, the most popularly cut species, can take up to an astounding eleven years to reach standard size!

The effort involved in planting, fertilizing, watering, pruning, shaping, harvesting, transporting and selling these cut trees is really astounding. The impact, ecologically and agriculturally, is astronomical. Each year, Americans alone cut over thirty million mature trees to keep them for less than two months. Imagine the benefit if some of these trees were left rooted; how much oxygen a million evergreens produce and how much water could they retain and disperse in flood prone areas.

A progressive alternative method to consider is a live, potted evergreen tree. These trees get to spend the holiday season being the center of attention and a part of the festivities. The tree then gets to live on – spruce trees can survive for over a hundred years planted in the right conditions. You can keep the tree as a new part of the family and plant it in your yard. Over the holidays and through the years, a home could eventually have their own stand of Christmas memories. There are also programs to donate them to be planted as part of water shed relief efforts.

Another fun, fresh concept to consider is to make an upcycled tree. With a little imagination, any piece of a tree of any species can be put into a traditional Christmas tree stand and be beautifully decorated for the holiday season. With some tinsel, popcorn, lights, ornaments and a bit of creative vision, one can take pride in putting a refreshing new take on the holiday season. Since most of the materials are gathered or purchased as wasted or broken items, the cost is quite lower than buying a cut or artificial tree.

Good choices for creating an upcycled tree include any living, already damaged limb – a cutting taken where the specimen is growing in a poor shape or a bad direction. Even bare, clean, dead branches with good shape or whole, dead, sapling trees can look quite beautiful. These trees leave plenty of room for decorations, which can be upcycled creations as well!

If you do already have or will still want a cut tree, after the holidays, it can be moved outside and be redecorated for the wild bird friends around your yard. To place outdoors, either dig a shallow hole and repack the earth around the tree’s trunk or anchor the tree in a bucket full of damp sand sufficiently large and heavy enough to keep the tree up right. Stakes could be added for extra support in windy areas.

Decoration possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Examples include draping the branches with strings of popcorn and cranberries. Fruit, leftover bread items and pine cones covered with peanut butter or honey then dipped in birdseed or grains can also be added. For best results, push theses edible ornaments well into the tree’s structure. For weeks to come, enjoy watching the birds enjoy their belated Christmas present.

Traditions are wonderful. They can, however, be changed when adaptation is needed. The ecological impact of Christmas tree agricultural production that could better be spend on organic food production is a pressing call for reform. Embrace the change and help the holidays grow more sustainable and enjoyable for generations to come.