Live Christmas Trees: An Eco-Friendly Alternative

Morguefile.comIt’s a cherished Christmas tradition — a freshly chopped tree in the living room filling the home with the scent of the season. But while it may be a time-honored practice, some people are beginning to question the cost of all those felled conifers.

It takes an average Christmas tree about a decade to reach the right height, which is a whole lot of time spent growing just to be put on display in the home for a few weeks before being trucked off to the city dump.

Plastic trees are an alternative, but unless you plan to deck out your fake fir with car air fresheners, you’re not going to get that all-important whiff of Christmas. And all the plastic that goes into a fake tree doesn’t make them any more environmentally friendly.

However, a few Christmas tree companies have found an innovative middle ground that doesn’t sacrifice authenticity or the environment. They rent “live Christmas trees,” which are living, potted trees that can be replanted when the holidays are over.

Not only are these trees better for the environment, but because they are alive throughout the Christmas season, they stay greener and smell better.

“When you have something alive in the room, it’s a whole different atmosphere than when you have something slowly dying or something plastic,” says Scott Martin, owner of The Living Christmas Tree Co. in Southern California.

Martin’s company drops off the tree in December and then picks it up after the holidays.

“What do we do with that tree after the holiday season? My elves pick it up and we look for reclaimed land to give it purpose,” Martin smiles.

He’s worked with Shell Oil to create a small forest on six acres of reclaimed land in South California, and last year alone, the company rented out and planted just over 1,000 trees.

"If you don’t have a lot that rents trees in your city, don’t worry,"  reassures John Fogel, owner of The Original Living Christmas Tree Co. in Portland, OR. You can always head to a garden center, which is sure to have plenty of potted spruce, pine and fir on hand.

However, if you do plan to get a living tree, take note that live Christmas trees are a little different from regular cut trees.

“This isn’t for everybody," according to Martin. “The tree needs love. They are not a static thing; you need to be willing to be involved in this.”

A potted tree will probably need to be watered more than a regular tree in your landscaping, so make sure to keep the soil damp.

Though many people like to get their tree shortly after Thanksgiving, potted trees can’t spend more than about three weeks indoors. A warm home feels like springtime to a tree. So too much time indoors will cause the tree to start growing, sending out fresh branches that will be damaged when the tree is moved out into the cold.

Tips on Caring for Your Living Christmas Tree

1. Make sure the rootball is well watered before you bring it into the house.

2. You may want to leave your tree in an unheated garage for a day or so and then bring it into your heated home. This will help it acclimate.

3. Keep your tree as cool as possible.  At least turn your thermostat down at night and when you are not at home, to 60 F or cooler. 

4. Locate your tree near a window when possible.

5. Cover any heating ducts located near tree. 

6. Water a little bit each day (two to four cups).

7. Put a saucer under your container with pebbles and water to help add humidity to the air around the tree. 

8. If you use lights to decorate, use only the tiny ones not the thumb size.

9. Don’t spray your tree with any fake snow or other artificial materials.

10. Move your tree to an unheated shed or garage after Christmas for a day or two and then move it outside. This will help acclimate it to cold again. 

11. Be sure to get planting instructions when you purchase your tree. 

If you live in the Pacific Northwest you can take advantage of The Original Christmas Tree Company. Based in Portland, Oregon, they will deliver a live hand-pruned potted tree to your door. After the holidays, they will pick up the tree and plant it in area watersheds, parks or around churches. Prices range from $75-$90.

While live Christmas tree companies will usually pick the tree up after the holidays, you may have the option of keeping yours. If you do decide to plant your tree, wait until the ground has fully thawed in the spring; it’s OK to store the tree in the garage through the winter.

Cover the tree with a sheet of burlap once you move it outside, as the sudden shock of full sun can burn the branches, Martin cautions. Uncover it for a few hours more each day until it gets used to the sun.

Other than that, your tree just needs lots of love.

Updated November 29, 2018.

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