The holidays have come and gone and soon you will begin the chore of taking down the decorations for the season. Of those tasks, none may be more disheartening or messier than removing your Christmas tree, which by now probably resembles a dried piece of kindling. If the last stop for your tree is usually on the curb with the empty gift boxes, consider a greener approach this year and recycle it!
Trees as wildlife habitat
One of the easiest and most effective ways to recycle a Christmas tree is to turn it into a home for wildlife. Winter can be a difficult time for overwintering songbirds as food and shelter become scarce. Consider placing your tree in the backyard or garden where the branches will provide nesting habitat and refuge from winter winds.
Another way to give wildlife a foot-up in the winter months is to hang fruit slices or strings of cranberries or raisins from the branches to serve as a food source for songbirds or small mammals. If you choose this option, make sure to place the tree well away from any permanent structures such as homes and sheds. Conifer resin is extremely flammable so avoid placing them near structures that could catch fire.
If you have a pond, consider placing the entire tree in the water, as tree skeletons provide shelter and structure many fish depend on for nesting. If you don’t have pond on your property consider seeking out hunting or fishing clubs that may accept trees to use for wildlife.
Trees as compost
Another option for recycling old trees is to trim branches from the main trunk and place them over your perennials for the winter. This will serve as an added layer of insulation during nights when temperatures dip below freezing. Over time, the limbs will breakdown and provide extra nutrients to plants. Layers of evergreen tree boughs also help slow the early flush of weeds in the spring.
Trimmed branches can also be used in compost bins, but remember that smaller branches break down more quickly than large ones, so consider cutting each limb into 6-8” pieces or smaller. This also applies to other living greenery decorations from your home. Another option is to have trees chipped or shredded to use as mulch around landscape trees or shrubs. If you cannot compost at home, consider donating your tree to be composted offsite. Many solid waste services will recycle old trees either free of charge or for a small fee if dropped off at convenience sites. Check with your local solid waste service agency and ask about convenience sites and the dates when trees will be collected.
There are some very creative ways to reuse that old tree. By cutting branches and sticking them in the ground in such a way that forms a picket fence, you can protect your landscape trees and shrubs from drying winter winds. Old Christmas trees can also be used as a trellis system for your summer garden plants like runner beans or peas. Planted densely enough, the vines will cover the entire skeleton of the tree and can serve as a useful, sustainable, and attractive display for your home garden.
One thing that you should NOT do however is to burn Christmas trees in fireplaces. The highly flammable resin inside a dry tree will explode into flames when added to a fire. Burning trees also deposits resin in the chimneys and over time, build of resin can present a fire hazard.
Just because you are done with your tree does not mean it has no use! Recycling your old tree can have many benefits for your home garden and wildlife, so before tossing it to the curb consider giving your tree a second chance this year by recycling it. For the environmentally- and economically-minded gardener, recycling a tree is just one more way you can save money and help ensure a greener 2014.
For lawn and garden advice, visit ces.ncsu.edu where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center. If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1235; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610. If you want to know where you can take old trees to be recycled, call your county’s waste services agency or public works department.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the Brunswick County Cooperative Extension of NC State University, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.