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How to Repurpose Your Real Christmas Tree

 
gardener
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Instead of coal, Santy Paul will give you a lecture on waste, which sadly, you cannot grill a steak over.

Call me an old-school dork, but I love Christmas trees - I love the frigid hike into the woods to find one that’s actually going to fit in our living room, the endless squabbling with my husband over the possibility of finding a better one, and sap on my fingers, and the fog of my breath as we hoof it through a foot of snow to find the perfect tree.

I don’t care how crazy it is, I love it.

But what I don’t love is that feeling I get at the end of the holidays, when I think of all the trees that just got cut down, to be embellished with tinsel and ornaments for a month, and then discarded, without a second thought.

No way, Jose, not in this house.

Cutting a Christmas tree sustainably is a perfectly simple thing to do, but all the same, I don’t like the idea of something living being removed from the forest, only to become landfill fodder.

Potted Christmas trees are an option in some areas, but more often than not, they’re not native species, and can actually complicate local ecology if planted outside, so they’re not always a great idea.

Artificial trees are of course, a bit of an environmental hazard - made of nasty materials, shipped halfway ‘round the world, and aside from being in authentic, they are not biodegradable, which is just not acceptable to me.

That being said, when it’s time to take down the Christmas tree, there are a few handy things you can do with it, other than just throw it away.

Hugelkultur



Hugelkultur is a type of raised garden bed that uses rotting wood as a means to nourish the soil as it decomposes, while also acting as a sponge, to help the garden bed hold onto water. In many cases, hugekultur all but eliminates the need to water.

You can turn your Christmas tree into the start of a hugelkultur garden bed very easily - by simply tossing it in the yard. Pick a discreet corner, and let it succumb to the elements enough to get soft and spongy. When the wood is well on it’s way to rotting, break it up, and use it start a miniature hugelkultur bed.

Fancy something bigger? Go out in search of more rotting wood, whether it be on your property or someone else’s (people are generally quite happy to share), and build something more substantial. Though some woods are better than others for certain plants, those preferring acidic soils, like blueberries, don’t mind a Christmas tree or two in the pile, so don’t be shy just because you’re working with softwoods.

Compost

Throwing your tree away in most capacities will mean it at some point returns to the soil, but why not use your Christmas tree’s end to begin a compost pile, or contribute to one you already have going?

It’s best to chop a Christmas tree up for composting, so the pile is easier to turn, but the combination of greenery and wood make for a nice addition, and will turn what would have otherwise been trash, into a valuable soil additive.

Rather than just tossing your Christmas tree out this year, use this as an opportunity to teach young kids about the circle of life, by engaging in a family compost pile project. If you’re not sure where to start, the book Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth, is a lovely way to introduce kids to what you can put into compost, and why it is such a wonderful way to say goodbye to the family tree.

Burn it in a Rocket Mass Heater



Did I mention that dead wood is great for burning? It may not be fully dry yet, especially if you’re a regimented waterer, but it’s likely much dryer than a bundle of fresh sticks, and won’t take long to fully dry out.

Set your tree in a relatively dry location outside, so the needles don’t make a mess, and let it dry out - then use a sawzall, or just break it into small pieces by hand, and burn it in your rocket mass heater, or other wood stove.

Rocket mass heaters are kind of famous for running off of practically twigs anyway, so a whole Christmas tree should carry you through a few days, depending on your climate. There’s no sense in letting free home heat go to waste - if you don’t already have a rocket mass heater, put this instructional DVD set on your Christmas list for next year.

Mulching

If there’s one thing pine and fir trees are good at, it’s keeping other plants at bay. Not only do these plants grow aggressively fast, but their allopathic nature can make the surrounding soil quite inhospitable to plants that don’t have a reasonable tolerance for it.

Toss your tree in a dry-ish place in the yard, and when it’s brittle enough, snap and whack it into a bunch of course pieces for mulch in the spring. There’s no need to be thorough, whole branches will do just fine as mulch. You can also use them to line paths in your garden, to keep plants back, and walking areas well defined.

Make Something With It!

Christmas trees are generally fairly small, but there’s no reason you can’t still repurpose the pole into something else. I made a toddler sized tipi out of similarly sized saplings, so if you can acquire enough from your surrounding community, you’ll have enough to build your own tiny tot tipi!

You can also use them for some fun projects around the house - I love making curtains rods out of them - talk about a money saver. If you have a need for a paper towel holder, a walking stick, a towel rack, make sure to save the pole of your Christmas tree and refashion it.

If you’re the sentimental sort, you can even etch the year into the wood, so that you’ll always have a Christmas keepsake to remember your tree by.


These are just a few ways to reuse a cut Christmas tree - what have you done with yours in the past?

 
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Here in Maine we used to "bank the house" with them.

Today old houses with rock basements (where the wind howls through and freezes pipes) is done with sheet plastic, but in the old days we used to run around the edges of the fields and cut "boughs" which are ever green limbs and lay them around the foundation. It sounds far worse then it is. It is actually sustainable because cutting a few branches does not kill the tree and they would overhang into the field anyway. But with lots of surface area and air pockets, the resulting snows here would lay on top of the piles and would super insulate the house. A Christmas tree would just add to the banking process.

As a side note, using hay bales also works against the house.

In my own home where the water pipe coming out of my house and running to the sheep barn often freezes, I "bank" a few bucketfuls of compost around it and it NEVER freezes, the compost having enough heat to keep the water pipe from freezing.

One year my Grandfather, sadly in the throes of Dimensia, took his Christmas Tree and was burning it in his woodstove. That would have been fine, but he did not cut it up first and just shoved it in top-first. He pretty near burned his house down before we stopped him. It was quite funny, but also let us know that from then on, he could never be alone.

(Note: I am not making fun of the elderly, it was a mere sad story, but atlas if we all could chose how to end our lives it would be in our sleep and quickly. Sadly some do not have that option. I watched my Grandfather slowly waste away until his brain could no longer support his body...a sad way to end a life. Still I...and if anyone else has this issue...is to remember the person for who they were, not as they ended or are now. And if your grandparents are alive still and in good mental capacity...get to know them and their life. That is sound advice from the voice of regret).
 
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Ours will turn into mulch with the main trunck likely saved for building material.
 
pollinator
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If you're planning on acquiring discarded trees for hugelkultur or what-have-you, be aware that many trees are sprayed with fire retardants, particularly if they came from a big commercial tree lot or a place that sells such things. Most of these are of questionable value to the planet, but some are advertised as "green" or "biodegradable".

Edit: OP, you're not crazy! As a kid, I loved taking the trip to the tree lot, hunting for the perfect tree in shin-deep snow, dodging in and out of the trees and hucking snowballs at my dad and brothers, helping cut the thing down, etc. It was a family tradition that I intend to repeat with my own young family. We have been enjoying a nice hand-me-down fake tree but our daughter will be 2 next year and I'd like to expose her to the same things I enjoyed growing up.
 
Destiny Hagest
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Nick Watkins wrote: OP, you're not crazy! As a kid, I loved taking the trip to the tree lot, hunting for the perfect tree in shin-deep snow, dodging in and out of the trees and hucking snowballs at my dad and brothers, helping cut the thing down, etc. It was a family tradition that I intend to repeat with my own young family. We have been enjoying a nice hand-me-down fake tree but our daughter will be 2 next year and I'd like to expose her to the same things I enjoyed growing up.



We actually cut ours in the forest, I've never been to a tree lot! It is a really fun tradition. Our son is almost two, and we've been going since he was born, bundling him up in the baby carrier and hoofing it through the woods with him.
 
Nick Watkins
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Destiny Hagest wrote:We actually cut ours in the forest, I've never been to a tree lot! It is a really fun tradition. Our son is almost two, and we've been going since he was born, bundling him up in the baby carrier and hoofing it through the woods with him.



When we go next year, I hope that I'll be able to do the same. You have to drive quite a ways out of the suburbs to find a place to cut one without trespassing. Hopefully we'll be able to do this on our property someday!
 
Travis Johnson
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We do the same thing Destiny. All our trees come off our own land! Period. Yes this means a lot of our Christmas trees are Charlie Brown Christmas Trees but so be it, it grew here and we are giving it use. (We also make a lot of wreaths too. This year one my wife made for a charity auctioned off for $400!)

This year was different. I was cutting sawlogs for commercial forest products anyway and noticed in the distance was a perfect Christmas Tree, but it was 60 feet up. The tree was big enough for a sawlog so down it came, and while the main purpose was to get 3 logs out of it, I wondered what the top looked like. They often look a lot different when you get them on the ground. I stood up the top in any case and it was perfectly shaped. Nice and Full. It looked like it came off a Christmas Tree Farm. So this year we grabbed that instead of chopping one off at the stump, but it still came from our farm.



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Travis Johnson
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BUT you do not have to wait for Christmas to do this, we take our 4 daughters outside all the time to enjoy our farm!

One year we bought Geostones at a local Rock and Gem store, then I went out early in the morning, planted them under a big bolder about a mile away, then later that day hiked out to the "salted mine" so to speak. With hammer with us, we broke open the geostones and had a great hike.

Another time we hiked out into the forest in the middle of winter and built a sapling and bough fort, then made a fire (since it had snow on the ground) then from a nearby stream got water and made us cocoa. That was fun too.

I cannot list all the times we have just "gotten out there". We don't have a lot of land, but being ours, we intend to enjoy it...and do and in just about every season but hunting season. Even then in Maine, with no hunting on Sunday, we can go for a hike in November. Goodness gracious I cannot tell young families enough...get out there, this is when you plant the seeds of discovery in young kids!!!



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master steward
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Speaking of harvesting Christmas trees, we actually have planted about half a dozen noble firs up at the top of our hill (in our permaculture zone 4) to use as Christmas trees when they get larger. We got them a foot tall at our local conservation plant sale, and when they get a little bigger, I'll start pruning them to be just the shape I like. It'll be many years before they're be large enough to be our Christmas tree, so until then we'll keep harvesting our trees from a tree farm a few miles away (our property only has Christmas tree-sized hemlocks and cedars, and let me tell you that those DO NOT make good Christmas trees...unless you like hemlocks losing all it's needles by Christmas!   )
 
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I let mine dry out and then make charcoal with it.  I make my charcoal in a burn barrel with a blower hooked to it to increase the burning efficiency and speed and reduce smoke.  We don't get huge trees so I can chop it up a little with a machete or hatchet and then toss big chunks of it in the burn barrel.  I can then use it to cook on the grill or for blacksmithing.  I could put it in the wood stove, but they are usually so sappy, I don't like putting it in the stove.
 
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Throw your old tree into a pond where it will provide habitat for little fish who will feed bigger fish who might feed you!
Staff note (Destiny Hagest):

Good one!

 
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We feed them to our goats. Toss the whole thing in their yard and when they've munched on them as much as they want, they we cut off limbs for the compost pile and save the main trunk for building.
 
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In Texas, they [parks + wildlife dept.] used to sink them in the lakes as fish habitat.  I haven't been around fishing for several years so I don't know if they still do this.  If you decide to do this ask permission.

Another use for the tree would be to set it outside and hang bird treats from the tree.

What about using it as a trellis for your garden?

You might check the newspaper for organizations that are looking to collect them for projects.

 
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Recyling your Christmas tree for fish habitat is THE thing to do in Oklahoma.  
 
Destiny Hagest
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I never even thought to recycle them as fish habitat, probably because every body of water here is frozen this time of year, but what a great idea!

And I love the idea of letting it sit as a garden trellis. I actually made a woven stick fence this past summer - it still needs a little finishing, but I could see the body of our tree being a suitable rail. I'll have to create a thread for that project soon.
 
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Destiny Hagest wrote:I never even thought to recycle them as fish habitat, probably because every body of water here is frozen this time of year, but what a great idea!

And I love the idea of letting it sit as a garden trellis. I actually made a woven stick fence this past summer - it still needs a little finishing, but I could see the body of our tree being a suitable rail. I'll have to create a thread for that project soon.




It used to be quite common to see Christmas trees put out on the ice for lakes that working to put some hideaway habitat for fish in them. Although your option is very likely to avoid some local department of sad type getting a bee in their bonnet.
 
Destiny Hagest
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Most likely - the forest service presence is really heavy out here, and they love looking for things to do Most of the lakes we have are quite inaccessible - either tucked way back in the wilderness, or the nearest one is literally on top of a mountain, but the streams are quite prevalent. I'd be hesitant to throw one into a moving body of water though, not knowing how or where it might end up. Plenty of large trees fall in all the time, but they are often cleared by the forestry.
 
Travis Johnson
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Here in Maine it is against the law to clear trees from streams and rivers, even if they are blocking the current and scouring the bank edges. In fact the Game Wardens and Forest Rangers are putting in trees, kind of like massive brush dams for natural fish habitat. Considering this is a Federally Financed and sanctioned part of remediation, I am surprised Montana is not on board with this.

Myself I am not siding with Maine nor Montana on this issue. A guy on the Soil and Water Conservation District is beside himself with anger that they won't let him clear trees on a stream blocking a major outlet to a lake. But if they are paying to install brush dams on some streams, why should they remove them on this one particular stream? I kind of wish they would. I used to canoe down that stream during a Spring Freshet but can't now because the stream is blocked, but should my ability to canoe easily; impede the flourishing of fish?

In life, every decision made affects something else negatively. There is no getting around it, so I don't have the answers here.
 
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Christmass trees in a pot work fine for my parents.

I have been pruning a big one our neighbours planted over 20 years ago. I use the fresh prunings to make herbal tea. You can use fresh pine prunings to flavour sugar, salt, vinegar etc.... recipes are out there. I makes a nice tea. Most trees species sold as christmass trees in Europe are usable to make tea and such. I don't know about North American trees.

That being said, don't use pruning from a tree sprayed with fire retardants, artificial snow, pesticides etc.....
 
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You can make an egg beater out of it... http://fredkeandfriends.lu/christmas-tree-recycling-homemade-whisk/

You could make a baseball bat http://www.michaelkusugak.com/the-stories/baseball-bats-for-christmas

In our village, people haul their trees to the community centre and a man comes with a chipper and chips them.  I then bribe the man with the chipper with chocolates to dump the whole pile up the allotments, where I mulch my paths with it and my allotment smells like Santa's grotto for a while!
 
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We had a little table top tree this year that we got at a local place.  My land grows no pine, just all the other stuff.  Anyway, once it's done it's decorative and fragrance job, I cut it into little pieces and throw it in the chicken coop.  It makes for good dry bedding that breaks down quick in the spring.  Also gives the chickens a little extra traction on the snow/ice in front of the coop.  When we compost all that material in the spring, the pine allows for a little extra fluff factor as it includes large amounts of air spaces in the compost piles.  Then... mulch for the blueberries.

 
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my grandmother had me every year take her tree out into the field or she could see it from her kitchen window where it would become bird habitat. leet in the winter or early spring usually around the last snowfall we would burn it and it would be my job to gather the ashes for her flower beds.
 
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We collect trees from the neighborhood to use for wildlife cover in the yard.  Once the needles fall, there isn't much left, and the branches break down quickly too.  
 
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My home town would collect a bunch of the Christmas trees and make a giant bonfire as part of the winter festival that started in January. Great fun for kids and good community building but perhaps not the most sustainable use of the towns Christmas trees. Back when the town used to get more snow they would also make a giant snow pile near the bonfire that us kids would play on and turn into a giant playground full of slides, tunnels and such. This last Christmas my wife and I got a live Douglas fir from a local nursery as part of a restoration program that we used inside as a regular Christmas tree and then we planted it on our property. I got my parents tree and a friends tree and both are now part of my latest hugelkultur bed!
 
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If you have goats, or know someone that does (and you're absolutely sure no preservatives have been used on the outside of your tree), the goats LOVE to eat the needles off the trees!
 
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Wind is one of my biggest gardening challenges, so my tree and the ones that I have found dumped on the side of the road were incorporated into the fence around my garden.  My fence consist of salvaged woven wire fencing and the post are nothing more than rebar (also salvaged).  Quick and dirty.  I de-limbed the trees and wove the branches in.  Wind protection in the summer and water collection in the winter.  My hugels were completely buried under a huge snow drift.
 
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We have committed our past two trees to the hugels! They're old and rotty by now, so I'm excited to see what will grow on them.
 
Destiny Hagest
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These are all such fantastic suggestions! I live in an area where fresh trees are by and large the norm, and I'd love to organize some sort of community effort to make it easy to put them to good use after the holidays - perhaps something to ponder whilst I smolder over the summer.
 
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