Gardening How-to Articles

Information on Christmas Trees

Each year, Americans purchase more than 30 million fresh-cut holiday trees. Such a large number may lead you to ask if it's environmentally sound to decorate with a cut tree or if you should investigate alternatives. Here are some things to consider in making the "greenest" choice for you:

  • Most fresh-cut holiday trees are grown on dedicated tree farms in the U.S. and Canada. This is a positive in that forests themselves are not harvested (but always ask the tree seller where his product comes from). Tree farms are generally beneficial to the environment; as they grow, the trees help absorb carbon dioxide.
    However, there can be some negatives with farmed trees: If the growers use pesticides, they can remain present on the tree leaves and bark after cutting. And being trucked over long distances to a tree lot near you increase the carbon footprint of the trees significantly. If these matters concern you, try to find a local tree farm that grows its plants organically.
  • Most artificial trees are made overseas from unsafe materials. Reusable plastic trees help cut down on the number of holiday trees harvested each year, but most artificial trees are made overseas from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other products that are harmful to health. The carbon load of artificial trees is also quite high: most of the trees are made from petroleum-based ingredients, and 85% of them are made in China, necessitating the burning of fuels for shipping to the U.S.
    However, artificial trees are not all bad: Some come prestrung with LED lights, which are 90% more energy efficient than incandescent lights. LED lights also don't heat up and therefore pose less fire risk than conventional bulbs.
  • You can also buy a live tree in a pot, to plant in your garden after the holidays. Perhaps you want to start a new family tradition and put a potted fig or pear tree next to your fireplace. Many conifers are also available in pots at nurseries. Be sure to buy a tree that is appropriate to your USDA climate zone, and plant the tree out as soon as possible after the holidays to increase its chances of survival.
  • Many cities and towns now offer holiday tree recycling and mulching programs. If you do choose to buy a fresh-cut tree, check with your local government's sanitation and parks departments to find out if they have tree recycling programs. Some cities do special trash pickups for holiday trees to divert them from landfills. Some local organizations arrange holiday tree mulching programs. The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation runs an annual tree recycling program called MulchFest, for example. Don't just toss your tree out with the other trash!
  • If you decorate trees in your yard with lights, please be sure to remove the lights once the holidays are over. Light strands wrapped around tree limbs can damage—and even kill—a tree as it grows.

For more information on holiday trees, check out these resources:

The National Christmas Tree Association.
Tips from the experts on how to select and care for that perfect tree.

"Trees of Christmas Past: A Brief History of Holiday Tree Traditions",
Why do we decorate holiday trees? Read the full story here.

Christmas Tree Farm Network.
Search by state to find a holiday tree farm near you. Some farms even allow you to cut your own tree.

Medi Blum is the former editor of Plants & Garden News and Urban Habitats.

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