What to do with the Christmas tree?

Once the lights and trim are removed and back in their boxes, what do you do with 2006’s Christmas tree? Why not give it a second life, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“Christmas tree disposal doesn’t have to be a major problem,” said Greg Stack. “There are several environmentally friendly alternatives. Not only are these methods safe for the environment but they provide a source of enjoyment for you and your friends and family.”

A short-term solution can be as easy as decorating the tree as a food source for wildlife.

“After taking off all the decorations, re-decorate the tree with food items that can be eaten by the birds and squirrels,” said Stack. “Things like popcorn or cranberries strung together and hung like garland on the tree become tasty treats for squirrels.

“Pine cones smeared with peanut butter and hung on the tree become ornament feeding stations for birds,” Stack added. “You might also consider hanging apple rings or hollowed-out halves of an orange. Hang it in the tree, and fill the ‘orange bowl’ with peanuts.”

The tree can be set up and secured in a spot in the yard where all can enjoy the action as birds and other animals come to check out what kind of treats are available.

“Not only will the tree provide food for wildlife during the cold winter days, but it can also be a place where they can hide from the cold winds,” he noted. “It also acts as a stage for all of our winter birds to use to entertain us on cold, winter days.”

After spending the winter out in the garden, the tree will need to be disposed of as spring approaches, but disposal might not be in the picture right away.

Move the tree, now probably bare of needles, to the vegetable or flower garden where you can plant annual flowering vines at the base,” said Stack. “It won’t be long before the tree becomes a trellis for colorful, flowering vines.”

Another way to dispose of the tree is to offer it up to the chipper and turn it into usable mulch. Many municipalities now offer a service to either drop trees off at a central location or have a chipper move through the neighborhoods, picking up trees.

“This chipped material can then be used in the landscape to act as a cover over the soil around trees, shrubs and flowers,” Stack said. “This cover helps to insulate the soil, conserve soil moisture, and retard weeds. It also helps to return nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.”

For those living in rural areas, finding a second use for a Christmas tree is a bit easier. Christmas trees make excellent material to build brush piles for wildlife. These piles provide cover for small animals and birds. The animals use the piles to hide from predators, as safe resting places, and to raise their young.

“The first step in building a brush pile is to have a base of large material, such as large rocks, logs or tree stumps,” said Stack. “This provides a place for small animals to access the interior of the pile. Then, pile on the Christmas trees.

“It will take more than one tree to do the job so this is a great project for several neighbors to share,” Stack added.

Another approach is to remove the tree’s branches. By cutting the branches from the trunk, they can be used as a nice “blanket” to place over perennials or other tender plants in the garden.

“Laying these branches over the plants helps to insulate them and afford them protection from freezing and thawing cycles that often result in injury or death of perennials,” Stack said. “The trunk that is left makes a great pole or stake for tomatoes.”

Christmas trees can have a life after we’re done using them indoors.

“All it takes,” said Stack, “is a little imagination and old-fashioned ingenuity.”

From the Dec. 20-26, 2006, issue

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