How Eco Is Your Living Tree, Anyway?

Ah, December, scene of ferocious debates in many corners of the newspaper over what kind of Christmas tree is the best kind, for those in the Christmas tree market, which seems to be pretty much everyone. (Even I have a soft spot for the damn things and I don’t even celebrate Christmas.) People square off over fake versus real, cut versus live, and other topics of contention.

The living tree is often touted as an ecologically friendly solution allowing people to enjoy all the delights of a Christmas tree without any of the guilt; instead of cutting down an innocent tree and then throwing it away, you can have a living tree and then plant it, giving back to the environment. What could be better, right?

Well, there are a number of problems with the living tree. Starting with the oft-maligned tree farm; tree farms use up resources whether the trees are being cut or grown with the intention of digging them up for use as live trees. Transport costs are also similar, as trees still have to be moved into houses for people to look at them. And when a dead tree is finished, it can be chipped and composted, which actually does contribute to the environment, in its own way…especially when contrasted with the dark path down the rabbit hole followed by living trees.

First problem: Trees unsuitable to the climate. Having a living tree is great, but you need to live in a climate appropriate for the tree if you’re planning on planting it or containerizing it for use in future years. Conifers, popular for use as Christmas trees, have varying climate tolerances and are also vulnerable to insect infestations. If you live in an area where conifers can’t grow, a living tree will turn into a dead tree pretty fast. Then what are you going to do with it?

Second problem: Limited space. Assuming that one keeps a tree in a container to use each year, that container still has to go somewhere when it’s not Christmas time. When you have a reasonably large property or a big deck or something, there’s room to do that. A small apartment? A garden with limited space? Where, exactly, are you going to put your living tree? If you’re planting trees each year, you’re going to run out of room to put them pretty fast, and you have added problems in the future when they grow to full size, overshadow your house and garden, and make a mess of themselves. Living trees: not so cute when they grow up!

Third problem: Ok, you’re planting and you have room to plant. Can you dig in the winter? Ah. Right. You either have to keep your tree in storage until the ground softens, or do some serious prep work, and you have to acclimate the tree because plonking a tree that’s been coddled indoors into a pre-dug frosty hole will kill it faster than you can say ‘transplant shock.’ You’ve got to think about placement, prepare the hole with appropriate soil, and commit to maintaining the tree as it grows; it may suck up water if you didn’t use a native species or couldn’t find an appropriate one, and you’ll need to prune and shape it, and you’ll need to work around it as it grows and changes the look and feel of your garden.

Fourth problem: Did you know trees don’t live that long indoors? Yeah, neither did a lot of other people. If you keep a tree inside too long, no matter how well you care for it, it will die. It should really only be inside for seven to ten days and when it’s ready to go back outside, it needs to be reintroduced gradually, not plopped in the middle of the yard (see:transplant shock above). There’s a lot of work involved in keeping a living tree alive, actually.

The living tree sounds like a super sweet idea, and I admire the concept, but it’s not without flaws. It’s often promoted as an easy solution and you get people triumphantly carrying trees home, unaware that they are totally unsuited to the climate and not really thinking about what they will do with the trees after use.

Some companies offer rental services, which is, I think, a neat approach to the problem; they deliver and pick up the tree, store it when not in use, and presumably rent at other times of the year for events and so forth. This eliminates some of the problems with living trees, though certainly not all of them. In some cities, people can also buy living trees and then turn them over for planting somewhere at the end of the holiday season; consider it a form of carbon offset where you meet your offset first. For reforestation projects, I could see this being a really useful application, as long as people understand that they can’t keep the trees indoors too long or they’ll die when they are established.

There is no easy solution when it comes to trees. I haven’t decided what I will do myself. I really like the smell of the leaves and the little lights, and Loki adores Christmas trees although I’ve only had a couple since I got him. Now that I am finally in a house with some room, I feel like I’d like to have one, and I’ll probably go to a friend’s back 40 and thin out a good specimen; if a tree’s going to be cut anyway, I might as well use it ornamentally for a week before it goes on a burn pile or into the chipper. Incidentally, Christmas trees make great mulch.