Making the most of trees after the holidays

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The disposable cut Christmas tree of yesteryear is today a valuable addition as organic material used for mulch, compost and soil improvement. Gone are the days when trees were simply tossed to the curb, where they became a heterogeneous mixture when combined with all the other Christmas discards destined for the landfill.

These days, most municipalities will pick up your tree for free, and it's separated from landfill trash. Trees are collected for composting or shredded into mulch with infinite uses and benefits.

Even if no such service is available in your area, there are locations around every town that will accept your tree for free. Or consider organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America who will pick up your tree for a nominal fee and take it to the appropriate location for recycling.

In the event any of those options are more than you want to deal with, a discarded tree left to decompose on its own can provide important shelter for birds and wildlife as it breaks down. For any of the above options, trees should be free of that silver tinsel stuff. It's made of plastic, which never fully biodegrades. It's bad stuff for the environment.

Over the past several years, an even better option has gained popularity: live or living Christmas trees. Unfortunately, many of these trees don't survive the holiday season -- not because they can't, but because they are not cared for properly. Knowing how to choose, plant and care for a live Christmas tree will make for a happier holiday, and a valuable addition to your landscape. Here's what you need to know.

If you're one of the good folks who have taken this route, what you do between now and the time you plant it outdoors can determine its ultimate fate. I'm already assuming you selected a variety that will grow well in your area. The most common tree species used for living Christmas trees include spruce, pines and firs, although many garden centers market any cone-shaped tree as an option for Christmas. Although these may not be considered traditional choices, they may be the best option for your area. I think that's smart.

Move your tree back outdoors as soon as possible after Christmas. However, don't immediately plant it. The tree will need to readjust to the outdoors in a protected area for several days. Avoid direct sun, high winds and warm areas when storing your tree. Be sure to maintain soil moisture. In a week to 10 days, move your tree into the planting hole in your landscape.

A good idea is to have the planting site already prepared, especially when the ground may be frozen. The hole should be at least twice as wide as the root ball but no deeper. Planting your tree slightly higher than the surrounding soil will help with drainage. Then, simply backfill with the original soil.

Finally, be sure to water and mulch your tree to retain moisture. Continue to monitor soil moisture through the winter.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is the founder of The joe gardener(r) Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living. For more information visit

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