Extension Educator, Horticulture
A live Christmas tree's usefulness doesn't have to end after Christmas. Trees can provide habitat for wildlife and mulch for plants.
Christmas trees can be used to create a feeding station for birds and other backyard wildlife. Secure the tree by wiring it to a post or deck; nailing it to a flat wooden base and anchoring it with a rope and three stakes; or supporting the trunk in a 5 gallon bucket filled with damp sand.
Popcorn garlands and strings of cranberries, unshelled peanuts, stale marshmallows or cereal will attract birds initially, but plan to add treats throughout the winter. Add snacks such as apple slices, orange wedges, leftover holiday breads, fruit cakes or nuts, suet cakes or pine cones smeared with peanut butter and rolled in bird seed. Early returning robins enjoy bunches of grapes.
Place a bird feeder in or under the old Christmas tree. Birds love the sheltered dining area. Add a dish of fresh water daily to complete the backyard wildlife refuge. Christmas tree limbs can be laid over perennial flowers such as mums and bulbs to insulate plants against wind, severe cold and soil heaving from freezing and thawing temperatures. Evergreen branches stuck into the ground like a picket fence around broad leaved evergreens such as holly or rhododendrons will protect plants from drying winter winds. Christmas wreaths are a perfect size to lay around many perennials as a mulch.
In the spring use the old Christmas tree skeleton as a trellis for scarlet runner beans or climbing sweet peas. Vines quickly cover the tree for a beautiful display. Or grab the neighbors trees and make a rustic entry way to your garden. Let a climbing rose drape over it.
Chipped needles and limbs make excellent mulch around trees and shrubs. A commonly asked question is whether pine mulch is toxic to plants. This mulch myth probably originates from some observant folks noticing few plants grow under evergreen trees in this area and then mistakenly concluding the pine needles must be toxic. Few plants grow under evergreen trees around here because of dense shade from close tree spacing, competition from surface tree roots and the dense mulch of the needles.
However, with any freshly chipped mulch or sawdust, plants especially new transplants can experience a nitrogen deficiency. Microbes which decompose the fresh mulch require nitrogen that may in turn rob it from surrounding plants. This is most commonly a problem in new transplants or newly established plants. Fresh chips should be composted first for about three months or special attention to nitrogen fertilization during the growing season should remedy this problem.
Other options include checking with your waste hauler or city streets division to see if they have a Christmas tree recycling program. Or take your tree to the Landscape Recycling Center at 1210 East University in Urbana.
Check with your local forest preserve or park district to see if they are collecting trees. Many lake owners welcome Christmas trees to place in lakes for valuable fish habitat. Be sure to ask permission before depositing trees.
For the safety of your home and hearth, don't burn Christmas trees in the fireplace. A dry tree seems to virtually explode and the resin can build up in the chimney.
Also, don't dump the tree in the country. For many of us the country is our home. We just have bigger yards that include corn and soybean fields.