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Green Speak

Horticulture topics from gardens to lawns and then some.

Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees

Growing up, a family tradition was going out to the Christmas tree farm to find that perfect tree. As a child it was fun going out to pick our tree, cut it and then watch it hauled to the barn on a sled, shook for all its worth to get the dead needles out, and finally bundled up on our car ready for home.

My wife had an altogether different experience growing up. She would help her mother haul a fake tree out of the crawl space every year. It was the family tree and had been used for two generations.

Once my wife and I were married, I grew accustomed to this new tradition. Hauling the family tree out of the basement on Thanksgiving and putting it back after the New Year. After now three generations of use, the poor family tree had come to be called the Grover Tree because the limbs were so worn and bare they hung off the trunk like the spindly arms of the Sesame Street character Grover.

To hold up the limbs, Grover's trunk was mostly tape and rubber bands. Fake needles fell out at an exponential rate and the limbs would soon be bare wires. We still did a great job masking much of this and decorations helped make our family tree shine. However, this past year it was decided to retire old Grover.

There has been much debate over which Christmas tradition is more sustainable- cut Christmas trees or fake Christmas trees. Many pro-cut trees balk at the use of synthetics (oil) to create a replica of something natural. While on the other side, anti-fake Christmas tree groups nearly faint at the sight of a perfectly good evergreen being chopped down. Not to mention all the inputs it takes to grow those trees.

So what does the research say? Which type of Christmas tree is more sustainable? The answer depends on a few variables such as how long do you use a fake tree or how far you drive to get your cut tree. But when researchers looked at the overall carbon footprint, they saw both are negligible.

Let me throw in a third option – living Christmas trees. A living Christmas tree is simply a potted evergreen, raised by a nursery or tree farm. These come with an entirely different set of care guidelines. According to Garden Professor Bert Cregg "When trees are brought indoors, they begin to lose cold hardiness almost immediately; so the longer trees are indoors, the more likely they will suffer cold damage when you bring them back outside."

After the holiday, Cregg recommends storing the tree in a protected, unheated space. Water thoroughly and wait until spring to plant.

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