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Over the Garden Fence

Many ways to recycle the Christmas tree

I know you are already thinking, “Why is he talking about what to do with the holiday tree while presents are still under it?” Well, I may be rushing the calendar a bit, yet having an expectation of how best to recycle the tree makes the follow-through easier.

Right now, taking care of the tree once it is up and decorated really means making sure there is plenty of water in the reservoir. If you made a family event out of tree hunting at any one our local Christmas tree farms, your tree is much fresher and will easily last till New Year’s even if you put it up the first of the month. For other trees, the needles are likely already drying and the tree is no longer taking up any water. Those trees need to be watched carefully and any heat or flame source, such as a lit candle, need to be kept far away for safety reasons. The older style incandescent string lights can generate a lot of heat around the bulbs as well, so be careful.

Once the decision is made to take the tree down, you can recycle the entire tree or use pieces of it for different projects. Here are a few ideas:

Evergreen branches and boughs

  • Cut up the evergreen branches and place them over your tender perennials or other perennials in the garden that are early spring targets for the rabbits. Spring bulbs can also benefit from this rabbit protection too.

  • Evergreen boughs also act to collect leaves and falling snow, providing more protection from icy weather or other weather or wildlife threats.

Tree trunk

  • Use the leftover tree trunk next spring to grow climbing peas or pole beans since you cannot burn the trunk indoors in the fireplace because of all the sap.

  • You will be able to burn that trunk in the outdoor fire pit by summer though.

  • An interesting idea from the Arbor Day Foundation is to make drink coasters from the trunk as the wood dries down. Something fun could be ‘burning in’ the family initials or names too. You can varnish or polyurethane them, glue a non-slip bottom on or felt circles and you’ll be ready for that summer iced tea.

Fallen needles

  • Those fallen needles under the tree in the house aren’t garbage. They can be collected and added to the compost bin or pile or scattered in the flower beds on the snow or bare ground.

The whole tree

  • If you want to leave the tree whole, tie it to a tree trunk or other structure in your yard. It will provide shelter for the birds, especially if you feed the birds.

  • Want an interesting project for the kids over the holiday break and into January and February? Make edible decorations for the tree that benefits the birds. Pinecones covered with peanut butter or sunflower butter, and strings of popcorn and fresh cranberries are easy ones. Suet balls would be welcomed by the larger birds but little hands will need the parents to help.
  • There also are city and community tree recycling programs available in many areas if that is best for your family. Just don’t forget during gardening season to go pick up and bring home some of the mulch they make from the donated trees.

Our old Christmas trees can truly give back to nature, so do not throw them in the garbage. There are many ways to recycle and reuse them for practical and even entertaining purposes!

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.