What to do with a Christmas tree after Christmas? A quick Q&A with 3 experts from CFAES

Sales of real Christmas trees “are booming as pandemic-weary Americans seek solace,” said a recent headline in the New York Times.

That’s good news for Christmas tree growers, like these in Ohio. But in the interest of recycling and reducing solid waste, what are some good green options to do with a Christmas tree after Christmas?

Here are suggestions from three CFAES experts.

Pam Bennett

Horticulture educator with CFAES’ OSU Extension outreach arm and director of the Master Gardener Volunteers program

Q: What are some ways to put to use an old Christmas tree in a garden—instead of just hauling it out to the curb?

A: Putting your Christmas tree out on the curb to be chipped isn’t a bad thing, as long as those wood chips are recycled. … Some communities gather old Christmas trees and take them to a compost facility to be chipped and composted. But never, ever should old Christmas trees go to a landfill. Ever! They’re a great recyclable resource.

Q: What’s been your experience with this? If you decorate a cut tree in your home, what do you end up doing with it?

A: I always put my tree outside around the bird feeder until spring. Then in spring I cut off the main branches and throw them in the compost pile. If you have a chipper shredder, you can run them through this to increase the speed of composting. I use the trunk in my perennial gardens as a border, after cutting it into smaller sections.

Sometimes, if I haven’t covered my tender perennials before the holidays, I’ll cut off the branches and use them for that. The branches insulate the plants. They help prevent heaving of the roots. This happens during freezing and thawing of the soil.

Marne Titchenell

Wildlife program specialist with CFAES’ School of Environment and Natural Resources (SENR)

Q: As a wildlife specialist, what do you suggest as the best thing to do with a Christmas tree after Christmas?

A: My all-time favorite thing is this: Once you’re done enjoying it inside, move it outside! You can decorate it all over again with bird-friendly treats—peanut butter- and bird seed-covered pine cones, garlands of dried fruit and nuts, and suet ornaments. The tree will provide both tasty food and cover for overwintering songbirds.

If you already have feeders out for the birds, place the tree nearby and watch as the birds flock to it. I’ve done this and have seen quite a few birds visit the tree, from cardinals to sparrows, chickadees, titmice, and blue jays.

You might also consider spreading a bit of seed below the tree to provide food for ground-foraging birds [mourning doves and dark-eyed juncos, for example]. They’ll appreciate finding food under the cover of the Christmas tree.

Another thing you can do, which I’m hoping to do this year, is to find that poor Charlie Brown Christmas tree that no one wants—OK, maybe a bit fuller than that—and place it outside for the birds.

Eugene Braig

Aquatic ecosystems program director with SENR

Q: Sometimes it’s suggested to put old Christmas trees in a pond, to serve as cover for fish. How well does this work?

A: Pretty well, but typical Christmas tree species decompose to featureless trunks relatively quickly. How quickly will differ based upon the biological productivity of each pond. Note the detail of placement considerations—deep enough to sink the anchored tree but not so deep that it’s wholly in low-oxygen bottom waters, perhaps near to but not covering existing quality habitat, away from swimming areas, and within casting distance.

There’s an OSU Extension fact sheet called “Placing Artificial Fish Attractors in Ponds and Reservoirs” that has placement and other details in it.

[The authors of that fact sheet evaluated three types of artificial fish attractors—brush piles, stake beds, and evergreens, i.e., old Christmas trees. They found, among other things, that “all three materials attracted satisfactory numbers of fish,” but anglers “typically caught more fish” from around the old Christmas trees.]

Q: What’s been your own best experience fishing around old Christmas trees?

A: That’s hard to say. I caught a 5-pound largemouth bass from a northern Ohio pond where I know Christmas trees to have been sunk at some point in the past. Not bad for Ohio, but there are bigger.

[Of interest, the authors of “Placing Artificial Fish Attractors” wrote “it was not unusual on any given day to catch five to ten times more fish from these trees compared to the other materials.”]

Q: What’s a good place to learn more?

A: The Ohio Pond Management Handbook [published by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources] tends to be the first reference I recommend to pond owners in general, simply for the breadth of its topics. You can also read occasional articles in myYour Pond Updatenewsletter and join my “Pond management news” listserve. Definitely check out the “Artificial Fish Attractors” fact sheet.

Photo: Black-capped chickadee, spruce tree, Getty Images.

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