There’s More Than One Way to Recycle that Christmas Tree

The Holiday PartWinter Rose Poinsettia at Longwood Gardensy’s Over Now What Do I Do With the Tree and Poinsettias? 

The second week of January means that holidays are finished and life is slowly returning to a daily routine.  The last three weeks saw Santa find his way down the chimney, the year 2011 arrive with a bang (thankfully only from fireworks) and holiday decorations find their way back into big red and green storage boxes destined once again for the far reaches of the attic or basement.  What is left behind?  Maybe it is the loaf of dark fruitcake being used as a doorstop, or possibly a stack of cards and leftover wrapping paper, some fading poinsettias, or a shedding spruce tree. To make a clean start, it is time to deal with the “leftovers” and move on.  First the fruitcake. Toss it, bury it in the freezer for another eleven months, or lace it with a lot of Caribbean rum to make it edible.  Stash the cards away to use as labels for your next set of holiday presents or donate them to a primary school for craft work. 

The next item to deal with is a tree that is becoming a bigger and bigger fire hazard as it loses more moisture each day.  A sensible idea is to recycle the object of our holiday joy into a gardening product that will save us work.  Recycle your live Christmas tree into a wood chip mulch or use the branches as extra protection in the garden! 

The best trees to use as boughs in the garden are those that still have the vast majority of their needles adhering to the branches.  These boughs when placed in the garden, will trap air below them acting as great insulators.  They will also collect snow (another insulator).  Most areas have not come anywhere near our potential low temperatures so far this winter. Brace yourself for more cold temperatures.  It is still not too late to add more protection to the garden.  Every effort will help.  A few preparations and tools are needed before starting the job.  A small, curved, hand, pruning saw can be used to quickly sever the limbs from the trunk.  The tree could still have significant amounts of sap under the bark.  This sticky material will be a nuisance to remove from your hands and could be impossible to remove from clothes.  Thick, leather gloves will protect your hands from contact.  To protect your clothes, consider wearing your oldest, most worn out or least favourite jacket and pants you have.  When the job is finished, the bare trunk can be stored for future use as a natural stake or wildlife perch.  It would be fun to see it next season with an annual morning glory vine growing up it. 

The alternative to dismembering your tree is to send it to the chipper.  Many areas have special Christmas tree curbside pick-up dates during this week and next.  Christmas trees are collected and run through a powerful chipping machine that grinds them into small pieces.  The entire tree is used and the result is a combination of small disks (chips) of wood, cut up sections of twigs and loose needles.  This Christmas tree wood chip mulch is excellent for use under rhododendrons and azaleas.  These plants and many other acid-loving plants need a modified soil pH and have a shallow root system.  The wood chip mulch is dense enough so that it will slow the evaporation of water from the soil.  It will also help to stop weeds from germinating by blocking sunlight from reaching the soil.  The needle component of this mulch will contribute an additional benefit.  As the needles break down they will act to slightly acidify the soil.  The particle size is not as large as “bark mulch”, which can be purchased at most nurseries, and as a result Christmas tree mulch will not last as long.  It will though, last for more than one season in most cases and can be replenished next year at this time.  The decomposition process can be slowed if the mulch is applied in thicker layers.  For the best results apply the mulch at least 2 inches (5 cm)  in depth.  Thinner than this amount and the effects are diminished significantly.  Many cities will let homeowners take home a container full of wood chips in exchange for dropping off a tree to chip.  Bring your own sturdy container, shovel and shoveler for this task.  Trees should be free from decorations that do not decompose.  This includes tinsel, garland and lights.  Plastic tree bags used to capture shedding needles can be kept on the tree until it is unloaded and then removed. 

Are you dreading that your poinsettia will be hanging around until Easter? Is it time to make the decision about the destiny of this plant?  During its glory days it was vivid and fresh.  Now the colours are fading faster than a summer tan, and the leaves are dropping faster than a maple in fall.  The compost pile beckons.  Go for it. 

For those gardeners who insist on preserving every living plant that comes under their care-think twice about trying to rebloom poinsettias.  These finicky plants require lots of “proper” care, dedication and a certain amount of luck. Yes, the largest poinsettia grower in North America acknowledged that it is not an easy task.  If you are determined to master growing poinsettias in the home- here’s the details.  When your plants have started to look bedraggled, cut them down to 20 cm in height.  Continue to water your plant regularly and feed it with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer.  New growth should have started by the time your poinsettias go outdoors in early June.  Transplant them into the next largest sized pot and sink them into a sunny location in the garden.  Continue watering  and fertilizing them regularly.  Pruning may be necessary to keep the plants to a compact size.  The key to getting poinsettias to bloom for the next Christmas is the day-length.  The bracts turn colour in response to an increase in the length of darkness.  The plants need total darkness at night, starting October 1st, to mimic natural light cycles.  To achieve this in the house, move the plants into a closet each night or place a large cardboard box over the plant.  Total darkness is needed for 14 hours each night without exception.  Another requirement for flowering is to keep the temperature between 60 and 70 degrees F. (18 and 21 Celsius).  Is this 10 week rigorous schedule worth the effort when a beautiful, full poinsettia can be purchased for a very reasonable amount next December? Hmm ask me in 10 months.

The Christmas tree recycling bin image above from Place Vosges, Paris, France is used courtesy of Wikipedia creative commons license.

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