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Weekend Life

Learning to Grow: When it comes to Christmas trees, go with the underdog

From political races to sporting events, George Bailey to Seabiscuit, I tend to root for the underdog.

I like antiques shops and rescue puppies, and long before there was a Team Jacob I was rooted firmly on the sidelines cheering like mad for Team Pip, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. I guess you could say I prefer it if my winners are …well, losers.

So, when it’s time to choose a Christmas tree, it should come as no surprise that I am inclined to eschew the plastic, pre-lit, perfectly green and triangular creations being proffered by so many retail establishments this time of year in favor of a fresh, fragrant, messy, if not slightly irregular, live tree.

And in the weeks before Dec. 25, there’s a good chance you’ll find me prowling around the poorly lit back corner of a tree lot, poking among the misshapen holiday oddballs and outcasts for the tree that, as Charlie Brown put it, needs me.

Since they are reusable, artificial Christmas trees may appear to be a sound choice for the environmentally conscious consumer. But a closer look reveals that though artificial trees can be reused year after year, most are not biodegradable. And with an average lifespan of 6-10 years in your home, when they do inevitably get hauled off to the landfill, they stay there for a very long time.

The majority of fake trees are imported from Asia and made of metal and plastic, specifically polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which releases carcinogens into the air during manufacture.

Compounded by the high levels of carbon dioxide emissions involved in transporting them from overseas, well, it’s enough to make any girl want to lace up her furry boots, fill her Thermos with hot cocoa, and trudge out into the swirling snow.

Now before the cries of deforestation reach a fever pitch, let me explain. Prior to the 1950s in the United States, most live Christmas trees actually were cut from forests.

Today, according to the Department of Agriculture, roughly half a million acres of land are used to farm Christmas trees each year. These trees are grown, similar to corn or soybeans, as a crop. For most of the year, they contribute to a healthy ecosystem by providing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air, affording a habitat for birds and animals, and stabilizing soils.

They are typically a low pesticide crop and allow growers to use land that may be considered marginal or ill-suited for other produce. And if purchased from an area tree farm, you’ll be helping to support sustainable local agriculture and ultimately contributing to the preservation of farmland and green space from development.

Once your live tree has fulfilled its destiny harboring gifts and holding up the star in your living room, many cities offer free curbside recycling, turning the tree into mulch or compost. Or if you’re so inclined, decorate it with popcorn and recycle it right in your own backyard as a refuge for birds and other wildlife.
Dry it out and use it for kindling. Remove the branches and lay them among your perennial beds to offer some winter protection. Or chop it up and throw it onto your compost pile.

And whether you’re predisposed to a Walton family Christmas tree or the spindly, awkward Tim Burton variety, you can rest assured that whatever you decide to do with your live tree, it will keep giving back to your ecological community well into the new year.

• Sarah Marcheschi is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener for Kane County. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166.

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