It is that time of year – time to pick out a Christmas tree. Our choices basically fall into three categories: live tree, cut tree or artificial tree.
Live trees are for sale at most nurseries and garden centers. They can be expensive, but can also be a wonderful addition to our landscape. They should only be in the warmth of the house for 10-14 days, limiting the decoration time. Do you have space for the tree in your landscape? Have you considered the full-grown size of the tree? Is it a species of tree that is compatible with our dry climate? Can you dig a hole to plant it after Christmas or is the ground frozen? Successful transplanting of live trees is highly variable around town.
What about a houseplant tree, such as a Norfolk pine, to be used each year for Christmas? These houseplants are available at many nurseries and garden centers. They will die in freezing weather, so they cannot be transplanted out in your landscape. Do you have room for the plant in your house all year round? It will probably have to be re-potted on a regular basis and will need to be watered and fertilized year-round also.
Cut trees are another option. In general, cut trees from a lot are good for 3 to 4 weeks if watered properly. If the cut trees were harvested locally, they will last longer and have a lower energy cost associated with their transport to the tree lot. There may be pesticide residues in the tree, depending on how they were grown. If you have dogs, cats or kids that might chew on the tree, this could be an important consideration.
You can also cut the tree yourself, after purchasing the correct permits. Consider the cost of fuel and time in the cost of cutting a tree yourself. Fresh-cut trees last longer in the house.
Keep Truckee Meadows Beautiful sets up Christmas tree recycling lots in several places in town, so cut trees do not have to end up in a landfill, but can be used as mulch in local gardens and parks.
Artificial Christmas trees are the third common option. They can be set up and left up for the longest period of time. This is an important consideration if you have young kids who want the tree up from the day after Thanksgiving to the weekend before they have to return to school!
On the plus side, artificial trees can last many years. The negatives are that they are commonly made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an oil-derived plastic that is not biodegradable, and many also have been found to contain lead. Artificial trees are commonly made in China, so there is an energy cost associated with producing the trees, and shipping the trees to the United States. Buying an American-made artificial tree can greatly reduce the energy costs of getting the tree to market.
Many artificial trees come pre-lit, which can save time and effort. Newer trees now have improved electrical systems, so that one burnt-out bulb does not cause the whole tree go dark. The overall look of the trees has improved over the last few years, with “true needle” or “real feel” common selling points.
In general, the American Christmas Tree Association suggests buying an artificial tree if you are going to use it for 6 years or more. The energy required to make one artificial tree is roughly equal to the energy it takes to raise 6 cut trees.
Melody Hefner is the Urban IPM and Pesticide Safety Program Coordinator for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Have a gardening question? Contact a master gardener at firstname.lastname@example.org.