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Eco-Question: Christmas Trees – Should We Buy Artificial or Real?

Happy November 1!  Yes, it’s true – October is actually over and November is here, and that means that many of us will begin to prepare for the holiday season very, very soon.

In our home, one of the first signs that the holiday season has arrived is usually the trimming of the tree.  We love to set aside a day as a family to decorate the tree, hang the stockings and the wreath, and put up any other seasonal decorations around our home.

Though we usually do this sometime after Thanksgiving, I know some families begin even earlier. If you’re already thinking about what kind of tree you will have in your home this year, here are a few things to consider.

Let’s Talk About Artificial Christmas Trees

As an ecological choice, artificial trees are generally not the best way to go.  Here’s why:

  • They won’t biodegrade.
  • Most artificial trees are manufactured with PVC, a plastic that releases toxins.
  • They are usually made overseas and shipped great distances, therefore creating a huge carbon footprint.

Photo by Chris Jeppson

On the other hand, an artificial tree can be re-used for many years.  (Of course, it will eventually end up in the trash, which leads back to the non-biodegradable issue.) 

However, if you already own an artificial tree and don’t want to switch to another option, try to continue to use your artificial tree for as long as possible.

Are Real Christmas Trees Ecological?

When it comes to real trees, there are two categories: cut trees (the most common) and living trees.

Cut trees can be a good choice:

  • If you purchase it from a farm where it was grown specifically to be a Christmas tree, these farms generally practice sustainable farming methods.
  • You can even find organic Christmas tree farms.  This lowers the amount of pesticides you will find on your tree and therefore bring into your home, although Christmas trees are generally a low-pesticide plant, anyway.
  • Buying from a local farm supports your local economy.
  • After the holidays, they can be recycled into mulch and compost.  Most cities offer this service for free.

Photo by Summer

Living trees can also be a good choice, because they can be planted later on.  However, there is some debate about whether the tree can really survive after having been brought indoors during the winter. Apparently this stresses the tree quite a bit, and many don’t make it.

Are There Other Options?

Perhaps you’re allergic to real Christmas trees, or there is some other reason that you don’t feel a real tree is right for you and your family.  Are there other options besides PVC and landfills?

This is when it’s time to get creative.  Here are a few non-traditional ideas for eco-friendly trees:

  • If you have a living Christmas tree growing outside in your yard, consider decorating this tree instead of bringing one into your home.  You may not be able to stack gifts beneath it, but you could use decorations such as cranberries and popcorn on strings, and invite the neighbors over for hot cider and carols around the tree.  It’s a great way to build community and use the resources you already have.
  • Gather sticks and branches to create a “tree” in a large vase.  Use twine, floral wire, and/or ribbons to hold the branches and sticks together and decorate.  This is a good project for children to help with, and again makes use of available resources.
  • Make a repurposed tree from other materials, such as fabric, cans, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, and anything else that might work.  Put your artsy hat on and have fun with it.

Photo by Jennifer Donley

Have you ever had an unconventional Christmas tree? Do you usually have a real or artificial tree? What has influenced your choice?

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  1. Kika

    We love a real tree: the gorgeous scent, the tradition of it for us and the fact that I dislike plastic all lead me to prefer a real tree. I appreciate that my town does offer free mulching which is then used on the nature trails throughout the town.

  2. greg urbano

    you did not present the obvious other choice, no inside tree, i have gone without for years!

    • Katie

      Au contraire! I did present that option towards the end – the first bullet point under “Are There Other Options?” 🙂

  3. Jenna Martin

    I prefer to use a live tree. Not the sort that is cut though. I bought a dwarf evergreen and potted it. Now each year I can bring it indoors for about two weeks. I decorate it and put presents under it and generally use it like any other Christmas tree. After the holiday, I remove the decorations and move the container back outdoors. (Be sure to make the transition from outdoors to indoors and indoors to outdoors slowly so you dont shock the tree.) The tree remains outdoorsmost of the year. Depending on the variety you get, you may have to do some pruning to keep it’s Christmas tree shape. If you have a small space, get a potted Rosemary in a Christmas tree shape. When you prune it to maintain the shape, you can use the trimmings in your cooking!

    • Katie

      Good thoughts, thanks, Jenna!

  4. Lauren

    We have a plastic tree that is about 10 years old and still going strong. I wouldn’t purposely choose to buy a plastic one now- but since we already have it seems better to keep using it. Living in Australia- our Christmas is peak summer and most people spend their Christmas outside (so a living planted tree would be ideal) or inside with the aircon blasting away. This might be our last year for having a tree.. I have a 17mth old toddler who will be very curious but we are expecting twins so next Christmas we could easily resort to wall stickers!

  5. rae

    we live in western north carolina where christmas tree farms are plentiful. i thought that supporting a local farm was a sound choice but then someone raised the question of the ecological impact of continuously farming the same crop on all that land (there are better words for this i am sure!). seems like there are no good choices! thanks for addressing this issue.

    • Tree Girl

      Actually the ecological impact of continuous tree farming can be very positive. In one study, water quality was studied below a tree farm that had been in continuous cultivation for 50 years, and the aquatic life in the stream was the same as a stream coming out of national forest. Each real tree provides 25 sq. ft. of greenspace for wildlife. With so many ground covers around trees in NC now, it creates incredible biodiversity. There are native lady beetles, quail, small rodents and raptors, turkeys. Basically a Christmas tree farm is an early successional forest which supports a wide variety of wildlife. A real tree is not a guilty pleasure.

  6. Tina~

    We’ve been purchasing live, potted Christmas Trees for the past 15 years.
    We started out buying one each year, and then 7 years ago began buying two a year, one for each side of our entryway. We get our trees around Thanksgiving, put lights on and leave them outside on the porch until Christmas Eve. When the children were younger, we would wait until after they went to bed, then bring one of the trees in and decorate it Christmas Eve, so when the children came downstairs, they’d see the tree in it’s glory along with their gifts. The tree added to the excitement of the day. Live, potted trees shouldn’t be inside for more than two or three days at most, so this is one way to help keep the live trees alive.
    Of the 22 trees live Christmas trees we’ve bought in the past, we’ve only lost two of them after planting, and one of those was a field grown tree dug up for the holiday. We think the container grown tend to transplant better, but that’s just been our luck. Even so, 2 out of 22 isn’t bad odds, and a lot better than cutting down a tree- which will then surely die, but provide bird and small animal habitat during the winter if placed accordingly.
    We have the added benefit of having a tree in our yard for each year of Christmas at our home!

    • Kara

      A tree for each year! I like that. This might sway me towards getting a live tree. 🙂

    • Katie

      Tina, this is awesome information – thanks for sharing your story! Very inspiring.

  7. Anna

    The most unconventional tree we ever had was the year my mom insisted on a 7-ft volunteer holly tree that had sprouted and was growing in a bad place near a walkway. She had my dad cut it and bring it inside (with berries on it!), and decorated it with red and white. It was really pretty. On more than one Christmas my parents used trees from around the yard that needed to go. Or “recycled” the tree that had been in my mom’s school (she was principal) after school holidays started.

    One of her best suggestions for me, though, was to buy a pre-lighted artificial tree when I became a parent. As a single mom, getting the tree down from the attic and not even having to string lights on it makes the decorating SO much less stressful, plus we go to the grandparents for Christmas anyway. No watering, no dropping needles. We can leave it up a long time and not worry at all! We get fir boughs for free from the tree yard at Home Depot (they trim lower branches for folks buying trees). Seven years and counting . . .

  8. Kara

    I grew up with a fake tree and my parents have had the same one for probably 25 years. During college and up until now, I’ve never had a tree at my residence. This year I would like to have a tree. It’s funny, because I was thinking about this yesterday as I saw the fake trees at the home store. I’m leaning toward a cut real tree, but wonder if it would be possible to keep a living tree inside all winter and plant it in the spring when there’d be less of a temperature shock… I have much to think about.

  9. Julia

    Oh, I love this subject! I had grown up with a real tree that my father usually cut of our land or a friend’s land, but as a city dwelling adult I had resorted to an artificial tree. However the tree was abandoned in our last move, around the time I developed my aversion to plastic. We settled with a small potted pine shrub that I have since replanted in a larger pot. We bring it inside when it’s too hot or too cold outside. But I love all the alternative tree ideas you’ve brought up and from people’s comments! This makes me excited for Christmas!

  10. Kimberly

    We have been using a fake tree since we got married (10 years in December!) due to my husband’s allergies. When we downsized to an apartment, we bought a smaller fake tree and gave our previous tree to our church to use as they decorated for the season. You could also ask nursing homes, hospitals, schools, shelters, or day care centers if they would like a tree. It at least keeps the tree out of the trash a little while longer!

  11. Dawn

    My husband grew up with fake trees due to allergies, however, the smell of a fresh tree is a central part of my holiday memories. These days, as he and I are defining our own traditions together, we have chosen our own approach. Last year, I greatly wanted to plant a redwood tree in our backyard, and so selected a 6’er and carefully* kept it inside for just a week or ten days as our yule tree, before planting it in the yard. We felt that our decision was approved by Mother Nature, who selected a spot for us to plant the tree, by downing a sick 60′ tall tree in the meantime! Our Soquel Redwood is loving it’s new home, growing so happily full and tall, a great reminder of last year’s holiday! (*Living trees require much higher humidity than is standard in residences) (PS Husband seems to have grown out of or tired of, or learned to manage his tree allergies, thank goodness!)

  12. Anne Marie

    I agree with others in their suggestion. Our neighbors as a child always got a live tree, big roots and all, and decorated that. After Christmas (hopefully before the ground froze) they would plant it outside in their yard. Those trees are still going strong today!

  13. gloria

    Believe it or not, we have used a torchiere floor lamp as our “holiday tree” for the past 8 or so years (we usually travel over the holidays so this way we get to enjoy our decorations as early and as long as we want). This particular style of floor lamp looks kinda like a tree with tiny “branches” that stick out–perfect for hanging our collection of glass, wood, and metal chile (hot pepper) ornaments! We wound the stand with several strands of Christmas-type lights and chile lights. Very festive!

    This year we will be home for the holidays, so we’re thinking that we might purchase a cut tree on Christmas Eve because the trees in the lots are already cut and would otherwise go to waste. We would then have both our *homemade* “tree” and a real tree to celebrate the season.

  14. Joan

    I’m old as dirt, so remember WW2 when trees were not available… or maybe just too costly for us. My mom made a tree using a mop handle for the trunk and wired on branches from our backyard hedge. We decorated it with metal shavings grandma brought home from the defense plant where she worked and we painted them with nail polish and tied them to the tree with yarn. I wish we had a photo!!!

    • Aimee

      I absolutely loved reading your story, Joan! What a fantastic memory (and what a great sense of humor to boot!)!

  15. Katie

    If you live near a national forest, permits to cut them down are usually only around $10. And you get the adventure of marching through the woods hunting for “the perfect” tree! It helps a little with fire danger too….

  16. Kathryn

    The Green Lantern, Slate’s weekly environmental columnist, featured this dilemma a couple of years ago at; he mentions some interesting factors you didn’t cover but basically comes to the same conclusion, that real trees are “greener” if you can get them.
    One option you don’t mention: if you’re going to do an artificial tree, get one secondhand. DH and I can’t do real trees for allergy reasons but are dedicated to being green, so we’ve always used a hand-me-down. That way, we’re at least not encouraging the manufacture of new PVC trees. Also, many artificial trees are at least partially recyclable–I know that ours has some parts that would be accepted by our curbside program. Maybe by the time we’re done with the tree, there will be a way to recycle the whole thing.

    • annie

      I agree with getting a tree secondhand! I love my artificial tree (that my parents purchased 21 years ago), because we can have it up from Thanksgiving to New Years without hesitation or falling needles! I would never have bought a new one myself, and when the time comes, we’ll look for another secondhand tree. In addition, I enjoy spending the money I save on my family, and all the little “extras” the holidays bring!

  17. Mab

    I grew up in southern California, where Christmas trees don’t grow but my family rarely bought a tree as it was their busy season and we celebrated on the actual day at my Grandparents. Our focal point was the stockings hung on the mantle and a wreath I would make each year using tree branches not wanted from the tree lots. I married a NorthWestern and adopted his family’s tradition of going really close by to cut down our own tree- we all love this tradition. I still make a wreath or two or more each year with not used branches.

  18. ofer

    I decided to promote a real eco idea- not original but still new for most people a real tree that you can grow indoor for life.
    I think eco- as it is important I believe to create a change. but when I see green, clever and actually save money it is a sign for real green idea.
    wishing you green (white) x-mass

  19. Aimee

    I grew up with the family driving out to the woods to cut down our “wild” tree and then moved to buying real trees each year. For me, the smell of the real tree is a huge part of the Christmas season but I can definitely understand the convenience factor of an artificial tree.

  20. Aimee @ Simple Bites

    We don’t have a traditional tree, Katie, as I’ve spent too many years as a tree-hugger and hate to see them cut down. Last year our (former) neighbor had his tree out on the snowbank on Boxing Day. What a waste.

    For many years, we kept our presents in a small wooden sled by the fireplace. Last year we did a big tromp in our (new to us) woods and gathered many beautiful branches. Some even had winter berries. We put them in a vase with sand and decorated our ‘tree’ with mini ornaments and lights from Ikea.

    We got so many complements on it; I wish I could post a photo!

  21. Mrs. Graham Gardens

    This is a great post, Katie!

    We’ve been cutting our own tree from a local tree farm for several years, now. We make a whole day out of getting our tree – playing hide and seek in the rows upon rows of trees. The children really look forward to the time together and it is fun to bring home your own tree.

    I love the creative non-tree ideas! Good reading.

  22. TreeHugginMomma

    A Real Tree is no longer an option for me. Its either me or the tree. (Allergies). So close to 10 years ago we purchased an artificial tree. A section of the lights don’t work (never have) and now it doesn’t spin anymore) but we love our tree. We recently (last Christmas) took the bottom row of branches off to make room for presents, because we were bothered by the fact the branches went all the way to the floor. Now our tree is one of those kinds that has 3 parts and the branches don’t come off, so this was quite the task. This is and always will be my Christmas Tree. I loved real trees growing up, but I can’t touch them, can’t be near them and I really do love my tree.
    When the lights wear out we will replace with LED or whatever newest green light is out there, and yes removing the prelit tree lights is a major PITA, but we will do it.
    As for the branches we removed, we are going to make a giant wreath out of them to hang on the front of the house, so no it won’t end up in a land fill.

    If Iknew what I knew today, I wouldn’t have bought this tree, I would have bought a felt or bamboo tree (yes they do exist if you can afford them) or I would have found an allergy friendly breed (yet to find that for me) and gone that route, but what’s done is done and I will always have this tree.

  23. Nicole aka Gidget

    we usually just get a cut tree, but for our first Christmas, we bought a small, potted, live one, mostly because of our small apartment, and also because we knew we wouldn’t be spending the holiday in our own place, but with our families.
    That year, we planted it in my parents’ front yard, and 7 years later it is still grown strong! I love seeing it standing there as a memory of our first christmas. 🙂

  24. Karen Ho Fatt@ fire pit reviews

    Last year, we did not buy a tree but used a shrub that had broken off from a larger tree. Worked very well and used minimal decoration- turned out to be the perfect choice!

  25. Robert

    I’ve bookmarked and Eco-Question: Christmas Trees – Should We Buy Artificial or Real? is an interesting topic. It’s important to stay socially aware about the little adjustments we can do to make the world greener. Thanks for also contributing by spreading the good words about being green – Robert

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