Harvest your own tree - it's environmentally correct

December 12, 1992|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,Staff Writer

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, you've got me in a quandary.

Buy an artificial tree? Spend hours trying to put branch "A" in slot "B," and then have to spray the finished product with a can of pine freshener to get that "natural" scent? Or go to one of those Christmas tree lots that seem to be at every street corner and gas station and take a chance with a tree that might lose its needles by Dec. 20?

Or is there something else one can do?

Maryland has more than 60 farms where you can harvest your own Christmas tree.

Traditionalists say there is no substitute for the look and fragrance of a real tree, but an artificial tree would seem to be more "environmentally friendly." In truth, harvesting a Christmas tree is actually good for the environment, some ecologists say.

"For every tree that is cut, another one is planted in its place," said Dr. Frank Gouin, a professor of horticulture at the University of Maryland. "Christmas trees are a crop, just like soy beans. You're not doing any more damage to the environment than any other type of farming."

Bob Chance, owner of Environmental Evergreens in Darlington, near Havre De Grace, believes that growing and harvesting trees is extremely ecological. Mr. Chance teaches environmental science at Harford Glen Environmental Center. He is also involved with Harford County's Sussquehannock Recycling Center. Mr. Chance said real trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in return give off oxygen, thus helping to reduce global warming. Also, Christmas trees grow rapidly during the first 10 years and will remove more carbon dioxide and give off more oxygen than older trees. So cutting down a tree in the prime of its life is actually better than letting it live to a ripe old age.

Another option is to get a balled and burlapped tree that can be replanted after the holidays. Mr. Chance encourages his customers to replant their trees. "I really hate to cut down the trees," he said. "Sometimes I can almost hear them screaming."

The price of a balled and burlapped tree is about $30 more than a cut tree, but there's a return on the investment -- a real tree to add to your landscape.

Mr. Chance said that many people will plant a Christmas tree the year a child is born in the family, and then watch as both the child and the tree grow up together.

Whether you replant your tree or cut it down, you should ensure that it will stay healthy through the holidays.

Carville Akehurst, executive director of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association, said that most people kill their tree on the ride home from the farm. Trees need to be protected from the wind, which will dry them out quickly. Mr. Akehurst recommends bringing the tree home in the trunk of the car. If the tree has to be strapped to the roof of the car, it should be wrapped in cloth or plastic to protect it from the wind. "If you're whipping home at 55 mph with a tree on the roof, you're going to do damage to the tree," he said.

Once the tree is home, it should be put in water immediately, so that the stump does not dry out. There are many household formulas to prolong a tree's life. Among them, aspirin, sugar, coffee grounds and seltzer in the water are all supposed to keep a tree healthy for the holidays. But, according to Mr. Akehurst, they're all without merit. "Those stories have been around since before me," he said. "The chief thing to do is to get the tree in water."

Mr. Akehurst recommends that the water level be checked frequently. If the water evaporates, the butt of the stump will seal and the tree will not absorb any more water. Once that happens, the only thing to do is cut another inch off the bottom of the stump, and most people are unwilling to do that once the tree is up and decorated. But even if you do dry out the tree, Mr. Akehurst says, it will probably survive two more weeks.

There are several steps to take to ensure the survival of a balled and burlapped tree. In Maryland, white pine, Norway and blue spruce, and balsam and Douglas firs are best for replanting. Unlike a cut tree, which can last up to a month if taken care of properly, a balled and burlapped tree can last only four to 15 days indoors.

"You have to remember, you're taking a plant that is ready for winter and placing it in a house that is 72 degrees," said Dr. Gouin.

To make sure the tree is replanted properly, the hole should be dug before the ground freezes. Indoors, the tree's soil should be kept moist, but you should not give it too much water or the tree could "drown." Mr. Chance recommends putting eight to 12 ice cubes on top of the ball and letting the soil absorb the water gradually.

Replanting the tree can be tricky. Many trees won't survive because of the warm weather indoors or because of high winter winds once the tree is planted. Dr. Gouin said that through the years, he has seen only a 50 percent survival rate for replanted trees.

But no matter what kind of tree you get -- fake, cut or replantable -- keep the tree away from fireplaces, space heaters and other potential fire hazards. Never put lighted candles on the tree or let hot bulbs come in direct contact with needles.

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