How Green Is Your Tree?

Different Tannenbaums Have Different Implications For The Environment

December 20, 2009|By Carrie Madren

Whether real or fake, Tannenbaums are big business. Last year in the United States, revelers spent over a billion dollars on real Christmas trees and another $700 million on artificial trees.

If an indoor evergreen decks your halls, you have a few choices: an artificial tree from a store, a live tree grown on a farm or a living tree still growing from its rootball. When it comes to an environmentally friendly tree, however, which evergreen is really the greenest?

Artificial trees may borrow the green concept of reusable bags - taking the place of one fresh-cut real tree each year - but fake trees will eventually end up in a landfill. Concerns about toxic materials in artificial trees, including the PVC (polyvinyl chloride) used to create convincing needles and branches, make these trees even less eco-friendly. In 2004, artificial trees from China harbored invasive insect hitchhikers - the brown fir longhorned beetle - within the wooden center poles. In addition, most artificial trees are shipped from China, so "buying local" isn't really an option.

While artificial trees are highly advertised, Americans still favor the real deal by more than 2 to 1. Real trees - either pre-cut or cut-your-own - may be a better choice for the environment and our economy. Some half a billion trees are currently growing on tree farms in the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Farm Association. Evergreens will grow in rocky soil where other crops won't, and Christmas tree farming seems to escape most of the environmental problems of other forms of agriculture.

Tree farmers abide by strict nutrient management plans, adding nutrients to the soil to help develop a rich, green Christmas tree. But tree farmers are nutrient misers, adding only what they must: too much nitrogen or phosphorus fuels undesirable growth. Type of tree makes a difference in fertilizer needed, too: Scots, or Scotch, pine requires no nitrogen; other evergreens require nitrogen only in the spring during certain growth years. Sometimes herbicides are used, too, but expensive chemicals and nutrients are used sparingly. Farmers use the smallest amount possible, explains Cindy Stacy of the Maryland Christmas Tree Association.

Growers can use river and bay-friendly practices such as soil and tissue testing to ensure minimal fertilizer use and integrated pest management and natural predators of tree pests instead of pesticides. For example, ladybugs are instrumental when controlling aphids, according to John Carroll, Virginia's deputy state forester, who also runs a Christmas tree farm in Louisa County.

Erosion is kept down on tree farms by tree roots that hold soil in place, as well as ground cover used to keep valuable topsoil from eroding. Clover is especially effective, and as a bonus, clover adds nitrogen to the soil. Grass buffer zones around the field can help slow runoff, too.

Evergreens are an environmentally low-impact crop in other ways: Tree farmers generally replace each tree, or even plant two or three trees, for every one cut. In addition, Christmas tree fields create habitat for wildlife, and, because Christmas trees are a long-rotation crop, land disturbance is minimal. Finally, Christmas trees are young trees, and younger trees absorb more carbon than older trees, according to Mr. Carroll. As a bonus, supporting a local Christmas tree grower adds to your 'buy-local' commitment, helping boost your area agriculture and preventing development.

Post holidays, cut Christmas trees are collected by most county recycling services and put through the chipper for mulch, or placed in ponds for biodegradable fish habitat.

Our final tree choice, living Christmas trees - the kind still growing from roots - are a green choice, too, if you have the time, strength, patience and landscape.

Such live trees will be smaller Tannenbaums, since the heavy root ball or container can weight 40 to 100 pounds, depending on the size of the tree. Living trees should stay indoors no more than five or six days, since these evergreens need a cold winter season to grow in the spring. When it's time to move it back outside, the live tree can be planted outdoors, maintained during the year, and, for the really enterprising, dug out again for next Christmas.

Since living trees keep growing after Christmas, they continue to take in carbon, slow erosion and provide habitat, and there's no need to expend energy chipping or hauling to a pond.

Eventually, in a few years, the living tree grows too large for holiday transport and remains outside as a reminder of Christmases past.

Carrie Madren, an Olney resident, writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. This article is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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