Cool Green Gardens

Christmas Trees Should Smell Good

Christmas tree lit up

The headline pretty much sums up my argument. But my boss would not be happy with a five word blog post, so allow me to share a few more reasons why I’d never let an artificial Christmas tree through my front door.

I make no claims of being a Christmas tree maven, a Yiddish word meaning expert, or connoisseur (a French word meaning maven). I’m from a middle-class Jewish upbringing and I only knew Christmas trees from the homes of my non-gefilte-fish-eating buddies. I remember Jay’s metallic silver contraption with the rotating multicolor floodlight. Better, but still pretty bizarre, was Terry’s cut tree encrusted in robin’s egg blue flocking — but at least it smelled like a plant.

My Ideal Tree

My son, Ben, adding finishing touches.
My son, Ben, adding finishing touches.

Christmas trees started appearing in my living room after moving out of my folks’ place and setting up housekeeping with a girlfriend from a more Norman Rockwell upbringing. Over the years, I’ve refined my criteria for the perfect tree:

• Douglas Fir, because it has more space between the branches for ornaments than the Michelin Man morphology of Noble Firs.
• A strong leader to hold the cone-shaped, copper wire-haired, red pipe-cleaner winged angel my son made when he was little.
• The enlivening, fresh aroma of resinous conifer needles (overpowered for a day or two by the lingering fragrance of volatilized peanut oil, potatoes, and onions from our annual Potato Latke Gorging Night).

It’s only in recent years that I’ve thought about where these trees come from and how they arrive in tree lots around the country. I’ve wondered whether cutting down live trees for a few weeks of tradition is at odds with my professed stance regarding sustainable living.

So I did a little sleuthing and, for me, I can emphatically state that real trees win the enviro-battle, hands down.

Fake Trees, Ugh!

My research took me to the website of the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA), and although they’ve got a “dot-org” web address and non-profit status, it looks more like the work of a hired PR consultant for the fake Christmas tree industry.

ACTA works really hard to convince consumers that fake trees made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) are better for the environment than cut trees. One superficial line of logic argues that our homes have PVC-based wall siding and kitchen flooring, and therefore, PVC must be perfectly safe.

Conveniently, there’s no mention of the vast environmental degradation that comes from extracting petroleum from the ground, transforming it into PVC, the resulting carcinogenic byproducts, or that PVC does not decompose. Nothing about the majority of artificial trees coming from China, where environmental and worker health regulations are virtually non-existent. And where’s the stuff about the carbon footprint left from shipping their product to our shores?

Killing A Tree is Greener?

So what about the real thing? I wondered whether Christmas tree production has morphed into a Big Ag, Frankensteinian monster. And, if the tree in my living room was trucked 800 miles from Oregon, how sustainable really can that be? I needed an expert.

“There’s no degree in Christmas-tree-ology,” said Michael Bondi, Professor of Forestry and Extension Agent when I phoned him at Oregon State University. “But if there were one, I’d have it.”

Mike’s job is two-fold for the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association: helping tree farmers improve their production, while encouraging cultivation practices that are gentle on the planet.

“Many of the growers I work with are mom and pop operations, living on the same land where the trees are grown,” said Bondi, “so they tend to be good stewards of the environment.”

Bondi explained how tree farms provide benefits to wildlife, including habitat for beneficial insects, shelter for deer and bunnies, perches for birds, and keeping the land out of more intensive development. Wood waste products get composted and returned to the soil.

Cut trees even get a big thumbs up from Greenpeace, stating that “Real trees are carbon neutral, absorbing as much carbon dioxide…as they will emit when burnt or left to decompose.” (For more green holiday ideas, check this Greenpeace website.)

Christmas tree farm

On the other side of the continent is Wolgast Tree Farm, in Sommerset, New Jersey. Len Wolgast is a retired professor of Wildlife Management at Rutgers University, and his wife, Cathy, holds a degree in the same field. These are people with a strong commitment to the environment, receiving the River Friendly Farm certification for their commitment to protecting water resources in the state. They boast that “over 180 bird species, at least 27 mammal species and 15 different species of reptiles and amphibians have been sighted on our Christmas tree farm.”

But what about the carbon footprint produced from transporting these conscientiously grown trees? Bondi agreed that the impacts get bigger when the trees are loaded on diesel trucks and shipped cross-country. One solution is buying choose-and-cut trees from a farm in your area. The Green Promise website lists farmers throughout the country using certified organic growing practices, thereby reducing the distance trees have to travel.

Keep It Simple

And then, there’s an even simpler, greener solution that just requires a sheet ofPegboard tree pegboard, a jigsaw, and a can of green paint. I invented this little desktop tree when Lin and I were starving college students living in a tiny apartment. It’s predrilled for hanging ornaments and poking tiny light bulbs through, requires no watering to keep it fresh, and packs away under the bed when you’re done.

The only thing missing is the smell. Nothing a bottle of Pine-Sol can’t fix.

View Comments


  1. lakegardener 11/13/2011

    Nice post Billy, my now 17 year old daughter and I had this debate a few years back, she thought it was horrible that we literally walked across the street to our local family-owned Christmas Tree Farm and cut down a living tree for our Holiday viewing pleasure. "and you call yourself a tree lady" she scoffed!

    She insisted a fake tree was a better choice, until...
    she took an environmental science class and learned of all the
    nasty chemicals, the poor working conditions etc. that you mentioned above involved with the production of these dust-collecting, cancer-causing, earth-depleting atrocities!

    Now we still support our neighborhood tree farm and plant a new tree (evergreen or otherwise) after Christmas in our garden or somewhere in the woods we are surrounded by, a great compromise I'd say.

  2. valleygardener 11/13/2011

    For those of us that are allergic to Christmas trees, just being in a room with a real tree can cause health issues. My brother and I have had this issue since our teens. As much as I would like real evergreen trees or wreaths in our home, I just have to dream about it. We pull out the artificial tree each year.

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