5 Things to Do with Your Christmas Tree After the Holidays—and 4 Things to Skip

published Dec 28, 2020
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After Christmas, or maybe New Year’s, or maybe even after half of the month of January has passed, those who purchase real trees find themselves with their once beautifully decorated, now half-dead Christmas decor wondering: now what?

Some people drag them to the curb at first chance, hoping the garbage collectors are feeling friendly that day, and others leave them in wooded property to decay. Still others try to set them on fire (spoiler: don’t!) and others try to chop them into firewood. Turns out, there are specific dos and don’ts from the experts when it comes to getting rid of a tree after the official end to the Christmas season. Here are your options, and some things to avoid.

Turn it into mulch, with a little help

If you’re starting out your new year with a resolution to recycle whenever possible, you can start with your tree. Check with recycling centers and hardware stores to see if one near you accepts Christmas trees to use for mulch and other landscaping purposes. For example, The Home Depot’s site advertises: “Many Home Depot stores recycle trees by partnering with a tree company to chip the trees into mulch. Just drop off your tree beginning the day after Christmas and look for more information in mid-January for chipping events.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Molly Block recommends contacting your local recycling authority and searching for community programs that keep Christmas trees out of landfills. “Often, local public works departments will take your tree and turn it into wood chips for gardens and parks. Wherever you take it, remember to remove all ornaments and light strings, which can jam recycling equipment and take whole systems offline,” she says. 

You can also rent a chipper and make your own mulch, but note that you have to age the mulch a year before using it—so don’t expect instant gratification and results.

Take it to the curb, after checking for details

Most waste removal companies are happy to take your tree for you, but you may need to check on the rules. Craig Gjelsten, VP of Operations at Rainbow International Restoration, a Neighborly company, has seen his fair share of disasters such as “unnecessary fires and mishaps” in his time working with his home restoration company. To handle the tree disposal, he says: 

  • Start by removing all the lights and ornaments from the tree and dump water left behind outside in the yard. 
  • Sweep up needles that have dropped on the floor with a broom.
  • Once you’re ready to move your tree, look up your city’s yard waste pickup date and place it on the curb that morning. Some cities want your tree to be bagged; others would rather have it unwrapped. Make sure you follow your area’s protocol.
  • Also be sure your tree also meets the size requirements. If yours is too big, consider cutting it down to smaller pieces. You can use a chain saw or a simple hand saw.

Make a decorative bird feeder or bird shelter

To extend the life of your tree and repurpose it into another project, think beyond the curb on trash pick-up day. Melinda Myers is a horticulturist, columnist, author of over 20 gardening books and host of The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series, and recommends turning it into a food and shelter tree for birds. “Set it in a snow bank, anchor it to the ground where the soil is not frozen, and decorate for the birds. Use orange slices, strands of cranberries, and bird seed ornaments you can make or buy,” she says. “I have always found ways to reuse my tree even when living on a small city lot.”

Use your old tree as a protector for young landscaping

Myers has also set up her tree on the windward side of new tender evergreens and new plants as a way to protect them from wind, and to shade them from the winter sun. She calls it an “attractive windbreaker.”

An old tree can also support other plants if you wait until summer and use its skeleton as a trellis, allowing pole beans and other climbing plants to grow up and cover the bare branches and trunk. “This is a valuable resource that can continue contributing to your landscape and your gardening efforts,” Myers says.

Some areas might recommend against leaving the tree in the yard, as it can attract pests and weeds, but it depends on your location. Check your local ordinances if you’re unsure.

Chop it up for firewood, with some precautions

You can use your tree for firewood, but only outside. Inside, the sap can create a fire hazard in the chimney or venting. That’s because Christmas trees release creosote, which can solidify and stick to the liner of your chimney; the flammable material can lead to dangerous chimney fires.

If you are burning the wood outside, be sure to follow your local laws for outside bonfires as well. As with any type of wood, ensure it’s dry for best burning, and don’t forget to remove your favorite heirloom ornament before throwing a bonfire.

4 things not to try (at least without a little research)

  • Don’t repurpose trees that aren’t native to your area. Only repurpose locally grown trees, as you could accidentally introduce some invasive species to your community otherwise
  • Don’t dispose of your tree in a body of water without research. Some lakeside communities “sink” their Christmas trees to liven up fish habitats, but in other areas it’s illegal. Contact your municipality first before trying this one on your own.
  • Don’t leave your tree in the way of a sidewalk, driveway, or road as you wait for trash removal services.
  • Don’t assume your local recycling pick-up will take the tree. Verify with your local waste pickup before proceeding.