11.28.11Alan Harris

How Green Is Your Yule* Tree?

Rainbow Christmas Tree Photo Courtesy of www.treetopia.comFake Trees Come in Every Color of the Rainbow... Sometimes even in the Same Tree

Photo Courtesy of
Flocked trees make a nice backdrop for a photo, but we prefer a more sustainable green tree for the house.

When it comes to tree selection this Holiday season, how sustainable are you?

Unless your tree is flocked or a funky colored artificial (PVC) tree chances are your tree this year will be green, but is it sustainable? Previously we covered the connection of trees to water so you already know the many benefits trees have on the environment, but what happens when millions of trees are cut for temporary holiday displays and could an artificial tree perhaps actually be greener?

40 million to 45 million trees are cut for holiday decorations every year, but since most trees cut are from a farm there is an equal amount of trees replanted every year. At any given time there are 446 million trees growing on farms in United States. These trees contribute a substantial amount towards the betterment of the environment and water management. Using a fake tree will only save a real tree if you were planning on cutting down a tree from the forest.

But wait…isn’t there a carbon footprint associated with a real tree. Short answer is yes. Most of the footprint from using a real tree is a result of growing (fertilization), harvesting and transporting from the farm to the retailer to your home and then ultimately to the tree’s final resting place. However, since most artificial trees come from China the transportation miles for the fake tree are substantially higher, at least for the first year.

So at what point do the miles and footprint balance each other in the sustainability equation? According to the Christmas Tree Association (which is actually a site for artificial trees) you need to hold on to the artificial tree for 10 years before you are more environmentally conscious and sustainable. However, according to a very scientific 91 page study the environmental return on the investment on an artificial tree is just a short 6 years. The problem is most people hold onto their artificial trees for far less than 6 – 10 years, which makes a real tree greener”.

If you make the more sustainable choice and decide to use a real tree here are a couple of tips to help minimize the carbon footprint and increase your sustainable practices.

Buy a Local Tree – since most of the footprint is associated with transportation you can substantially reduce the miles by sourcing a real tree locally.

Recycle Your Tree – compost it, sink it in a pond (with permission) for fish habitat or take it to a local chipper for mulch.

If you choose to go the route of a fake tree, keep using it for 10 years or more. If your relationship with your artificial tree does not last that long at least now you know it is environmentally acceptable to use a real tree next year and the next and the next…

* Holiday Tree, Christmas Tree or Yule Tree? Over the past few years some people (media) have started using a more politically correct term “Holiday Tree” which infuriates many people for abandoning the term “Christmas Tree”.

Hello, Pot. This is the Kettle and I am calling you B-L-A-C-K.

Christians adopted (stole) the Pagan tradition of Yule centuries ago. I am okay if terminology changes every few hundred or thousand years. In fact I have it on good authority from Sid the Sloth that prior to trees being popular, large boulders were the “in thing” in prehistoric times. Don’t believe it? You can watch the “documentary” yourself.

FULL DISCLOSURE: In case you didn’t figure it out for yourself I have always had and always plan to have a real tree. I welcome the responses and counter arguments from fake tree lovers.

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P.S. For the reader who wants more on the “modern” history of the Christmas Tree.


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Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our Director of Sales Operations for our landscape maintenance division. In addition to his contributions to this blog, Alan keeps his hand in water management as a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine and speaker at WaterSmart Innovations Conference.




  1. Monday, 12:46 Martha Golea

    I guess I’d better take good care of my rainbow striped tree since I need to hold onto it for at least 10 years! Luckily that thing will NEVER go out of style…(mostly because it was never IN style)

    This is really interesting info, in light of last week’s landscape chat ( where a few people mentioned that using a fake tree probably saves water.

    I’m with you on the real tree side- I think people get so caught up in the idea of “saving the trees” that they seem to forget trees are sustainable and renewable resources! But with all the fervor surrounding paperless workplaces and the popularity of “think before you print” messages it’s understandable that everyone thinks trees are at risk of extinction. However, responsible tree farmers and paper manufacturers plant a tree for every tree they cut down, or else they would run themselves out of business in a very short time.

  2. Tuesday, 8:19 Alan Harris

    @Martha I thought with purple hair you might be a fan of the rainbow tree. JK, but your post did influence the rainbow tree picture.

    #landscapechat was the inspiration for this article. I had been reading a little about trees and when the conversation on the chat leaned toward the fake tree I knew then a blog post was in the making.

    Even the Nature Conservancy agrees real is better (video)

  3. Wednesday, 12:01 Lauren Hanson

    Very thorough assessment Alan. Here in Southern California there is a company that delivers living trees to homes for Christmas and picks them up after the holiday to take back to the nursery to be nurtured until the next year ( I am curious to know if it is more sustainable to go that route…

  4. Wednesday, 12:25 Lorraine DiBacco

    Our HOA is considering setting up a collection site so homeowners can can drop off Xmas trees post holiday craziness. Trees would get chipped and mulched onsite which is much better than putting them out on the curb. Bet it will smell pretty darn good around here too.

  5. Thursday, 1:31 Alan Harris

    @Lauren – living trees are the “greenest” alternative. Most of the time people try to plant them in the yard and it is either the wrong climate for the tree or the homeowner runs out of room in their yard for new trees after a few years. Having a company who will “rent” a live tree is a great alternative I was not familiar with. Thanks for sharing the concept and the link.

  6. Thursday, 1:45 Alan Harris

    @Lorraine – where I live we take the trees to the county parks where the trees are chipped and used as mulch in the open areas of the county parks. Having a private company partner with an HOA to provide is a great idea! In fact many of the ValleyCrest Tree Care Branches are offering the same service. If anyone else is considering the same idea make sure you have someone inspect the trees to make sure all the lights and ornaments have been removed. Also the “mulch” created is rough and “green” or “hot” and should be kept away from ground cover and tender/young shrubs.

  7. Thursday, 10:05 Dave Gray

    There is nothing like the fragrance from a freshly cut holiday tree, you know it as soon as you open the door to your home. I always felt bad though, thinking it was not a very wise move to cut down a living tree. Now knowing that it can be a good enviromental decision makes it even better, so make sure to buy it locally and help out your local community! The real downer though is just leaving that beautiful tree at the curb after the Holidays, The Boy Scouts in our community here in the East Bay Area usually sponsor a program to haul the trees away, mulch them and deliver them to a nearby park, so the circle is complete.

  8. Saturday, 5:48 Richard Restuccia

    Alan, I love your traditions, but I went with the artificial tree a few years ago and love it. For the smell of the tree I just get some tree clippings and I have the magical Christmas smell. I think I am saving water, gas and most importantly precious time around the holidays. When I lived in Seattle we went with a living tree, but the challenge is you should only have the tree in your house about a week or you risk it not doing well after you plant it. It’s too hot in the house at that time of year. Who wants a tree up for only a week??

  9. Saturday, 6:20 Alan Harris

    @ Dave – recycling trees by the Boy Scouts sounds like a great program. The #1 goal is to keep the trees out of the landfills. Happy Holidays!

  10. Saturday, 6:39 Alan Harris

    @ Richard – since you have already had your PVC tree for 3+/- years you should absolutely keep it for at least another 7 years and then you will indeed have saved gas and water. In the likely event your love of this PVC tree doesn’t last until 2018 consider coming over to the green side and get a real cut tree or if you happen to be in Southern California be sure to check out the link from Lauren where you can rent a live tree for a month.

    When/if you are finished with the PVC tree remember to recycle it…oops forgot there are not currently any options for recycling a PVC tree. Maybe just keep it tucked away in the attic. The tree will be around a few thousand years longer than the house.

  11. Thursday, 8:34 LDuffy

    Martha – Paper manufacturers are clearing diverse forested areas and replacing it with a mono-culture, often devastating habitat for many animal species. These pine plantations give no regard to wetlands or streams, as silviculture gets a free pass from most regulations. I know they are supposed to abide by best management practices, but the truth is most of them don’t and no one is really watching them. I know this because I have worked in these plantations documenting the conditions. Also, you should know that the office paper you are using is not made exclusively from pine. It has a very high percentage of hard woods, which are NOT being replanted by any of the paper manufacturers I have spoken to. And, when is the last time you saw anything other than a pine plantation?

    Sorry to hijack the conversation, but I could not resist putting in my two cents on re-planting trees.

  12. Thursday, 9:14 Martha Golea

    @ LDuffy Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience with re-planting practices, it’s definitely eye-opening. The paper manufacturer I’m most familiar with works with the Rainforst Alliance and the Forest Stewardship Council (whose collective mission is to “protect soils, waterways and wildlife habitat, and promote good conditions for workers and their families and communities”) to certify the sustainability of their products and practices. I understand that type of business practice is most likely the exception in the paper industry, rather than the rule. And from your experience, it sounds like maybe even companies like this don’t have much accountability to do what they say? That’s disheartening. Now I’m curious and I’ll have to take a closer look. Thanks again.

  13. Friday, 12:59 T

    any thoughts on green yule logs…green fireplaces? how can we enjoy the warmth and mystique of a winter fireplace fire without a negative carbon footprint?

  14. Friday, 1:45 Alan Harris

    @T – Check out this article from Mother Nature Network, How to Choose an Eco-friendly Fireplace

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