spaces garden beauty christmas
Image: Kurt Hettle

For many families, the Christmas tree is a much-loved symbol of the holidays. But for the state of Oregon, the Yuletide greenery represents $114 million in agriculture revenue. More than eight million Christmas trees are harvested here every year. According to the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, 52 percent of those are Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii), 36 percent are noble firs (Abies procera), and a mere 5 percent are grand firs (Abies grandis). A handful of fir species from around the globe, including Fraser, Nordmann, Shasta, silver, balsam, and Turkish, as well as Colorado blue spruce and Norway spruce, make up the remainder.

Most Oregon trees head out of state, nearly half to California, and the overwhelming majority don’t take their roots with them. So, with all this tree-cutting going on around us, how should Oregonians feel about their own Christmas trees? What are the wisest choices, environmentally and aesthetically?

CUT TREES

While a Christmas-tree plantation undoubtedly produces more oxygen over its 7- to 12-year lifespan than the average cabbage field, any vast agribusiness monoculture has its drawbacks. Without crop diversity, ecosystems become unbalanced, and disease, insect, and soil-fertility problems can spiral out of control. That means pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers end up being used.

There are more natural alternatives. Ivan Maluski, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club of Portland, suggests seeking out smaller growers. “Growing Christmas trees is a nice way for a small farmer within 50 miles of Portland to make a little extra income,” he explains. “Many U-cut tree farms are small-scale operations, which are your best bet to avoid pesticides—and you’re guaranteed a local product when it’s U-cut.”

Many Oregonians get a permit ($5 at Mt Hood National Forest Headquarters, 16400 Champion Way, Sandy, 503-668-1700) to cut their own Christmas trees on National Forest land, a seasonal ritual that the Sierra Club supports. “It gets people into the forest, and it’s a great way to connect with your family and with nature,” Maluski says.

When the holiday fun is over, be responsible: Don’t send your Christmas tree to the landfill.

Preparation

When you get your tree home, make a 1/2-inch cut on the butt to allow for absorption, and put it in water as soon as possible. When you’re ready to decorate, place the tree in a sturdy stand and position it in a cool place, away from heat sources. A spot near a drafty north window is ideal. If the tree isn’t going inside immediately, store it in a bucket of water in a cool area away from wind and sun.

The average cut tree will absorb a quart to a gallon of water per day. No need for additives—plain water is best. If the water level drops below the cut end of the trunk, sap can fill the pores and the tree won’t be able to absorb more water.

Miniature white lights are coolest and keep the tree from drying out as quickly. Be careful of all other kinds, particularly any vintage lighting: Check for frayed wire insulation and broken sockets.

The Aftermath

When all the holiday fun is over, be responsible: Don’t send your Christmas tree to the landfill. Either recycle it in your own garden by cutting it into pieces for use as garden mulch, or drop it off at Wood Waste Management (7315 NE 47th Ave, 503-493-3370) for a small fee. Visit Metro’s website (oregonmetro.gov) for curbside recycling resources and a list of nonprofit groups that recycle Christmas trees. Do not burn your tree in a woodstove or fireplace, as conifer wood is very resinous and can cause creosote buildup and chimney fires.


LIVING TREES

Ultimately, choosing a live tree or a cut tree boils down to a combination of aesthetics and practical concerns. Whether cut or living, a tree’s carbon footprint is determined by how sustainably it is grown, how far it travels once harvested, and what is done with it after the holidays. Shop for a live tree that is organically and locally grown, and pick a place to plant it where it will thrive. Maluski cautions, “Most folks don’t know where to plant their tree. City lots are small, and there are power lines crisscrossing the neighborhoods. You don’t want to have to cut it down later.”

Selection

If you want to plant the tree permanently in your garden, select the species with care, evaluating its ultimate height and its growth rate as well as the love factor: Will you still like it when it’s 20 feet tall and shading your vegetable garden? Be sure to take into account power lines or that long, overhanging eave. If your yard is small, consider buying a slow-growing conifer in a large pot, such as a dwarf form of pine or fir (see accompanying images).These can be maintained outdoors, lightly pruned, and brought in for the holidays over a number of seasons.

Depending on the height of the tree, its root system may exceed 24 inches in depth or width. Container-grown trees can be lighter and easier to lift than the notoriously heavy balled and burlapped (B&B) trees, but they may cost more.

The Holidays

Once you’ve brought your live Christmas tree home, keep it inside the house for the minimum length of time possible. To acclimate the tree to domestic life, move it gradually between indoor and outdoor temperatures. An unheated garage makes a good staging area. Inside, it should be situated in as cool a location as possible, no warmer than 65 degrees, and away from any source of heat. Damp B&B root-balls can “sweat” moisture and should be placed inside a large container or set on a leakproof tray. When the root surface begins to dry out, water the tree until the liquid begins to drain out of the bottom of the container.

The Aftermath

It’s wise to prepare your tree’s future home before the ground freezes. Your planting area should be the same depth as the roots and 2 to 3 times as wide. (Consult our October/November issue’s “Tree Hugging” article for a tree-planting primer.) If you can’t find a good spot, donate the tree to the Living Christmas Tree Company (503-501-0087), which will see that your tree is planted in a local watershed or garden. This company also rents live Christmas trees for $75: The tree is delivered to your front door, picked up after the holidays, and then planted somewhere useful.

The Portland Way

And so, given that we’re the Christmas tree capital of the world, what do Portlanders buy? “The noble fir is definitely king,” says Bryan Ostlund of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association. With its thick, silvery-green needles; rich, woodsy aroma; and sturdy branches protruding straight from the trunk, the noble fir is perfect for ornaments. The Douglas fir remains popular, however, for its long, soft, blue-green needles, which smell delicious when crushed. Douglas firs are also more suitable as living Christmas trees in the Portland area since they thrive in low-elevation gardens, while the noble fir prefers a cooler, higher-elevation site than Portland can provide.