LISLE, Ill. (Dec. 21, 2023)—Whether those who have live Christmas trees take them down immediately after the holidays or like to enjoy them for weeks to come, the tree care experts at The Morton Arboretum recommend planning ahead for when it’s time to dispose of them.
“Live trees with festive decorations brighten homes during the holiday season, but they won’t last forever,” said Spencer Campbell, the Arboretum’s Plant Clinic manager and horticulture specialist. “It’s important to dispose of the tree in a safe and appropriate way when the season is done.”
Most importantly, Campbell cautioned homeowners to dispose of a tree once it shows signs of drying out to prevent it becoming a fire hazard.
“Dry needles will become brittle and start to fall off, and the tree will no longer take up water,” Campbell said. He advised to never burn an evergreen tree in a fireplace or woodstove, which may cause creosote buildup that could lead to a chimney fire.
Bare Christmas trees can be recycled at participating facilities. Check with local municipalities or waste management companies about tree recycling or disposal arrangements, including when and where trees will be picked up or whether they need to be brought to a recycling site, Campbell noted. Recycled trees are chipped into mulch or compost. In some municipalities, people can pick up the fine-smelling mulch and spread it in their gardens.
“Only the actual tree can be recycled,” Campbell said. “Be sure to remove all decorations, and if using a plastic tree bag to carry the tree from the house, take the bag off outside.”
Trees that aren’t bare will go to a landfill instead of being recycled. Flocked trees—those covered in white synthetic powder to suggest snow—can’t be recycled. They must be thrown away in regular trash. Don’t try to recycle garlands, wreaths or anything containing wire, which could damage the shredding machinery. Discard those items in the trash.
Among other tree disposal options, branches cut from the trees work well to protect plants in gardens. “Laid over beds, they will insulate the soil so it doesn’t heat up in winter warm spells and cause plants to come out of dormancy too early,” Campbell said. “This is most useful in full-sun beds.”
Trees can also be used outdoors as wildlife shelters. “If space permits—and neighbors don’t mind—the tree can be left in the backyard to provide shelter for birds and other animals during winter,” Campbell said, adding that individuals can also place the trunk in a pond on their private property to provide shelter for fish.
The Arboretum’s Plant Clinic provides free advice by phone or email for those with questions about how to care for trees and plants. The Arboretum is generously supported by Bartlett Tree Experts, Plant Clinic Sponsor.