"Real trees can be recycled in a number of ways that help nature renew itself," says Charles Barden, forester with Kansas State University Research and Extension's horticulture programs.
In the short term, one easy use is to strip the tree of its ornaments (along with all tinsel and any other decorations) and set it upright in the garden, well away from buildings. There, it will
protect and shelter birds through winter.
Putting a discarded Christmas tree on its side in the woods can provide shelter for small mammals. And if you want to provide more than simple shelter, there is a functional and festive solution:"You also can turn it into a sort of instant bird feeder by hanging orange slices, peanut butter-packed pinecones, or balls of suet and seed," Barden says. "Ropes of popcorn or cranberries will add to the festive look."
"You need to be careful, though, about the spot you choose," he adds. "You don't want to be accused of dumping. You also don't want to encourage wildlife to take up residence where they'll become a pest later."
Increasingly, communities have programs to collect old Christmas trees and chip them into mulch used in public parks or offered to local residents. Wood-chip mulches conserve water, moderate soil
temperatures and provide some weed control. Then, when chips decompose, they improve the soil, Barden says.
Another short-term use is to cut the branches from the tree and use them to protect semi-hardy perennials or young trees and shrubs from winter's weather extremes. "Next spring, the branches will need to go into a chipper-shredder or compost pile. But you can use the trunk as a garden stake, or you can cut and save it to use next winter as firewood," Barden says.
In some parks near lakes and reservoirs, state biologists collect trees to sink for fish habitat. "By January, there are mountains of trees at the designated collection sites," says Barden. "You
can find out if such programs are going on in your area by calling a nearby Wildlife and Parks office."
Those who own or have free access to a pond that isn't frozen solid can sink their own tree. "You use a short, stout rope to tie the trunk to a cinderblock. Then you toss all of it in," he says. "If you want, you can even mark the spot with a buoy by first tying a closed, but empty bleach bottle to the tree with a length of twine. Then you'll know the best place to fish next summer!"
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