A scraggly branch, really no more than a few pine needles, is selected by a boy from a lot of gaudy aluminum trees. Charlie Brown’s story hasn’t changed in nearly 50 years, the young man’s success at finding the true meaning of Christmas reflected in the glistening decorations bestowed by his friends on the skinny natural tree.
What would have happened to that storied sprig if Charlie Brown had overlooked it? For that matter, what happens to all those Charlie Brown Christmas trees left in lots on Dec. 25?
“The best we can hope for at closing time on the 24th is that we try to give them away at some point to people who might need them,” said Mark Holler, owner of Gingko Gardens in the District. “Some may be taken, but fortunately, we plan well. We don’t have a lot of waste. As for the others, we try to make certain they are utilized in recycling, like community gardens, or chipped into mulch.”
Mulching is often the fate for post-Christmas trees. The firs, spruces, pines and cedars that have brightened homes during the holiday season are ground into pieces for homeowners to feed their springtime gardens.
An increasing number of government agencies and clever businesses are using leftover trees for more than compost. The trees can be used as homes for fish, a small town’s energy supply, snacks for exotic animals and even barriers against Mother Nature.
Headed to the beach
After Superstorm Sandy, residents along the New Jersey coastline came home to leveled communities and flooded homes, but Bradley Beach just needed a good sweep.
“We’re in the process now of restoring our beach after the hurricane, moving sand away from the boardwalk,” said Julie Schreck, the mayor of Bradley Beach. “The dunes did their job; they resisted the onslaught of the ocean. When the ocean finally started to punch through the dunes were further compacted and there was far less destruction.”
For more than a decade, the town has placed old Christmas trees in the beach sand. Flanked by parallel lines of fencing, the yuletide sentries catch sand that blows in from the beach.
“It sets in the trees, and through the action of the wind, packs the sand,” Ms. Schreck said. “Some towns just bulldoze sand into places and call it a dune. That’s a very unstable pile of sand. When you allow the natural action, it’s more stable and resilient.”
It takes several seasons to bury an entire tree, but once the dune is about 4 feet high, the town plants dune grass, which takes root and helps stabilize the sand. Though she couldn’t give an exact number, Ms. Schreck said thousands of Christmas trees are buried in dunes along the one-mile stretch of beach.
“After the storm, we had these skeletal Christmas trees blowing around like tumbleweeds,” Ms. Schreck said. “People were like, ‘That might be my Christmas tree.’”
Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said he has heard of similar practices along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast.
“There’s a lot of really creative programs for whole trees post-consumer use,” Mr. Dungey said. “Whether you’ve got 100 left over or just one from your house, it’s important to find out who is going to use that plant material and what kind of program they’re doing locally.”
Last year, more than $1 billion was spent on live Christmas trees, according to figures from a consumer survey compiled by Mr. Dungey’s association. About 31 million were purchased, and the average buyer spent $35.
Even with the stable popularity of live trees, some inevitably are not sold.
“Leftover Christmas trees are an unfortunate public relations problem,” said Dennis Thompkins, an arborist in Washington state. “They’re planted and grown like any crop. You never sell 100 percent, but you hope you reach public demand.”
If seeing a lot on Christmas Eve with a few lonely trees still standing pulls at your heartstrings, blame fellow buyers, Mr. Thompkins said.
“The American consumer is so persnickety. He wants all the fruits and vegetables to look wonderful.”
Like the produce department of a grocery store, Christmas tree lots are continuously stocked and surveyed to ensure only the best-looking products are available.
“Stores are constantly going through their bins of approved vegetables, and those that have a little bit of a problem are disposed of,” Mr. Thompkins said. “We don’t see them being disposed, because it’s generally done when the stores are closed.”
Mr. Dungey said a typical 7-foot tree weighs about 20 pounds, but a lot of that weight is from water. Taking into account trees with different branch and needle density, as well as some of the larger trees, it’s hard to pin down just how much mulch is produced after each Christmas season, Mr. Dungey said.
“If you’re a lot manager, trees are no different than a place set up to sell pumpkins,” Mr. Dungey said. “You have to do something with the organic waste if you have it left over. Different communities have their own ways of dealing with that. It’s important to find out how to recycle, to make sure you get into that stream.”
Back to nature
One option with an uptick in interest is using trees as underwater fences to promote algae growth in freshwater lakes and ponds.
“There’s a lot of benefits to having the trees,” said Don Cosden, manager of the inland fisheries division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Tree limbs or other kinds of structure with little spaces provide things for your basic food-chain organisms, like algae, to get started. Then other critters come along. It’s a benefit to the basics of the food chain. It’s a benefit to young fish who use it to hide from predators, and even larger fish tend to hide close to the structure and use it as a cover or an ambush point.”
The trees are weighted with chains and cement and dropped into freshwater areas. St. Mary’s Lake in St. Mary’s County and Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County have Christmas trees at their bottoms, Mr. Cosden said. His department has been using this practice for more than 20 years. California and Louisiana also have anchored trees into their freshwater lakes.
Zoo animals in Oakland, Calif., last year were treated to Christmas trees donated by local lots with excess inventory. Zebras, giraffes and some other animals eat the trees, while otters play hide-and-seek with prizes hidden in the branches.
Burlington, Vt., mulches its post-holiday trees, but that mulch is used to help power its city of roughly 41,000 people.
Mary Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Burlington Electric Department, said residents leave their trees on the curb after Christmas and the public works department collects and puts them immediately into a chipper.
The chips head to a nearby 50-megawatt generating plant that gets its power from wood fire.
Though the mulch offers only so much fire power, the alternative is better than “having the waste go into a landfill.”
“It’s providing something useful,” Ms. Sullivan said. “It’s very small, but it helps close the loop.”