Green Tips for the Holiday

Green Tips for the Holiday

  • By Susan Martin
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  • December 2018 - Vol.4 No.12
  • /
  • 1 Comment

We’d all like to have a greener holiday season without sacrificing the joy of tradition and the spirit of festivity. Although it’s a difficult question to ask of gardeners, let’s reconsider an old argument for those celebrating with Christmas trees: which is more eco-friendly and less wasteful—an artificial tree or a real one? What does the data suggest in 2018?

Let me be upfront and say that my family has always had a real tree. After carefully evaluating “all” the facts on either side, the decision was made: my husband cannot abide the thought of an artificial tree. With that confession out of the way, let’s consider the objective pros and cons.


Choosing between a real tree and an artificial one became an option in the 1930s, when a U.S.-based toilet bowl brush manufacturer, the Addis Brush Company, created an artificial tree from brush bristles. This became the prototype for modern artificial trees.

Each industry has an association fighting its cause: the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA) represents artificial tree manufacturers and the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) represents Christmas tree growers.

According to the NCTA, about 350 million trees are currently grown on farms in the U.S., with about 30 million sold each year, and 1-3 seedlings planted for each tree sold. Environmental experts point out that tree farms provide oxygen, diminish carbon dioxide, stabilize the soil, and support complex eco-systems. In addition, Christmas tree farms provide about 100,000 jobs. Although artificial trees can be used year after year, most are made out of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, a #3 plastic. PVC is not biodegradable and barely one-quarter of 1 percent is recycled each year.

A new study released in 2018 by the ACTA (artificial trees) provides an in-depth analysis of the environmental impacts of real and artificial Christmas trees. The study takes into account multiple aspects of the procurement of both types of trees based on same-size comparisons of 6.5 feet. Artificial trees were evaluated for factors such as manufacturing and overseas transportation. Although estimates vary, at least 80% of artificial trees are manufactured in China. Both real and artificial trees were evaluated for “tree miles,” which includes transporting a tree from factory or field to the point of sale and the consumer’s personal travel to purchase a tree. Planting, fertilizing and watering were taken into account for real trees, which have an approximate field cultivation period of 7-8 years. The study included various disposal options including landfilling, composting, and incinerating at the end of usage.

The report concludes that when comparing the two types of trees, artificial trees have a more favorable effect on the environment if reused for at least 5 years.


A chart provided by the NCTA on Christmas tree sales from 2004-2017 in the U.S. shows an interesting pattern. Live tree sales range from 27.1 million in 2004 to 27.4 million in 2017. Artificial tree sales start at 9 million sales in 2004 and end at 21.1 million in 2017. Although the trend is not always consistent on a yearly basis, it is evident that many Americans are choosing artificial trees.


Tree at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Richmond VA Photo: Susan Martin

If you decorate with a live tree, see the December 2015 article from The Garden Shed, “Decorating with Fresh Greens.” This excellent article describes selecting and caring for a tree, as well as ideas for decorating with greens from the garden. IMPORTANT TIP: For safety and lasting beauty, keep the tree watered and never allow it to dry out. Without water, the trunk will seal itself with sap at the cut end and be unable to absorb water. Be especially vigilant the first day; a tree may absorb a gallon of water when first brought inside. Water demands will be highest the first week.


Choosing a living tree is a wonderful way to remember a time special to the family, or to commemorate a special event. Refer to the NCTA website for tips on caring for and then planting a living tree. A tree should be planted as soon as possible after the holidays. Digging the tree hole in advance of freezing temperatures is a huge help. When planning, be mindful that a 6’ tall balled and burlapped tree will weigh as much as 250 pounds.


  • Although poinsettia plants are known for their toxicity, lilies are a much bigger danger to cats. Be sure to check any holiday floral arrangements. Some lilies (Peace, Peruvian and Calla) are mildly toxic, but others (Tiger, Day, Asiatic, Easter and Japanese Show lilies) can be fatal. Cats can be poisoned by ingesting any part of one of these lilies: leaves, stems, flowers, stamens, even pollen.

    Socks Under the White House Tree Photo: Wikimedia Commons

  • Nandina domestica is on the ASPCA list of plants that are toxic to cats and dogs. The bright red berries are sometimes used in holiday decorations; stems and leaves are also toxic.
  • Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) is highly toxic to pets; holly (Ilex) can be mildly to moderately toxic to pets; be careful if using these greens in decorations.
  • Liven up greenery arrangements by adding fragrant sprigs of rosemary.
  • Be very mindful of the threat of boxwood blight when bringing any boxwood greens or boxwood wreaths into your home. For more information on boxwood blight, see “Boxwood Blight Alert” in the November 2018 issue of The Garden Shed.
  • When trimming shrubs to collect greenery, treat the trimming as you would pruning. Cut pieces evenly throughout the shrub to avoid bare spots in winter. If you need to cut a large amount of greenery, consider thinning out branches of overgrown shrubs or removing lower branches of trees.
  • To condition evergreen branches (boughs), wash them thoroughly in warm water to remove dust and dirt, and then rinse them in cold water. Remove any defective leaves and needles and split the stems about 2 to 3″ up from the ends. Place the ends in warm water and then store the boughs in cool temperatures for at least eight hours prior to use. Keep the water level high by replacing any water that has evaporated in the container.

Have a safe, happy holiday and enjoy all the beauty of the season, both outside and in!


American Christmas Tree Association,

National Christmas Tree Association,

“New Study Measures Impact of Christmas Trees on Mother Nature,” ACTA,

“The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown,” Earth911,

Christmas Tree Sales in the United States from 2004 to 20017 (in millions), Statista,

“Holiday Decorating with Fresh Greenery,” The Garden Shed,

“Decorating Safely with Fresh Greenery, NC Cooperative Extension,

“Ten Garden Plants That Are Toxic to Cats”, UC Davis,

“Toxic and Non-toxic Plants,” ASPCA,

“Toxic Plants by Scientific Name,” University of California,

“Boxwood Blight Alert,” The Garden Shed,



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