Christmas Trees and Pesticides

For consumers the holiday season is full of complicated choices, including the conundrum of how to find the perfect Christmas tree. The most important part of selecting a tree is not its size and shape, but rather finding one that will pose the least risk to the health of your family and the environment. Thus, the safest holiday choice for you and yours is purchasing an organic tree as opposed to one that is artificial or grown using harsh chemical methods. However, because the organic tree industry is still a sapling in its own right, follow these helpful tips to make sure you not only purchase the organic tree of your dreams but also dispose of it in a responsible way as you usher in the New Year.

The Case for Going Organic

Christmas trees are a big business in the United States. In 2011, Americans’ purchased over 30 million trees. However organic Christmas trees, which follow the same U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards as agricultural crops, make up less than 1% of all Christmas trees farmed. Thankfully though, much like other non-edible organic products such as cotton, growing public awareness of the need for a greener tree is on the rise and more organic trees are being produced to meet this demand.

Organic trees are a dramatic improvement from conventionally grown and artificial trees in several ways. The pesticides that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registers for use on conventionally grown Christmas trees are linked to numerous adverse health effects, including cancer, hormonal disruption, neurotoxicity, organ damage, reproductive/birth defects, asthma, and more. Additionally, artificial trees can be even worse for the environment and children’s health than their conventional counterparts. Most artificial Christmas trees are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. Lead can be used to stabilize certain PVC products, and some labels on artificial Christmas trees caution individuals to avoid inhaling or eating any bits of lead dust that may fall from the branches.

Where to Find Christmas Trees

If you’d prefer to go pesticide free this holiday, purchase your organic tree as soon as possible - because of their limited amount they often sell out quickly. As of 2008, there are only 63 organic Christmas tree farms in the U.S. but, as organic agriculture has grown over the last five years it is safe to assume that this number may now be greater.

Here are some online resources to help you find some organic trees in your area:

  • Green Promise. This website has an organic Christmas tree sources list with operations in 22 states. It also has eco-friendly gift guide to help you put green gifts under the tree.
  • Local Harvest. Along with Christmas trees, this site can also be used to find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area. The Christmas trees can be found under the wreath section.
  • Silvertip Tree Farms. If you do not live close to any of the many farms on the above websites, other farms such as Silvertip Tree Farms in North Fork California will let you purchase trees on-line and ship them anywhere in the country.
  • Additional resources below

If the cost of shipping a tree to your home is prohibitive, or you are unable to locate an organic tree farm using the resources above, the next best option is to try your local Christmas tree farm or a farmers market. If you purchase trees from tree lots or from large chain stores it can be hard to determine where your tree is coming from. It is also easier to find “Charlie Brown” or “wild” trees at a tree farm than at big box stores or tree lots. These trees have a different physical appearance than pruned trees, but this more traditional aesthetic is appealing to some consumers. Going to a local tree farm or farmers market does not guarantee you will be purchasing a tree that is grown organically or without synthetic pesticides, however these settings give you the opportunity to speak with the farmer about their growing methods. Often, you can find trees that haven't been overly pruned and grown without many chemical inputs. However, be aware that without organic certification any claims of sustainability hold very little weight since it has not been verified by a third party.

Cutting Down and Bringing a Tree Home

This can be a fun family activity and a nice way to spend a little more time outdoors. It may also be more economical, as tree farms may charge you less if you cut the tree yourself.

However, cutting your own tree does require some advanced planning:

  • Before cutting down a tree be sure it will fit in the place you plan on putting it in your house. It is important to measure the space where you will set up your tree before cutting or purchasing any tree.
  • Make sure when you cut the tree that you cut as close to the ground as possible, and that the cut is even along its’ base.
  • Bring friends or family to help you carry the tree and to possibly tie the tree to the top of your car. These tasks, if done alone and in the dark, have the potential to make you lose your holiday cheer.
  • Be prepared by bringing rope and a hand saw in case the tree farm does not provide you with one. Remember, most tree farms do not allow customers to bring chainsaws or more industrial equipment to remove trees.

Caring for Your Tree

Once you have brought the organic tree of your dreams back to your home it is important to give it proper care and attention so it remains fresh throughout the holiday season:

  • Make a fresh cut to remove about a 1/2-inch thick disk of wood from the base of the trunk before putting the tree in the stand. Do not cut the trunk at an angle, or into a V-shape, which makes it far more difficult to hold the tree in the stand and also reduces the amount of water available to the tree.
  • Use a stand that fits your tree. Avoid whittling the sides of the trunk down to fit a stand. The outer layers of wood are the most efficient in taking up water and should not be removed. Also make sure this stand can hold enough water. Stands should provide 1 quart of water per inch of stem diameter.
  • When it’s time to decorate, string lights that produce low heat, which will reduce drying of the tree. For additional tree maintenance tips, the National Christmas Tree Association has helpful information on different tree species.

Buy a Living Tree!

The best option, and probably the most adventurous, is to buy a tree that still has its roots and can be planted again after the holidays.

To take this project on there are several things to take into account:

  • Consider the adaptability of the species to your environment. A good option for people in a temperate climate is the Scotch pine as this tree has an excellent survival rate, and is easy to replant.
  • Living trees can be very heavy and bulky. A six foot tall balled and bur-lapped tree can weigh as much as 250 pounds.
  • Avoid having to dig a hole while the ground is frozen. Dig the hole you plan on planting the tree in as soon as you purchase the tree. After you dig the hole fill it with mulch to keep it from freezing over.

Adding a Christmas tree to your yard could become a fun tradition for your family, and if you purchase a small tree you could re-dig and re-plant the tree for several years!

Disposing of Your Tree

If planting a tree seems too daunting or is just not feasible, there are ways to dispose of your tree in an eco-friendly way. First and foremost, it is important to make sure your tree avoids a landfill after the festivities. According to Sierra Club, an estimated 10 million Christmas trees unnecessarily end up there each year.

Here are some tips on how to recycle your tree:

  • Goats love to recycle Christmas trees! They will strip the whole tree by eating all of the needles leaving just the trunk, which can be turned into firewood.
  • Turn your old Christmas tree into a bird feeder by placing the tree in your garden or backyard and place fresh orange slices or strung popcorn on it. This will attract the birds who can sit in the branches for shelter.
  • Mulch your tree by removing its branches and putting it through a wood chipper. These chips can be used as mulch in your garden or as part of your compost. If you plan on using this mulch in your garden be sure it is from an organic tree because conventionally grown trees can retain pesticides in its wood.
  • Create habits for fish by sinking your tree into a nearby pond with deep water. Trees make an excellent refuge and feeding area for fish.
  • Most communities have a curbside-pick up option for tree recycling. Check with your city to see if they offer this service, and if they do, make sure to remove all ornaments and decorations before you put your tree out!
  • If curbside pickup is not available in your community, many local nonprofit organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, will offer to pick up your tree and recycle it for a small donation.

Holidays can be complicated, but one decision that you should feel confident about this year is how you purchased your Christmas tree. By purchasing an organic Christmas tree you are making the responsible choice for the health of your loved ones and the environment. Also, by recycling your tree responsibly after the holiday season you will make sure that your tree can be a gift that keeps on giving to your garden, birds, fish, or goats.

More organic trees, wreaths and gift ideas

Resources for Organic Trees and Wreaths

  • Green Promise: 2010 list of organic Christmas tree farms around the country
  • Blog Post: Natural Baby Mama's 2017 list of organic Christmas tree farms by state
  • Local Harvest: Organic mail order wreaths
  • Toxic Free NC: Organic trees and wreaths in North Carolina
  • Licking Creek Farm: Organic trees and wreaths in the Washington, DC-metro area
  • Feezers Farm: Organic trees in the Baltimore, MD region

Resources for Organic and Fair Trade Gifts