Marianne Binetti

Marianne Binetti: The annual Christmas tree conundrum

The second week of December is when many families cut or collect their Christmas tree. If you are wondering whether it is better for the environment to enjoy a live or artificial tree, the debate rages on.

Living trees are often grown on small family farms and provide food and shelter for wildlife as the trees grow. Harvesting a tree from the forest (get a permit first) helps to thin the understory so other native plants will grow better. Cut Christmas trees can also be recycled as compost or mulch — plus you get that great Christmas tree fragrance.

Another option is a potted living Christmas tree, usually a spruce or fir. The problem with a living Christmas tree is that it hates to spend time indoors. The heat of your home will wake the tree from winter dormancy and then the confused tree will suffer from the cold when placed back outside. One solution is to enjoy a potted tree on a deck or patio that can be viewed from indoors. Decorate with popcorn and other edible treats for the birds.

Here are a few things to consider.

Norfolk Island Pine Tree — the houseplant Christmas tree

A good alternative to a potted fir or spruce tree is a tropical evergreen that looks like a fir tree but is actually an indoor houseplant. This member of the Araucaria family is a native from an island off the coast of Australia and will thrive for years in a pot so it makes a nice year round houseplant once the holidays are over. The only problem with a healthy, happy Norfolk Island pine is the size. The compact potted tree you buy this year has ambitions to grow into an 80-foot timber tree. If you have the space and a bright sun room or greenhouse you may enjoy decorating your indoor tree for many Christmas seasons in the future.

Care of your cut tree

To extend the life of your cut Christmas tree, you need to keep the cut end in water. This means choose a tree stand that holds a large amount of water. Check that water daily to make sure the reservoir stays filled. If you don’t cut the tree yourself, you will want to recut the stem with a saw once you get it home. A freshly cut tree will be able to absorb water more easily than one that has been cut weeks ago and is already starting to seal over.

The test — how to tell if your cut tree is fresh:

Some needle drop from a cut tree is acceptable but before you commit, stand up your chosen tree and bang the cut end onto the ground. If more than a handful of needles fall from the branches, the tree has dried out. Move on.

Another test is to bend back a needle on the tree. A freshly cut tree will have pliable needles that bend. A dry tree has needles that break in half when bent.

One more thing — check any cut tree for wildlife before bringing it indoors. Wasp nests, spiders, tiny owls and frightened woodland gnomes have all been unexpected stowaways hiding on cut trees. Okay, not true about the gnomes — they prefer to be called Christmas elves this time of year.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at