Back to Nature

Christmas trees find new life as mulch, outdoor decor, animal feeders and habitats
Wednesday, December 28, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:21 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

You’ve unwrapped the presents and eaten the cookies. You’ve returned the ornaments to their boxes, rewound the lights and put it all back on the shelves.

But what happens to the tree when the holidays are over?

Many residents simply take their trees to mulch sites, but others who want to make them last a bit longer can use them to create a habitat for animals near their home or even to stake tomatoes in the spring.

John Besser of the Columbia Audubon Society has put his tree in the yard as a bird feeder for almost half of his Christmases.

“It depends on the condition of the tree whether I decide to put it in the yard,” he said. “If it’s full, it gives birds a nice dense place to hide and attracts more birds to watch.”

Besser said that once winter ends, he takes his tree to a mulch site.

The Columbia Public Works Department and the Missouri Department of Conservation work together to recycle as many of the discarded trees as possible. The Conservation Department arranges ahead of time to pick up the trees at the city landfill and make them into fish habitat by submerging them with concrete blocks or rocks in mid-Missouri lakes.

Stephens Lake and Twin Lakes are considered park lakes, meaning there is not much natural tree cover for fish. That makes them perfect candidates for man-made fish habitat. The habitat provides a place for small fish to hide from predators and for predators to wait for their prey.

Phil Pitts, a fisheries management biologist with the Conservation Department, said creating fish habitat helps anglers because they often find fish near cover such as trees and brush.

“It’s a good way to dispose of something that needs to be disposed of somehow,” he said of the used trees.

Trees not used by the Conservation Department remain for the Public Works Department to use for compost. The city creates mulch on site to use for projects across the city or to sell to people.

Dennie Pendergrass, head of the Public Works Department, said residents need to dispose of their trees early to prevent them from drying out and must make sure the tree is bare.

“If there is anything remaining on the tree, it contaminates the compost. If people have left things on the tree, the yard waste trucks will tag it and leave it at the resident’s home,” Pendergrass said.

The Solid Waste Division mandates that trees placed at the curb for recycling after Jan. 31 must be cut into 4-foot lengths.

Those who want to keep their trees beyond January can place them outside as a home for birds and animals.

Placing your tree outside in the ground, or in its stand, and redecorating it with food will attract birds, according to the Conservation Department. Trees can be made attractive to birds by stringing pieces of fruit such as apples and oranges onto the tree; smearing peanut butter on pine cones and rolling them in bird seed; and placing popcorn, cranberries and raisins on a string. Stale bread can also be attached. Adding ears of corn to the tree can attract colorful birds and squirrels to the tree. Besser said the most common birds to visit decorated trees are house finches, American goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, Carolina wrens and chickadees. He said all of these birds live near the ground and seek places to rest. The beef suet — the white, hard fat of meat — will attract woodpeckers and nuthatches, according to the Conservation Department.

Birds and fishes are not the only animals who enjoy leftover Christmas trees. Two trees bundled together and placed over a large rock or log provides ample space for rabbits to move in and out for play and protection, according to the Conservation Department.

If bird watching and wildlife are not reasons enough to hold on to your tree, gardening may be. The Conservation Department advises letting your tree dry out in the back yard, taking the branches off for use as kindling, and then cutting the trunk into stakes for a spring tomato garden.

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