Christmas tree redux

A CUT ABOVE: Of the more than 100 trees that adorn Biltmore Estate during the winter holidays, most are recycled or repurposed for use throughout the grounds. Photo courtesy of The Biltmore Company

As the holiday season winds down and decorations are packed away, disposing of Christmas trees sits at the top of the to-do list for many households. Even our region’s most famous residence, the Biltmore Estate, can’t escape the task of tree removal. In fact, with more than 100 hand-decorated Christmas trees in and around the estate, Biltmore has had to develop more than one approach to recycling and reusing its trees.

Many of the trees are mulched for use by the estate’s landscaping crews, but some of the smaller trees are purchased in ball and burlap form so that they can be replanted after the holidays. According to Biltmore representative Mallory Flynn, the largest trees are also occasionally milled into lumber, which is then donated to Habitat for Humanity for use on homebuilding projects.

While milling lumber is not possible with the smaller trees displayed in less grandiose homes, there are still ways to repurpose your Christmas tree to keep it “evergreen” beyond its life as holiday decor.

In terms of convenience, curbside pickup is the easiest way to dispose of Christmas trees. The city governments of both Asheville and Hendersonville pick up their residents’ trees after the holidays as part of regular brush collection. It’s important to completely remove all decorations, lights, tinsel and stands before leaving your tree curbside so it can be recycled into usable material.

Trees collected by municipal waste services are taken to mulching facilities such as the Riverside Stump Dump in Asheville, where they are either ground for industrial use or processed into mulch.

Stump Dump coordinator Martin Barnwell explains that “the majority of trees that the city trucks bring in will be mixed with other debris and will be ground for boiler fuel. If we get enough of a stockpile of Christmas trees only, then we will do a special grind for pine mulch.” The Stump Dump also permits one Christmas tree per household to be dropped off free of charge at any of the mulch yard’s three locations in Asheville, Weaverville and Mills River.

Another Christmas tree upcycling idea currently trending on social media is giving your tree a second life as a bird habitat by placing it outdoors and adorning it with birdseed-covered ornaments, popcorn and orange slices.

Although this use may be appropriate under very controlled circumstances, the region’s large bear population means a risk of attracting more than feathered friends with food openly displayed outdoors. Furthermore, the Hendersonville Fire Department advises that “dried-out trees are a fire danger and should not be left in the home or garage or be placed outside against the home.”

There is, however, a safe habitat alternative for folks who live near private lakes or ponds and have the permission of property owners: submerging natural Christmas trees as short-term fish habitat and feeding areas. Scott Loftis with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission explains that, “although [Christmas trees] provide beneficial habitat complexity, they do not persist for very long.” Loftis estimates that an average Christmas tree decomposes in an aquatic environment in around two to three years.

According to the Keep America Fishing website, this decomposition “jump-starts a whole new series of vegetation at the lowest levels of life, such as phytoplankton and various algae. Zooplankton, also known as water fleas, populate and forage on the new vegetation, attracting small insects, mussels, snails and crayfish who also eat on the phyto- and zooplankton.”

Locally, Duke Energy maintains its own Christmas tree reef program at Lake Julian. The company coordinates with the Wildlife Resources Commission, local fishing clubs and other community volunteers to replenish reefs using Christmas trees at designated sites around the lake. Reid Garrett, a water resources employee for Duke Energy, confirms that Lake Julian’s reefs “last and are effective about three years, so we try to replenish them loosely around that interval. Since we did the replenishment last year, we are not planning on it this year.”

For gardeners, another simple — albeit long-term — solution is letting your Christmas tree decompose naturally as part of the outdoor landscape. Hannah Heiser, who works for local permaculture and homesteading school Wild Abundance, suggests a method known as “hügelkultur” (German for “hill culture”). This practice incorporates wood debris and plant material to create raised-bed planting areas. As those materials decompose over time, they release nutrients to plants growing on the mound, reducing the need for intensive digging or tilling.

“If you have the space and material for a hügelkultur,” Heiser says, “it is an excellent way to create a rich ecosystem in your soil that not only produces beautiful gardens, but is a regenerative way to interact with your land.”

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