Christmas trees, photo by Jane Gates

What kind of Christmas tree is right for your home? (Photo by Jane Gates)

Homes all over the world are decorating for the Christmas holidays and the central piece of décor is often a traditional – or not so traditional Christmas tree. Trees can be large or small, simply or ornately decorated. Some people prefer to use living trees, some like their trees freshly cut while others like the look of one of the many different types of artificial Christmas trees. So which kind of tree is more to your taste?

There are benefits and liabilities to whatever type of Christmas tree you choose for your holiday time decor. Prices vary, decorative effects vary and different materials offer varied ecological pros and cons.

Living trees can be costly to start with, but since they can be used for successive Christmas holidays the price of the living tree can be averaged out. You can wheel a living, potted tree outdoors so it can grow during the rest of the year, but it will require regular care – water and plant food as well as good light – as the tree grows. A living tree will need to be re-potted into a larger sized pot and might need some trimming as it continues growth through the year. You can also plant your tree outdoors in a location where it can grow to adulthood as a part of a landscape or woodland. Just make sure to give it the space it will need as a mature tree. Most varieties of fir tree used for Christmas trees can grow at least 40 feet tall; many much bigger still. A potted tree is a good solution for a fresh-smelling tree that will be less flammable than a drying cut tree and will offer an eco-friendly way to "plant a tree" outdoors once the holiday season is over.

But buying a cut tree is part of an economic business that keeps people employed planting, growing, harvesting and selling those trees. A living tree smells great but should be kept away from flame as it is very flammable – cut trees growing more so as they dry out with age. A cut tree is easier to move around and lighter than a potted tree. But you cannot plant it outdoors or keep it around for next year's use.

You can dispose of a cut tree best after the holidays by recycling your tree. Trees can be recycled by city waste pick-up vehicles (if your town or city offers the service) or brought to special tree recycling centers. Other ways to recycle Christmas trees are to dry, cut and use the tree for firewood. (Use caution when burning this wood since pine and many other fir trees have a lot of oil that can coat chimney interiors with a flammable 'tar' that will burn on its own and potentially cause chimney fires.) More uses for your cut tree are to cut pieces to use as decorative wood for pedestals, build into rustic furniture, carve small totem poles, or for other decorative creations. Wood from a Christmas tree can be converted into useful items for the garden. You can strip the branches and compost them. Then use the trunks as posts or poles in the garden. A tree can even be used as a perch for pet birds though they will probably peck the wood apart before too long. A branch or small tree can also be dipped into a pond as a hiding place for fish. Once the wood begins to rot it is a good idea to remove it from the pond so the water will not become polluted, but fish do enjoy hiding in the branches for the short period of time the tree remains submerged. Recycling is the best way to make the most of your cut tree after the holidays are over. Incorporate your Christmas tree into your landscape, craft it into décor, recycle it into the compost heap or chip it into mulch. Keep in mind that if you do not buy an organically certified cut tree, you may also be bringing pesticides into your home. No tree that may have been sprayed with pesticides should be put in a pond or re-used in any way that it could be dangerous to pets or children.

One more issue that may arise with live Christmas trees: alergies. If you or a family member is allergic to fir trees, you may have to consider an artificial tree for your holiday décor. Or, of course, you might want to decorate another potted plant or tree and by-pass the whole issue altogether.

Artificial Christmas trees can be found made of many different materials. These trees can be very economical or expensively constructed. But they can be used year after year. Most artificial Christmas trees are made with PVC which, if it burns, can emit toxic fumes. There is usually lead used in the stabilizer for PVC which will also be introduced into your home, too. You can look for some of the few artificial trees that are actually fireproof but they will be harder to find and more expensive to buy. Also to be considered is the big carbon footprint involved in the manufacturing and transportation of artificial Christmas trees. Still, for some people the fact they can be re-used, they require no special care and can be packed up and stored easily for the next year is an irresistable sales point. Artificial trees can be fashioned to look realistic. Some can be quite convincing. Others may be of foil or glitter or sport just about any color, texture or decoration. The other concern about artificial trees is that they cannot be recycled so they will add to the build-up of trash when they do need to be discarded. If you are imaginative, you can build your own artificial Christmas tree by recycling just about anything from garden branches to car and bicycling parts. This could be the most artistic, economic and sustainable artificial Christmas tree solution of all.

Whether you choose to buy an artificial or live Christmas tree will depend on the price you want to spend, how much work you want to invest on maintaining the beauty and safety of your Christmas tree and the kind of look you want to design into your holiday décor. Balance out all the factors and choose the best for your lifestyle. But no matter what choice you make, artificial or live, try to be as Eco-friendly as you can with your Christmas tree this year.