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Q. Dear Umbra,

Is buying a live tree the most sustainable choice? If so, how do you keep it alive inside so you can actually plant it in your yard? Are some species more likely to live than others?

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Bill C.
Annadale, VA

A. Dearest Bill,Want a living tree?Considering a living tree this year? Photo: Tunde Pecsvari

‘Tis the season I get asked this perennial question about evergreens. Gristmahanukwanzakah is here, that special time of year treehuggers everywhere contemplate bringing branches into hearths and homes.

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So what is the best tree for the most tree-centric holiday outside of Arbor Day, Bill? For starters, choose a tree that’s real over one that is fake. Better watch out: The majority of fake firs are made from a hidden form of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). I’ll shout this from the treetops if need be: “No vinyl, that’s final!” And here’s another thing — the fakes are frequently made with lead, whose visions you definitely do not want dancing in your head. So be real for realness’ sake!

While you’re keeping it real, keep this in mind too — conventional Christmas tree growers use a sleighful of pesticides, much like their Big Ag brethren. If you go for a fresh-cut tree, do look for small, organic tree farms or growers using Integrated Pest Management.

The live trees you are referring to come with their rootball intact, ready to be planted after you open presents. Being the living things that they are, these rootsy rascals need proper care . The roots must be professionally packed; they need time to acclimate to warm indoor temperatures; they need to be gradually reintroduced outside after no more than 10 days spent indoors; and they must be planted before spring. Water according to nursery instructions and keep this in mind — you’ll need a yard to accommodate a tree as it grows, with some trees getting up into the 40- or 60-foot range! Each species has its own special needs. Proceed with caution, or you may have dead tree sap on your hands.

If that’s more than you bargained for, consider decking your halls with a nice potted plant. As I’ve noted during holidays past, Norfolk pine houseplants are a fine fir look-alike fit for Festivus. They need to be kept moist, but if you treat them right, they make a hardy year-round addition to your home, ready for annual lights and decorations.

Another sustainable way to celebrate the season is by paying tribute to a tree in your yard and decorating it for the holiday. Or save even more time and money by enjoying the Vicarious Christmas Tree Effect. They’re everywhere this time of year. Sharing is caring. 

In some visionary places, you can rent a live tree for the festivities. Or you can be the visionary and make your own creative Christmas tree out of old soda cans, newspapers, or jeans. No time for that? Why not get a reusable tree made from Forest Stewardship Council certified wood?

As for me, this year I’ve decided to give back to the carbon capturing friends with foliage. Here are a few of the options I’m considering:

  • Dedicate a tree to a loved one through TreePeople in Los Angeles.

Whatever tree option you choose, Bill, make sure you have fun rocking around it. That’s all I’ve got for now. Guess I’ll make like a tree and leaf.