Old Xmas Tree!


Reuse the tree in containers

You’re spent. More then likely, you’ve overspent. But at last the holidays are over. And now’s the time to clean up the mess.

Your pine (or fir) had been carbon sequestering for more then ten years, free-ranging it on a farm until a quick and painless cut by the farmer’s chainsaw sent it to the local garden center where you fretted – yes, fretted – until you found it, the best shaped and most comely among its brethren. You’ve done your part to tart it up with ornaments and lights, making it the axis mundi of your holiday tableau but by now you may be thinking that your rapidly browning, pagan symbol of the winter solstice has overstayed its welcome. Does the slightest variation in the air current send little green daggers earthward, to be forever lodged in your carpet? Forever, that is, until July 12th when you step on one barefoot? Do you fear the heat from its LED lights will turn your tree into a torch? Then it’s time to wrap it in its winding-cloth (you don’t want to track needles) and give it an appropriate sendoff. And by appropriate I mean sending it off in an ecologically sensitive manner.

Time to turn that brown back to green. Here’s what to do – and what not to do.

Container and garden arrangement 
You’ll probably want to do this outdoors and keep it there because the tree could start deteriorating rather quickly at this point but if the needles are still green, your pine and fir branches can have a second life in a container or garden arrangement. If the soil is frozen you may need some warm water to loosen it up enough to poke in the tree branches. Mix with twigs and dried flowers.

When I said send it on its way I didn’t mean on a pyre to Valhalla. Most wood burning fireplaces create soot and smoke and provide inefficient heating. Firepits are lousy for cooking. Face it; fire is for effect only. However, if you normally keep to a low carbon footprint, an occasional celebratory burn should not be cause for guilt.

Firs and pines are highly resinous softwoods; being softwoods they burn cool and quick making them useless as fireplace logs; being resinous they burn dirty, clogging up your flue with creosote. I once helped a friend clear his land of trees damaged by one of Oklahoma’s frequent ice storms. One of the trees was a large fir. My chainsaw sliced through the soft trunk with absolutely no resistance and after just a few minutes the fresh cut was covered with sticky beads of sap which glinted lustrously in the January sun. Thanks to rapidly expanding sap pockets, even a dried pine log, when burned, will sound more 4th of July then December 25th - frighteningly so. BTW - I learned about this burning bit first-hand and because I did you don’t have to. About the only thing these trees may be good for is kindling. The skinny: Cut off all the needles and branches; use for mulch. Cut the trunk into one foot lengths and store off the ground in a dry place until the next heating season at which time they should be dry enough to be cut up and used sparingly, repeat sparingly, as starter wood for your fire. On the plus side, the toxic fumes do produce a pleasant piney smell.

Fish sanctuary 
Reefs, mangrove swamps and marches provide protective habitats for free. So does a pine tree weighted down with a concrete block and dumped into your lake. You don’t have your own lake? What a piker!

Pigeon barrier 
Yes, there is a place in our urban environment for the Rock Dove, Columbia livia, aka the common pigeon, but their approachability has given the people who feed them the false impression that pigeons think they are special. They aren’t. They’ve become as manipulative as dogs and cats and thanks to being coddled and otherwise overfed, just like dogs and cats, there are now just too damn many of them.

Setting out feed for the sparrows, finches, jays, chickadees, cardinals and other non-snow birds who, like us, brave our cold snowy winters, is often an invitation to the hoards of pigeons who will swoop down en masse for yet another free meal and with their superior numbers and incessant waddling will crowd out the skittish, intended recipients. Solution: Lay out your pine tree in your lot. Sprinkle with birdseed. You can even stand the tree upright and hang a feeder or seed-encrusted suet deep within its branches. Pigeons won’t venture amongst tightly spaced branches but other birds will. Plus, pigeon feet are adapted to walking on flat surfaces and the small branches of pines do not afford them a decent grip. Aside from being a pigeon barrier the tree will also provide cover and shelter for the smaller birds. Once the tree starts disintegrating it can be mulched.

Salt barrier 
Pine branches layered on a parkway protect tender plants from the salt spray of cars passing on an adjoining street. Remove in the spring, wash and mulch.

Mushroom substrate 
I’ve only grown mushrooms – an easy to cultivate shitake - from a sterilized, compressed sawdust “log”. If you want to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms from an actual log your best substrates are non-aromatic hardwoods. Your pine is neither. The problem with using a softwood substrate is not a deal breaker; hardwoods are just preferred because they will outlast softwoods in their fungi production cycle, yielding a larger crop. However, it seems (and I’m guessing here) that the antibacterial properties of aromatic pine oils limit the number of fungi species that are able to grow on and in them.

Although there is a pine mushroom, Tricholoma magnivelare or the American matsutake, a highly prized edible gourmet item mostly exported to Japan and Korea, it only grows in the soil at the base of pine trees and (so far) only in the wild.

There are few cultivatable fungi species that prefer conifers; Ganoderma tsugae is one. As the name implies it’s often found on hemlocks. The uses of the fruit of the G. tsugae are mostly interchangeable with the better known G. lucidum, which are mostly found on maples. G. lucidum, aka the Lingzhi mushroom, aka the Reishi mushroom and aka the "mushroom of immortality", as the last moniker implies, is mostly used medicinally and mostly in the form of a dried powder for tea. An agar culture is available from http://www.mushroompeople.com and other venders.

A final stumbling block for your pine: since you didn’t have complete control over your pine following its initial cut, you don’t know what other organisms your pine log has come into contact with. An incident as simple as your log touching dirt can infuse it with enough living, i.e. competing, organisms to halt any growth of your freshly inoculated log.

If all this mycology talk has you intrigued I highly recommend “Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms” by Paul Stamets.
Good luck!



A little too ambitious for you? Then let someone else do the mulching.
If you can lug your tree to a nearby park, let the city do it: the Chicago Dept of Environment annual Holiday Tree Recycling Program. Call 311 or go to http://egov.cityofchicago.org/ for more info and other drop off points. You’ll need to strip your tree of all lights, tinsel, etc. Drop it off at a park listed below from Friday, January 1 thru Sunday, January 17 to be chipped and turned into mulch. Free mulch, which will be available on a limited basis, will be available to residents for pick up beginning Friday, January 8.

Clark Park, 3400 N. Rockwell St.
Garfield Park,100 N. Central Park Ave.
Grant Park, 900 S. Columbus Dr.
Humboldt Park Boathouse,1369 N. Sacramento Ave.
Kelvyn Park, 4438 W. Wrightwood Ave.
Lincoln Park, Cannon Dr. at Fullerton Ave.(Parking lot east of Cannon Dr.)
Margate Park, 4921 N. Marine Dr.
North Park Village, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd. 

If even that is too ambitious for you or you’re unable to lug your tree around then Do The Right Thing – Recycle, for a $15 tax deductible donation, will pick your tree up from your property and deliver it to a recycler for mulching. You’ll still have to remove all the ornaments though. For an extra $5 they will wrap the tree and remove it from your home.  Email them at dotherightthing_recycle@yahoo.com or call 773.213.6271.

What did I miss? You tell me.

Since pines are softwoods they will disintegrate relatively quickly if given a head start. Hack off the branches, cut the trunk into the smallest pieces possible and add to the compost heap or spread in appropriate places in your garden. One alternative for the trunk is as a soil retaining wall in raised bed gardens.


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