What's the Greenest Tree? It Depends

For many eco-conscious shoppers, this year's holiday wish list includes an earth-friendly Christmas tree.

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NEW YORK — For many eco-conscious shoppers, this year's holiday wish list includes an earth-friendly Christmas tree. Figuring out what that is, however, isn't easy.

Which is "greener" - a real tree or an artificial one? One that's been chopped down or one that's potted?

The answers depend on where and how you live, and where the trees - real or faux - are coming from.

"Take your family out to cut a tree at a local tree farm," advises Woodrow Nelson of the Arbor Day Foundation, an organization dedicated to celebrating trees. "Those folks do a good job of replanting their crop every year. You get native trees that are local - find the nearest one, and make it a family outing."

Of course, greenest of all would be an outdoor tree: a newly planted Colorado blue spruce, say, just outside the biggest north-facing window of your home (to block winds and help lower heating bills), Nelson says. He did that at home, and instead of papier-mache bird ornaments, the tree attracts real feathered friends, as well as neighbors' compliments.

But, Nelson acknowledges, it might not be the towering holiday symbol most people are looking for.

For indoor trees, there are "green" arguments for both real and fake.

Shoppers serious about a tree's environmental impact need to trace its roots, finding out where it came from and how far it had to be shipped.

Thomas Harman, CEO and founder of the high-end artificial tree manufacturer Balsam Hill, says most faux trees in the United States come from Asia, and, yes, a lot of fuel was spent bringing them here. But, he notes, if you use the same tree for the 15 years that he expects you to, the fuel use over time would probably be less than transporting fresh trees each year.

Artificial trees also require no pesticides or herbicides, he notes.

"If I was thinking about the most green thing I could do, I'd say if you literally cut your tree yourself from a tree farm down the street, you're not using a lot of fuel and it's a very `green' thing to do," says Harman.

"But if you're buying from a tree lot, you might think twice. Most of the Christmas trees are grown in states with a lot of room - Oregon, North Carolina and New England.

"The big benefit of an artificial tree is `reuse.'"

Buyers of a faux tree should research how it is made and packaged. Harman says his are made of at least 10 percent recycled materials. Much of the plastic, copper and steel used to build them also can be recycled when the tree is discarded.

That end result is something to think about.

When the calendar flips to January, Nelson urges people to take their cut trees to a recycling center that will turn them into mulch that can be spread around local trees.

Some people, however, are turning to trees that can be replanted when their holiday duties are done. Sara Ruffin Costello, creative director of the lifestyle magazine Domino, is determined not to add her tree this year to the thousands of tree carcasses dumped on Manhattan's sidewalks. Instead, she's considering a potted tabletop tree that could be planted in a nearby park.

"I'd definitely advocate a tree with roots. Continuing the life of the tree can also be part of the holiday tradition," Costello says.

Nelson also recommends a live tree, either a potted one or the "ball-and-burlap" variety, with the roots bundled in damp burlap. He warns, though, that this alternative can be difficult and requires someone with a green thumb.

Nelson suggests asking nursery experts how to go about acclimating the tree first to indoor conditions and then again to the outdoors before planting.

"Interest in my living Christmas trees is declining - and that's by my own doing," says Barry Horst, owner of the Pleasant Valley Tree Farm in Bennington, Vermont "Doing live Christmas trees is a lot harder. You have to dig them, keep them alive, and if you don't sell them, what do you do with them?"

He adds: "It's a terrible thing for a tree. ... A tree doesn't want to be kept out of ground - it's like keeping a fish out of water. It would rather be cut in a living room, sucking up water and making kids happy."

Horst thinks the most tree-friendly practice is to buy a cut tree farmed for the holidays. Most trees at his farm take 10 years before they're ready for their moment in lights. He tries to plant 4,000 new trees each year, and harvests about 3,000.

If you want a live tree, especially in northern climates, Horst says to come back in the spring. Unlike a live Christmas tree, which will come in from the cold and then be moved out again, a spring tree is likely to remain outside and then be planted within days, greatly improving its chances of survival, he explains.

For those determined to have a living holiday tree, Horst suggests something like the potted ones that Costello has her eye on. His are kept in biodegradable pots and, if moved to a porch or garage after the holiday, should do fine in the soil once it thaws, he says.