The debate between artificial and farmed trees for the holidays

little-girl-running-through-christmas-tree-farm Photo by Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

The whole family, especially Cousin Margaret, has been warned: no holiday-dinner arguments about American politics, hockey rivalries, or Jordan Peterson’s eating habits. You may want to ban discussing the Christmas tree too, especially whether real or artificial trees are more environmentally virtuous.

The answer is: it depends. Artificial trees are reusable; keep one for at least five years and it’s probably using fewer resources overall, says a study commissioned by the American Christmas Tree Association. Farmed trees, counters Forests Ontario, are a renewable resource, store carbon dioxide, and produce enough oxygen per acre to supply 18 people.   

In the debate between farmed and artificial, you can serve up a third option: cutting a small tree from your own cottage property. No, this won’t hurt the forest, says Jim Hendry, a forester with Eastern Ontario Model Forest, “If you have young conifers growing together, taking out one or two provides more space for the others. It’s actually a healthy thing to do.”

Good options for a cottage-harvested conifer include white and red pine, balsam fir, and spruce. Hendry prefers balsam fir for its conical shape, ornament-friendly branches, and needles that stay off the carpet longer, but he admits few cottage trees can compete with farmed for perfect symmetry and dense foliage. Farmed trees grow for eight to 12 years; from year three until the year before harvest, they’re carefully pruned. Farmers remove offshoots of the central stem, or “leader,” so the tree grows with one strong and straight stem. At the same time, usually in early to mid-summer, they prune the lateral branches into a cone. “Pruning cuts off some buds that would form branches,” says Hendry. “But that stimulates more buds and more foliage for a fuller tree.”

For similar results, cottagers who plan ahead can pick out trees now, and prune them annually for a future holiday season. “That’s what I do on my own half-acre lot,” Hendry says. “I always have three or four trees on the go.”

When harvesting a tree, cut it close to the ground two or three days before decorating it, Hendry recommends. Bring it into a shed or garage where you can let snow melt and trim any dead branches. Then, just before putting it into a stand, cut another inch or two off the base to help the tree take up water. Position it away from direct heat (“I actually seal off a heating vent that’s about five feet from my tree,” he says.) and keep it well watered. A tree harvested in the wild should last two to three weeks.

“Along with forestry, Christmas trees are my first love,” says Hendry, whose family started tree farming in 1955. Pruning and cutting trees that he’s nurtured, as he has for the past 30 years, combines good forest management practice with “the joy of cutting your own tree, on your own lot, with your family by your side.” Even Margaret can’t argue with that.

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