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Repurposing Your Old “Live” Christmas Tree to Benefit Wildlife

Christmas Tree drop-off location in Pickens County. Susan Lunt, ©2021, Clemson University

Christmas Tree drop-off location in Pickens County.
Susan Lunt, ©2021, Clemson University

After the holiday season, many residents are left wondering what can be done with their discarded “live” Christmas tree. There are several options to repurpose your trees to benefit wildlife, your yard, and even your pond.

The first step in repurposing your Christmas tree is to remove tinsel, ornaments, or any other synthetic materials that have been applied to the tree. The recommendations in this factsheet do not apply to artificial trees; these trees are made of plastic and metal, which do not decompose in a way that benefits wildlife and can potentially cause harm to the local ecology.

In the Yard

Living habitats require food, water, and shelter. Adding an old Christmas tree to your yard or pond will enhance the natural environment by complementing an existing habitat and adding several benefits:

  • Organic matter is added to the land through decomposition, providing additional nutrients in the soil, which help to enhance plant growth and benefit wildlife.
  • Provide shelter and shade, critical components to healthy habitats.
  • Help the soils beneath it retain water: increased shade reduces the amount of water evaporating from the soil.
  • Reduce erosion by slowing down water movement (either by planting the tree or laying the entire tree on the ground)

Re-Plant or Intact

If your tree still has roots and a bulb, it may be possible to re-plant it as a live tree. To determine if the tree will thrive in the chosen site conditions, assure it is the right plant for the right place. HGIC 1750, Selecting A Christmas Tree, provides information on the most commonly found trees at farms in South Carolina. Be aware that not all the trees at a farm are suitable to grow in South Carolina; some have been transported from out of the region. Of the trees listed from the previously mentioned factsheet, these trees have the best chance of flourishing in South Carolina: Arizona Cypress (Blue Ice, Carolina Sapphire, and Clemson Greenspire), Deodar Cedar, Eastern Red Cedar, Pine (Eastern White, Scotch, and Virginia), Leyland Cypress, and Murray Cypress. Information regarding the best growing conditions for each species above can be found on the Carolina Yards Plant Database, HGIC 1020, Pine, and United States Department of Agriculture. For more information on best tree planting practices, please refer to HGIC 1001, Planting Trees Correctly.

A tree without roots can still be planted to attract wildlife, but do not expect it to grow. A standing dead tree, called a snag, can provide habitat or food to many wildlife species, from raccoons and squirrels to birds and beneficial insects and everything in-between. The tree with or without the bulb and roots can be utilized as a habitat for organisms both on land and in water. To make the repurposed tree more attractive to wildlife, embellish the tree with pinecones coated in peanut butter; or hang suet, corn, or birdseed ornaments made with natural materials. The snag should be planted far away from vehicles or play areas for children and pets as the decomposing tree will eventually fall.

Laying a dead tree on the ground will deliver many of the same benefits as planting will. Drilling holes in the tree and placing it directly on its side will speed up the decomposition process. A few items to remember when placing the tree:

  • Do not place the tree atop or in the proximity of a septic system; trees should be planted as far away from the septic system as they are tall at maturity.
  • Do not place the tree in or near structures that could result in a fire hazard; consider locating the tree in an area that is not used regularly, such as along a fence line.
  • Do not place the tree where it could negatively impact stormwater runoff resulting in localized flooding.

Mulch or Compost

A tree can also be shredded to create mulch by using a woodchipper or other heavy equipment, which may not be readily available. Mulch can also be used in your compost pile as an additional form of organic material. For more information, please refer to HGIC 1600, Composting. If you opt to mulch your tree, check with your local government agencies, as many have community mulch centers that will collect trees and create mulch for free for you or others in your community to pick up at a later date. If you need mulch, contact your local government agency as a resource to guide you to pick up locations. Mulch discourages weed growth and helps with moisture and nutrient retention, temperature control, erosion reduction, and aesthetics. For additional information on the benefits of mulch, please refer to HGIC 1604, Mulch.

In the Water

With special considerations covered in this factsheet and permission from the pond owner, you can recycle your Christmas tree by sinking it to create fish habitat, often called a fish structure. In water, a tree can become a food source – as it decomposes, algae will populate and attract aquatic insects, which benefits the food web. Trees in ponds also provide a sanctuary and protective structure, increasing fish production and the number of fish attracted to the location. Creating a habitat for fish is beneficial for anglers or anyone who wants a healthy pond ecosystem.

Considerations and requirements: Sinking old Christmas trees is not for every pond. There are a few requirements and considerations to make before deciding to sink a tree or a group of trees into a pond.

Pond type: Stormwater ponds that receive runoff in order to treat the water before it reaches rivers and streams are not designed for fish structures. They not only reduce the amount of water the pond can hold, but can also add nutrients into an already nutrient-rich environment and lead to algal blooms. Recreational fishing ponds are ideal candidates; however, algae and other aquatic plant growth must be under control before sinking the tree. As the tree decomposes, it will add nutrients into the water and use available dissolved oxygen, which can exacerbate any existing pond weed issues. Finally, permission must be granted from the pond owner if it is not owned by the one installing the fish structure.

Design and Implementation: Avoid high traffic areas such as access points. The trees should not be placed in areas with significant boat traffic or areas where people or pets may swim. Consider placing a visible marker in the area to warn visitors of a potential underwater hazard. Know the type of fish you want to attract and where other attractors are located. Trees sunk in areas with a mucky or muddy bottom may sink into the substrate over time; rocky or sandy bottoms will be more stable. Charles E. Basset conducted a study on fish use of habitat structures and found that location and depth play an important part in fish attraction.

Depth and Spacing Recommendations

Small Ponds:

  • When sinking multiple trees, small groups of 3-4 trees at varying depths are most effective.
  • The depth can vary from 6 – 10 feet.
  • Structures placed less than 6 feet deep can run the risk of getting too warm.
Recommended strategy for placing evergreen trees in ponds in reservoirs. Used with Permission of Ohio State University

Recommended strategy for placing evergreen trees in ponds in reservoirs.
Used with Permission of Ohio State University

Large Ponds and Reservoirs:

  • When sinking multiple trees, long lines of small groups are more beneficial. (See figure 2)
  • Deeper ponds and lakes allow for deeper trees, 10-20 feet, but take care not to place them too deep.
  • Water deeper than 20 feet runs the risk of not having enough oxygen for fish to thrive.

Public Land Notice: SCDNR asks the public not to add their own fish structures in publicly managed lakes; in some lakes it is against the law without a permit. Instead, donate trees to identified sites located across the state to be placed by SCDNR biologists. Contact your local regional SCDNR office to find a location near you.

Attachment of concrete blocks to evergreen trees. Used with Permission of Ohio State University

Attachment of concrete blocks to evergreen trees.
Used with Permission of Ohio State University

How to Sink a Tree: Always check with your local government agencies for locations, permissions, allowed uses, and any fees. If you do not have plans for your tree, consider donating it so others can take advantage of this resource and use it to benefit wildlife.

Why Weigh Down the Tree

  • A floating tree can be a swimming or boating hazard
  • Weighted trees resist movement from wind/shifting currents
  • Easily located to make fishing easier

Resources:

  1. HGIC 1750, Selecting A Christmas Tree
  2. Carolina Yards Plant Database
  3. HGIC 1020, Pine
  4. United States Department of Agriculture
  5. HGIC 1001, Planting Trees Correctly
  6. HGIC 1600, Composting
  7. HGIC 1604, Mulch
  8. Placing Artificial Fish Attractors in Ponds and Reservoirs
  9. https://www.dnr.sc.gov/admin/regions.html

Citations:

Bassett, Charles E. “Use and Evaluation of Fish Habitat Structures in Lakes of the Eastern United States by the USDA Forest Service.” Bulletin of Marine Science, vol. 55, Sept. 1994, pp. 1137–1148.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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