How to Care for a Christmas Tree

10 ideas to recycle your tree after the holidays!

November 16, 2020
Christmas Tree

Here’s how to keep your Christmas tree fresh. Remember, watering is critical! A freshly cut tree can consume a gallon of water in 24 hours! See our expert tips—plus 10 ideas on how to recycle that tree after the holidays.

Buying the Christmas Tree

  • If possible, buy a freshly cut tree from a reputable nursery or cut your own (with the land owner’s permission). Many of the trees for sale were cut weeks before.
    • Freshly cut Christmas trees are farmed specifically for their purpose and support local agriculture. 
  • If you’re buying a tree that can be replanted later, keep in mind that a very small percentage of these trees survive after being indoors in the winter. To give them the best chance of survival:
    • Leave in house a MINIMUM of five days.
    • Give them 2 to 3 days to adjust by letting them sit (in water) in a garage or “in-between” transitional spot before and after they are in the home.
  • The top-selling Christmas trees, as reported by growers across the United States, are the Scotch pine, Douglas fir, white pine, and balsam fir, in that order.
  • If there are lots of needles on the ground around the trees, go elsewhere.
  • To check a tree’s freshness, pull your hand toward you along the branch. Needles should not fall off.
  • If you want to keep your Christmas tree potted and in the house after Christmas, a Norfolk Island pine would be the best choice—they are commonly kept as houseplants. Check with a local florist or nursery in your area.


Caring for Your Christmas Tree

  • When you bring your tree home, saw a couple inches off the bottom of the trunk before setting in water. When trees are cut, pitch oozes out and seals the pores. By sawing off the base, you will open up the pores, and the tree will be able to absorb water.
  • Watering is critical. A freshly-cut tree can consume a gallon of water in 24 hours!
    • Fill the tree stand with water and keep it filled.
    • Never let the water level go below the tree’s base.
  • Indoors, keep the tree away from heating ducts or other heat sources. In fact, the lower the temperature, the better the tree will do.
  • One old Vermonter we knew always packed his tree stand with well-watered soil and planted the tree in the mixture. The soil should be kept wet.
  • Some people add aspirin, Sprite, or sugar to the water; we can’t say whether these actually help. Again, water is the vital element.
  • See more advice for keeping your Christmas tree fresh.


10 Ways to Recyle a Real Christmas Tree

Live biodegradble Christmas trees can be turned into mulch. Most cities have recycling events or even curbside pickup during the weeks after Christmas. All you do is donate the tree and they’ll shred it down to natural mulch to take home and use in your garden. Check with your city government about tree pickup or dropoff.

Besides curbside pick up, there are many DIY ways to recyle a tree.

  1. Use the branches and pine needles as mulch in the garden to provide your garden with insulation and moisture throughout the winter (you can even add on top of snow). Break off the needles, cut the branches into small, 1 or 2-inch pieces, and use as mulch.
  2. Or, you can entire limbs to cover your garden beds, which reduces frost heaves by insulating sensitive plants, such as roses. Use boughs from your tree to shade broad-leaved evergreen shrubs, insulate perennials, or protect against frost and snow.
  3. Your tree can also make an excellent base for your compost pile. For the best results, don’t include the needles, which can slow down the disintegration process. Instead, use the needles for mulch. Then, cut the branches into small pieces so that they turn into compost faster.
  4. Saw the trunk into several pieces, after trimming off the branches. This will make an aromatic Yule fire in your fireplace next Christmas Eve. Bundle up the branches as firewood, too. Note: The wood must have time to dry. Do not throw the live branches into your indoor fireplace as it will cause sparks and is a fire hazard.
  5. Prop up your old tree near your bird feeder as a staging area for small birds, such as chickadees and finches.
  6. Or, create a living bird feeder. String your tree with fresh  orange slices, popcorn, cranberries, homemade suet, and other bird-friendly goodies, and put it in a sheltered location.  Eventually (within a year) the branches will become brittle and you can break the tree apart by hand or chip it in a chipper.
  7. Who doesn’t love the scent of pine trees? Pluck out the pine needles and either add to a bowl of potpourri for a natural air freshener or use as stuffing for small fragrance pillows. Sew scraps of fabric together and fill them with the needles to make fragrant balsam sachets to freshen drawers and closets.
  8. Another use for your pine needles is to make them into tea. It’s as easy as steeping pine needles in boiling water, and then straining it into cups to drink.
  9. If you’re creative, use the trunk and branches to make cool wood coasters, candleholders or other crafty items.
  10. Some Fish and Game Department use recycled Christmas Trees to make fish-friendly habitats. Some lake bottoms are void of the natural structures that fish like to hide in. You can also sink old trees in their pond, where they make cozy areas for fish and tadpoles to live, sleep, lay eggs, and find food.

Another reader says, “In Louisiana, we use old trees to bait fishing holes with. Just anchor them in a good location and the fish will use it for cover, especially bream and white perch. Go back in the spring and usually the fish will be in it or near it.”


Replanting a Live Tree

Sometimes we’re asked about replanting a live tree. First, you can only replant trees that came with a living root ball (that hasn’t been cut or damaged). Second, the tree can’t be dried out; most Christmas trees will only last a week (at the most) indoors in heated home. But if you kept the tree in a cool area or near a window, it could be worth a try.

With those caveats in mind, you’ll want to plant immediately after Christmas. If you’re in a cold climate and the ground isn’t prime for planting, mulch the tree and set it aside in a cold, sheltered area until the temperature warms up. In the meantime, water the tree every few weeks.

Learn More

Where did the tradition of Christmas trees come from? Read about the origins of popular Christmas traditions here



Reader Comments

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Recycling Christmas Trees

Our county has recycled the trees for 30 years, the way the article suggests. Game and Fish weigh them down and place them on the ice in our reservoirs and when it melts in the Spring they sink and make a perfect habitat.

Indiana christmas

There is a local exotic feline rescue center that saves large cats from all over the country. There are tigers, lions, bobcats, lynx, etc. saved from illegal ownership, failed zoos and other not humane conditions. The cats LOVE the old Christmas trees and if you donate you get a free tour! And get to see them playing in the snow. It’s a great organization!

Christmas tree re-use

When I lived in state of Louisiana there was a program after the holidays where you could leave your used live tree outside near your trash pick-up area and it would be donated to an organization that would airlift the trees to south Louisiana and drop them in the disappearing marshlands in attempt to help rebuild the landscape.

Christmas Tree

Years ago my family went to my Aunt's in NJ for Christmas. They had a very large weeping willow out front that smothered the whole front lawn. It was removed and a large hole was left. After Christmas the 5 ft tree from the celebration was stuck in the hole. We visit years later. I commented on the beautiful 20 foot Christmas tree in the front and my Aunt said that was the tree from 10 years ago. How wonderful that it took root and thrived!!

Christmas Tree

Such a warm and touching memory from Robert Davis. It rekindles my appreciation for family roots, and growth.

Water fresh cut Christmas tree

Water in stand first couple of days after being cut then ran out for a day before noticed.
Does bottom have to be cut again or will it soak up anymore water?

Tree Water

The Editors's picture

Hi, Jean: It should still take water OK, but as the saying goes, there’s only one way to find out! Put some water in and see if the level goes down. If not, cut again. Whatever you do, have a Merry Christmas!

"couple inches off the bottom" Really - so much?

"couple inches off the bottom" Really - so much? The trees available around here were cutoff so far above the ground to begin with, that removing an inch or two of trunk requires the removal of the lowest branch just to get the trunk into any available holder. So much then for the nice symmetrical tree.

Wouldn't a half inch, as suggested elsewhere, be just as effective? Another thought, since the outer layers absorb the most water, why not just shave say a 1/4" off the entire bottom and cut just the outer layers an additional 1/4 inch?

cutting trunk

The Editors's picture

A ¼-inch off the entire bottom is perfectly fine.  We were just being casual about it, but you do not need a full two inches, especially given reasons such as yours.

Thank you or the handy

Thank you or the handy reference. Have not had a real tree in the house since 2000 or so ! Forgot how heavenly they smell. Trunk had been trimmed fresh just before I bought it, will do the boiling water thing to reopen the sap clogged spots. Will add sugar to the water as Momma used to ( I remembered after reading it here LOL ). I have never had a tree with quite this sweet smell. It has shorter semi soft needles but not as short and firm as a fir. Best i can describe the smell is "light fruity pine" . All the tags were goofed up where i bought it, could this be a Scotch Pine?

Help can we boil evergreen

Help can we boil evergreen branches without runing the pot and were doing it for smell please need help thanks

Hi Kylee, It's best to use a

The Editors's picture

Hi Kylee,
It's best to use a pot that you are not going to use for food later. The sap from the evergreens may stain the inside of the pot. 

I wondered if you would be

I wondered if you would be able to help me with a tree a purchased two years ago! The tree was planted when it was around 2 foot tall. It has been growing perfectly for the last two years, but recently it began to go brown. It seems to have recovered being around 7 foot tall however it is still brown in some parts. I found a lot of bugs on it and sprayed it I think this was the cause of the tree becoming sick. Can the tree fully recover and what care advice would you give, it seems to be the lower part of the tree that is struggling to recover. Many Thanks Mark

Deer eat evergreen trees in

Deer eat evergreen trees in the winter months when food is high as they can reach.

My friend gave me our tree

My friend gave me our tree aNd it came prepared with the base that held it up and the water stand. Am I supposed to take off the wood keeping it up and the water stand to cut it freshly or do I just begin to water it.

Did your friend already saw

The Editors's picture

Did your friend already saw off the bottom? This needs to be done to allow the tree to take in water or it won't keep as long.

Yes she did saw it off but a

Yes she did saw it off but a long time ago. She has had the tree at her house for over a week and barely brought it over when I came back from college. I tried sawing it off but it's really hard due to the way the tree is set up in order for it to stand. Is it okay if I just try to saw a bit of the sides?

Dont take off outer layers as

Dont take off outer layers as they absorb the most water...saw about an inch or 2 off the bottom and keep your stand full off water

Does it help extend the

Does it help extend the Christmas tree life if I keep the netting on (the way it is transported)? It is currently in a totally shaded area, in water but not sure if I should remove the netting. Thank you for any input.

The netting doesn't extend

The Editors's picture

The netting doesn't extend the life of the tree. Remove the netting so that the tree can relax before you decorate it.

I hope this question was a

I hope this question was a joke

After we take the tree down,

After we take the tree down, my husband sets it outside near one of the bird feeders.

Then in the spring he removes the branches and bark, and makes a walking stick out of the trunk as a gift to a loved one whose initials he has carved into the wood.

Sure, pine isn't the sturdiest material for a walking stick, but the one he gave me ten years ago is doing just fine.

Naturally, knowing how the trunk will be used affects the scoping-out process in December when we cut the tree down as the trunk should be as straight as possible!

Thanks so much for tips on a

Thanks so much for tips on a fresh Christmas tree...this is my second year in a long time using a fresh tree and I Love it...forgot how wonderful they are! kathy

Tree Care: After cutting the

Tree Care: After cutting the inch or two off the trunk and place tree in stand, pour boiling water into the container for the first fill and then water regularly.

Ohhhh yeah put some sulfuric

Ohhhh yeah put some sulfuric acid in there too....tree will love

Actually.... pouring boiling

Actually.... pouring boiling water into the stand on the first watering opens up the base and helps to move the sap out of the way.... You extend the life of the tree doing this! Sulfuric acid will kill it LOL... Ya I know, you were joking... But your DDD was sticking out while joking. =P~