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A Growing Tradition : Christmas: Live trees are becoming the symbol of choice for people concerned about the environment.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For four years, Janet Essick of Ojai has bought a living Christmas tree and planted it in her yard after the holidays. She can’t bear the thought of buying a cut tree.

“It’s so wasteful,” she said Wednesday as she shopped for a new tree. “It’s terrible to cut a tree, decorate it for two weeks and then throw it out. It goes against my grain.”

She is not alone. Several nurseries in Ventura County report a growing interest in live Christmas trees in recent years. And a Thousand Oaks plant-leasing business has taken the concept a step further this season. Plant Manning offers large, living Christmas trees for rent.

It’s not cheap. The one-month rental fee runs $95 to $125 for trees that range from 6 to 11 feet. But the company delivers, sets up and removes the tree--no easy feat since they weigh up to 500 pounds. And the trees are beauties, customers report.

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“I scoured the nation for the best-looking trees,” owner Eric Manning said. His search took him to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, where he found spruce trees growing in Christmas tree lots. He and his partner, Mark Grant, dug up 100 live trees and brought them back to rent. They have eight trees left.

They will retrieve the trees after the holidays, care for them during the year and rent them out next year, possibly to the same customers, Manning said. About two-thirds of his customers are residents, and the rest are businesses.

“They are all open to new ideas--doing something good for trees,” he said. “Mark sees cut trees going the way of leaded gas. He sees a swing toward live trees. I don’t envision quite that extreme of a cultural revolution.”

But it was ecology, as well as convenience, that prompted Diane Keller to rent two big trees from Manning earlier this month for her large Westlake Village home.

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“You’re getting a living thing that produces oxygen, and that’s better for the environment,” Keller said. “You’re not killing a tree, or buying one that’s already half dead.”

Some local nursery operators say that interest in buying a living Christmas tree has risen in recent years because of concerns about the environment.

“They feel bad about cutting down trees,” said Robert Laurye, co-owner of Glasshouse, a nursery in Oxnard. “People look at living trees and feel good. Last year, we sold out. This year is going pretty good.”

But people still overwhelmingly prefer to buy cut trees. Last year, about 90,000 Christmas trees were tossed out after the holidays in Ventura County, according to county officials.

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Before last year, the discarded trees would have clogged already overburdened landfills. But last Christmas, more than half of those trees were recycled into wood chips, thanks to a new countywide program. The Ventura Countywide Recycling Consortium, a joint effort by city and county recycling officials and businesses, provides curbside collection or drop-off sites for trees discarded after Christmas.

Recycling may soften the environmental blow of cutting trees, but buyers see other benefits to the cut trees. They are generally cheaper, bigger, weigh less and are easier to transport.

At the Green Thumb International nursery in Ventura, living trees start at $15 for a three-foot tree and go up to $100 for a six-foot tree. Several varieties do well in Ventura County, nursery manager Karl Dobler said. He recommends Monterey pine, Aleppo pine, Colorado spruce, giant sequoia, Norfolk Island pine and Alberta spruce.

Selling live Christmas trees isn’t a novelty for most nurseries. Some operators even said the demand wasn’t much greater this year. “You just hear a lot more about it now,” Dobler said. But others said sales were up considerably.

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“We’ve always sold some,” said Max Waggoner, manager of Mound Garden Center in Ventura. “But the demand has not been as great as it is presently.”

Young families especially seem to like them, he said. But apartment dwellers also buy them, then keep them on their patios or give them away.

He said buyers are advised to keep the live trees indoors no more than two weeks, and to water them, even mist them, to prevent drying. He recommends not using lights, or using tiny ones with low voltage.

Some varieties, such as Colorado spruce, he said, grow slowly enough to keep in a large pot on the patio for three or four years and can be brought in each Christmas.

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Vi and Tom Rowen of Camarillo have used the same live Christmas tree for 10 years. The spruce was three feet tall when they bought it. Now six feet tall, it sits in a whiskey keg on the patio. It should be planted soon, so the Rowens were shopping Wednesday for another tree.

“It’s an ongoing thing, rather than just disposing of it,” Vi Rowen said.

Six Christmases ago, Jim Holmes of Ventura bought a live Monterey pine and planted it in his yard after the holidays. Now it is 50 feet tall. He was shopping Wednesday for his fourth live tree.

“I like the idea of a living Christmas tree,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of cutting trees, having them a week and then tossing them out.”

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