"Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches," sing the carolers during the holiday season. But after a week or two indoors, the once green and fragrant tree is turning brown, shedding needles and ready to be relegated to the trash heap.
If you're resolving to be more environmentally aware in the new year, what you do with your tree can be your first good deed. In the environmentally conscious '90s, a discarded Christmas tree doesn't always end up in a landfill. Cities throughout Orange County have started recycling programs for cut Christmas trees.
Three years ago, the city of Orange was the first in the county to implement a curbside Christmas tree recycling program.
"Since we started this, we've diverted 100 tons of Christmas trees from landfills each year," said Nanci Gee, Recycling Coordinator for Orange. "There are 26,000 households in this city, and we recycle more than 23,000 Christmas trees each year."
The city contracts with a company that chips and mulches the trees during the pickup period, which this time is Monday through Jan. 11, except the New Year's Day holiday.
Residents place their trees at curbside on scheduled trash pickup days. The trees must have all decorations, tinsel, stands and nails removed. Flocked trees cannot be accepted because the flocking will clog the chipping machines. Once the trees are chipped, the city uses the resulting material as soil amendment at the site of a future park.
This year, Orange is expanding the curbside recycling program to include condominiums and apartment buildings.
The county is sponsoring a recycling program on Jan. 2 and 3 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. People can bring their Christmas trees to drop-off sites in Irvine and Laguna Niguel and watch as their trees are chipped into mulch. You can bring bags to take some home for use in your garden. The sites are: Mason Park, 18712 University Drive, Irvine; and Laguna Niguel Regional Park, 28241 La Paz Road, Laguna Niguel.
All fresh mulch from Christmas trees should be composted first to leach out the naturally occurring toxic materials that could otherwise harm your lawns or gardens. Add them to a compost pile or bin before spreading in the garden. If you don't have a composter, place the mulch on a cement or gravel surface, and soak thoroughly to leach out the toxins before applying to your garden.
Santa Ana is another city with a tree recycling program. Residents can bring their trees (remove all tree stands, nails and decorations first) on Jan. 9 to either Alona Park, 1817 W. 21st St., or the City Yard, 730 E. Warner Ave. Trees will be chipped from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and residents can have the resulting mulch free if they bring bags.
Other cities with drop-off recycling programs are Buena Park, Fullerton, La Habra, Laguna Beach and Mission Viejo.
If you don't have curbside service, Taormina Industries, at 1131 N. Blue Gum St. in Anaheim, will accept your used tree.
Commercial stores also participate in recycling efforts. Ikea Stores is credited with being the first company worldwide to start a Christmas tree recycling program; it began in the 1970s in Austria.
Ikea leases cut trees to customers who pay a $20 leasing fee for a Douglas fir five to seven feet high. After the holidays, customers return their trees (stripped of all decorations) to Ikea for a $10 refund and as much mulch as they can transport.
"The program has been very well received, and this year all five Ikea stores sold out 12,000 trees in mid-December," said Gail Blumenthal of Ikea.
(Only Ikea customers can return their trees for the refund and mulch.)
If you bought a living Christmas tree, here are two options:
* You can keep the tree outdoors in a container during the year, then bring it inside next Christmas.
"Trees can live for years in pots if they receive proper moisture, fertilizer and sunlight," said Suzy Sakaske of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar.
A few precautions must be taken first. Like any plant that's been indoors, a Christmas tree must be acclimatized to outdoor sun and temperatures. Horticulturists call this "hardening off."
"Acclimatizing trees to the outdoors is the key to successfully growing living Christmas trees," says Phil Miller of Roger's Gardens. "When people complain that their living Christmas tree died, that's usually the reason."
Last year, Miller planted his Christmas tree in his front yard. The five-gallon-size star pine grew to six feet this year and could eventually reach a height of 50 feet or more. Last summer, Miller planted impatiens in front of the tree. During the Christmas season, he replaced the impatiens with pots of poinsettias.
For success with your living tree, begin by placing the tree in a sheltered spot where it receives only morning sun for a week to 10 days. Gradually move it to where it gets more sun. After several weeks, you can place it in full sun. Keep the soil moist but not soggy.
"You can tell if the tree needs water if the container blows over in a wind, or in a small pot if you can lift it," Sakaske added.
Fertilize regularly with an all-purpose fertilizer. Sakaske recommends a time-release fertilizer.
In spring, repot to the next larger size container. In spring and summer, shear, thin and shape the tree so it retains the traditional Christmas tree form.
If you want to plant your tree in your garden, remember that these fir and pine trees will eventually reach 40, 50 or even 100 feet in height.
* You may be able to donate the living tree to a parks and recreation department for planting in a municipal park.
The Boy Scouts have a pilot program in which they take donated living trees and plant them in Southern California cities. The program is sponsored by the Western Los Angeles City Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Living trees will be collected at the Park One Distribution Center at the Los Angeles International Airport, 6351 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles. For details, call (818) 784-4272.