Renting a really green Christmas tree

David Van Middlesworth no longer has to worry about accidentally killing his Christmas trees.

The 56-year-old entrepreneur owns an electric car and powers his Pacific Palisades home with solar panels. The idea of cutting down a tree each year for Christmas and then discarding it at the end of the season always grated on him.

So one year, he bought a tiny potted Monterey pine, hoping it would be his family's holiday tree for years to come. But the little tree died just a couple of months before the next Christmas.

"I was proud of the fact that we were doing something environmentally correct, keeping a tree alive instead of killing one, and then having it die anyway was kind of not fun," Van Middlesworth said.

Rather than repeat the experience, the family bought cut trees from a local Boy Scouts lot.

Then a Redondo Beach start-up company offered them a solution that allowed them to enjoy Christmas guilt-free.

The Living Christmas Co., founded by landscape architect Scott "Scotty Claus" Martin in 2008, rents outs live potted holiday trees to households in the South Bay and Los Angeles area. Customers can choose from a range of trees, including 2-foot baby sequoias, hardy blue cedars and fragrant 7-foot Monterey pines. The rentals cost between $25 and $125, plus delivery charges of $30 to $60.

The company delivers the trees, picks them up and returns the potted plants to their nursery in Carson. And it can bring back the same tree to your home the following Christmas. It's not just a tree company; it's an adoption service.

Two years ago, Van Middlesworth's daughter, Kathie, then 9, climbed onto the bed of the delivery truck and picked out a 4-foot Aleppo pine to go alongside the larger Monterey her parents had chosen. She decorated it with teddy bears in Santa hats and angels made of beads and macaroni.

When it came time to return it, Kathie stripped off the decorations and tied pink plastic tape around the tree and labeled it with her name. It came back the next year a foot taller. It returned for a third Christmas on Tuesday.

"My daughter has basically asked every day since Thanksgiving, 'When's the tree coming?'" Van Middlesworth said.

Martin hopes his company will popularize a new holiday tradition and eventually go national.

The Van Middlesworths were the company's first family to "adopt" a tree. Last year, the company began giving customers the option to name their trees and reserve them for the next year, using a barcode-based system. About 80 customers requested to adopt their trees last year.

Each day now, Martin's delivery "elves" and "reindeer," clad in colorful felt hats and bearing monikers such as "Johnny Dasher" and "Frosty Flores," load the trees onto delivery trucks in a lot in Lomita and drop them off at businesses and homes.

Next month, the workers will pick the trees up and return them to the nursery, on the site of a former Shell Oil refinery.

The company is not yet turning a profit, but Martin said business has grown each year. In the first year, they distributed about 120 trees, mostly donated to nonprofit organizations as a marketing strategy. The next year, the elves delivered 650 trees. This year, Martin said, he expects to rent about 1,000 trees to households and businesses.

Ever since he was a teenager delivering Christmas trees as a seasonal job, Martin said he saw a disconnect between the spirit of the holiday and the waste that accompanies it.

"How, on one hand can something mean new hope, new joy, new love, and on the other hand be so easily discarded? And is that really Christmas?" he said.

The company's mission is not just to be sustainable but "regenerative," he said. Beyond saving trees, that means using all recyclable materials, running delivery trucks on biodiesel and employing adults with disabilities to maintain the trees around the year.

In the 2009 Christmas season, U.S. households bought 28.2 million real and 11.7 million artificial conifers, according to a survey by the National Christmas Tree Assn.

The group's spokesman, Rick Dungey, said other companies are running tree rental programs similar to that offered by The Living Christmas Co., although he was unsure whether others offered the option to "adopt" a tree.

"I think the trend, really, it represents, is that people are recognizing they have options," he said, "and there are a lot of products and services available."

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