What is the most sustainable Christmas Tree? A real, living Christmas Tree or a reusable plastic Christmas Tree?

If you celebrate Christmas, it’s likely you follow the tradition started in Germany in the 16th century and display a decorated Christmas Tree in your home. But what’s the most sustainable Christmas Tree? A reusable plastic tree or a purpose-grown real Christmas Tree?

To help answer this question I’m chatting with Steve Roberts from Adelaide Hills Christmas Trees…..

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In what areas would a purpose-grown real Christmas tree be more sustainable than a plastic variety?

Steve:

Well obviously, I’m involved in real Christmas trees so, from my point of view, most of the people I come in contact with are really, really keen on the real trees, and we just don’t talk about plastic trees. When we’re selling real Christmas trees most people just wouldn’t hear of it.

But, I think with real trees, they take about four to five years to grow. There’s an amazing number of Christmas trees, real live Christmas trees, purchased around the world, but in Australia and the plantations are huge.

So they take about four to five years to grow. They’re planted quite close together. And they’re very large plantations over hundreds of acres, so that’s got to be pretty good for the atmosphere.

You can grow them at home and you can grow them in pots. You can buy them throughout the year, and in the garden. We’ve got several in our garden so, you don’t have to have them just for Christmas time.

Laura:

Yeah, and I guess when most people are sourcing their real Christmas trees, they’d be sourcing more locally? I mean it doesn’t make sense to order one online and get it shipped from across the country. So I guess most people buying real Christmas trees they’re just grown and sources locally I can imagine?

Steve:

Yeah, yeah. All the locals. There are several places around in Adelaide to buy them from and they sort of all service their local areas. I mean, we’ve been doing for about 15 years and I reckon there’s a good number of our people that they’re regular customers. They come back. They say hi every year. It’s a very pleasurable nice type of business to be in. Everyone’s in a bit of a festive mood.

It’s a family decision. People pull up, all the car doors open, the whole family gets out, the kids get out and it’s a joint decision about. They all go and “Oh this one will do. Oh this one’s really nice, or this one’s really nice.” So it does take it quite a while for people to pick out a Christmas tree. It’s the start of Christmas.

Laura:

It is really the start of Christmas. Now, obviously we’ve got a lot of Australian listeners for these podcasts but there are many, many listeners that tune in from all around the world too. So, I know in Australia like … well what’s the species of pine? It’s a Radiata pine isn’t it?

Steve:

Yeah, it’s a Radiata pine and we get the seedlings from the Forestry down in the South East. They’re purpose grown I guess, for lots of different reasons, from wood for building, and other plantations. But yeah, we get the seedlings from them. There are different types of pine throughout the world as well. You’re right.

Laura:

Yeah so I could imagine like someone in Germany, so it might be a different type of pine tree maybe? Or maybe not? Is it pretty much Radiata pine all around the world for Christmas trees?

Steve:

No, no, Radiata pine I think it’s particular to South Australia or Australia. I think in Europe there might use a Spruce, or something like that, and again it’s very different in America and Canada as well. So, yeah, we do have a few people from overseas come and buy the trees and they always sort of think, “Oh these aren’t quite the same as the ones we like.”

People like their trees very different too. Some people like them nice and bushy. Some people like them very open branched to be able to hang things between the branches. So yes, they’ve all got their own character.

Laura:

It’s quite interesting. We’ve got for the first time in our life, we’ve got an Au pair living with is at the moment, and she’s from Germany and we were having the discussion about Christmas trees for our family this year. Now we’ve always lived remotely. For the last 30 years I’ve been in Roxby Downs and it a … you know where it is … it’s a small town in outback South Australia. Not many people travel up there so we’ve only ever really hosted a couple of family guests. So, my sister and mom came up for one Christmas. We just had a little tiny plastic tree, then. Because that wasn’t very homey. We lived there for awhile and knew we were going to move, and relocate our family, to be closer to family.

So, this is actually our first Christmas, in our new home, in Adelaide, bursting with extended family coming around. So, we’re having the decision, what are we going to do for a Christmas tree? And I said, “I really, really want to have a real Christmas tree.” And our Au pair, who’s living with us, and she’s from Germany, and she can’t get her head around people not having a real Christmas tree. Because in Germany, where she’s from, everyone has real Christmas trees. And she talks about what you say, she goes out with the family, in your trees, and she goes to her family, it’s got to be a really nice, big, bushy one. It’s got to be bushy. And that’s sort of like lead me to you. Because I’m in Adelaide trying to source a real Christmas tree for our first ever Christmas, here.

And just having a discussion around the table, what’s more sustainable, and looking into it, and my husband, he doesn’t like waste, and he’s looking at the Christmas tree, if you get a plastic one, you can reuse it year in and year out. It’s very practical, and all this sort of stuff. And I’m just like, “Please, let us have a real Christmas tree for our first time ever.” And of course we had Amele, our German Au pair, saying, “We have to have a real Christmas tree.” So anyway, we won. So, that’s what’s lead me to you. And getting a real Christmas tree, this year.

Steve:                   Well, I agree totally. It’s not Christmas without a Christmas tree.

Laura:                   Yeah.

Steve:                   We can’t have the snow, but we can have the Christmas tree.

Laura:

Yeah. We can have the pudding, as well. And the shortbread. With all these Christmas trees, what are some of the things that happen to the real Christmas trees, after Christmas? Because obviously, the plastic ones, just get packed back up in a box and get pulled out the next year. But, what do you find some of your customers are doing with their Christmas trees, after Christmas? Or, what percentage of them bring their trees back to you or … what happens to all these trees?

 

What happens to all the real Christmas trees after Christmas?

Steve:

Well, most of that … a lot of our deliveries seem to be done in the city. I live up in the Adelaide hills myself. And I know most of the people will come and buy them from us direct they’re – you know they’ve got their farm. They’re farmy type people or property type people and they’ve got trailers and they’ve got bigger cars. And they don’t mind their cars getting quite so dirty and they come and collect them. Whereas people that live in the more urban areas, I guess they like their trees delivered. So we do a lot of deliveries down in to the city area.

People who’ve got a bit of property or a bit of room I guess will throw the tree down the back. They do compost, most of the tree does compost quite well. The branches on a Christmas tree, you have to trim them to shape. I mean, they’re Radiata pine and they wouldn’t look like a Christmas tree if you didn’t trim them so they’re trimmed several times a year. After four or five years when they’re ready to use for Christmas time, the outer layer of branches is still quite small and soft. So after Christmas that outer area will compost down quite well and I guess it can be mulched. It’s the main trunk that’s the most difficult. That takes a while, that won’t break down because the trunk is probably ten centimetres or more in diameter. But people can cut them and put them in their council recycle bins.

We do get a lot of customers asking us to pick up the tree after Christmas and this might be just a convenience or they don’t have a trailer or they haven’t got a saw or are just not handy with it. Obviously there’s a lot of people living by themselves and just can’t get rid of that easily. So we do pick them up and it’s about 15 percent pick them up because it is most of the people doing the deliveries there in the city that get their trees picked up. So we bring them back to our property, we’ve got a few acres, and I pile them up. We leave them for about six months and most of them break down. Well we end up with a pile of wooden pine poles with a few spiky bits because the leaves have broken down. And sometimes we cut them up for firewood or we do take them to the recycle depot. It would be nice to mulch them but I don’t know what our options are at the moment because you’d need a pretty good mulching machine to rip through the main trunk.

Laura:

Yeah I guess that’s a good option in the future but we’re obviously your suburban customers. Well suburban now, coming from the outback to the suburbs and just that time fall factor as well. There’s just a convenience to have the tree picked up after Christmas and taking it away which suited us as well. So we’re in that tiny percent that want you to come and collect it. My husband didn’t want to cut it up and saw it, he preferred to spend his day off doing something else, I think. It’s great that you offer that service.

Steve:

Well I’ll be very keen to see what it looks like. I have this little self challenge, when we pick the trees up after Christmas I can always tell how well people have looked after their trees on what it looks like when I pick it up. Because it can still be green. We pick them up after the New Year and a lot of the trees are still green but some of them are looking a little bit worse for wear by then. I can tell, so I’ll be having a look at yours too, Laura. You better take care of it, it’s a Christmas tree. You have to take care of it.

Laura:

It is. But I know we’ve got our German expert living with us this Christmas and she’ll know everything about looking after the tree. But I am keen to pick your brain on it as well, so if you’re happy to share some of your best tips for keeping real Christmas trees looking fresh, I’d love to hear them if you wouldn’t mind sharing them with our listeners?

What are some of your best tips for keeping your real Christmas Tree looking fresh?

Steve:

Sure, well rule number one, and always refer to rule number one, is to keep them topped up with fresh water all the time. It’s actually quite strange because the Christmas trees when they’re growing, they’re not irrigated. So a lot of them grow really, really nice in the cooler climates and where there’s a bit more rain fall. You wouldn’t be growing too many up at Roxby Downs. But once they’re cut, they sort of seal up a little bit at the bottom. It’s a bit like a self preservation mechanism and so after you get them and just before you put them in water, we cut a little bit more off the bottom just to break that seal. And then they have to be topped up with fresh water. They’re like flowers, they’re still living and you have to keep them in fresh water. You can’t let the water get old and [inaudible 00:11:30]. And like flowers in a vase, keep the water fresh. I wouldn’t be putting them in direct sunlight all day, near a window. In perfect conditions I mean people do like to put their trees near the window.

But I wouldn’t spray them with too much of that snowy spray or stuff like that and perhaps limit the use of Christmas lights. Just when you want to look at them or when you’ve got friends round or in the evenings. But I wouldn’t leave the Christmas lights on all day and if you have a particularly sunny day and we get one of those really hot, sunny day draw the curtains, don’t let the sun go on it directly. And keep it topped up with water. The stands have got a big water well in them so they’re a really good stand and holds the tree stable. And there’s a big water well, it’s easy to top up.

Laura:

I can imagine if you’re leaving your Christmas lights on, is it just the heat that impacts the tree? The heat from the lights?

Steve:

It is, it is. But I’m being a bit fancy in talking in a perfect situation. Of course you can have your Christmas lights on in the evening, it’s just a few tips. And the number one thing, most important thing, is the fresh water. That and cutting the base of the tree. If you don’t cut the base of the tree when you buy it, if you don’t give it a good clean cut a couple of centimetres off it and you put it in water it just won’t take up the water. If you get a Christmas tree and you put it in water and the water levels not going down after a couple of days you really need to pull the tree out and cut it and make sure. Because it does drink a lot of water. It’ll drink a lot of water once it’s cut.

Laura:

Like how much water? Like a litre a day or – what are we talking about?

Steve:

I reckon when it’s first cut, yeah, you would be looking at a half a litre to a litre yeah. We’d be topping ours up every few days. I think the wells hold 1 1/2 to 2 litres anyway.

Laura:

I guess family pets get to the well to drink out of it as well? Do you ever find that happens?

Steve:

No, no, they’re underneath. They’re just around the trunk of the tree. And they’re higher up and then you’ve got screws in them.

Laura:

I know, shut up Laura. That’s a silly question.

Actually I’m going to ask another silly question because as kids we nagged our mum and dad for a real Christmas tree for years and we never got one as well because it was always the same tree that came out every year that they bought together when they were engaged so I guess that tree had a lot of sentimental value for them both. But the reason our parents declined too was just like real Christmas trees, they make so much mess. You’re picking up needles all the time. So, again my silly question is to you – and I’m going to find this out myself in a couple of weeks’ time but how much mess do they make? Are you constantly picking up needles or what’s the downside of a real Christmas tree?

Steve:

You’re not. If you don’t top up the water and they start to look old, it’s like the flowers in a vase, they’ll start falling and it’ll look like a bit of a mess. But if you just keep the tree nice and fresh, keep it in water, they’ll be fine. There will be a few pine needles. You can actually buy from some of the department stores what’s called a Christmas apron. And it’s a bit like a circular table cloth that you can put on the ground with the hole in the middle for the Christmas tree. They’re called Christmas aprons and they can stop it from getting a little bit messy. Which isn’t a bad idea and I guess if you’re putting the tree on carpet it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a bit of tarp or something like that. A protective layer underneath the stand, you know, just to stop it as a bit of protection. But if you can find a place in your house with some tiles, you’ve got a lovely firm flat surface, it’ll be well balanced and if it makes a little bit of a mess it’s just a quick sweep around.

When people pick their trees up, they come up without trailers and they just sort of look at them and they put them on the roof, they put them in their boots, they put them in the backseats of the cars. And they are just not fussed at all because these are people that get new trees every year and they know they’re not really messy. They’re fine.

Laura:

Well you can tell my parents were neat freaks!

Steve:

Do you have a leaf blower?

Laura:

No, we don’t. But we’ve got a broom and a dustpan and we’ve got a wooden floorboard so it sounds like it’s going to be fine.

Steve:

Now my idea is that if you have a leaf blower, that usually means you perhaps spend your weekends blowing the leaves off the driveway. You said you don’t have one so it’s not going to bother you having a few pine needles around the place.

Laura:

No and I think we’ve been here three months or so and we still haven’t swept our driveway.

Steve:

That is fine, they’re just leaves.

Laura:

Yep, exactly. And they smell nice.

Steve:

They smell beautiful.

Laura:

I’m really looking forward to having that scent in our house, like it’s going to really smell like Christmas this year. So if someone wanted to grow their own Christmas tree and get a few years out of the same tree and I believe a lot of people might do that as well, how do you recommend that they go about this? Is it possible to grow a Radiata pine tree successfully in a pot and keep it alive for a few years this way?

If someone wanted to grow their own Christmas Tree and get a few years out of the same tree, how would you recommend they do this?

Steve:

I would probably recommend not doing it at Christmas time unless that’s the only time your nursery stocks them. Prices will normally go up but you can buy a potted pine/fur tree I guess. It doesn’t have to be the Radiata pine, they’re lots of decorative type pines. I’d just talk to the nursery and there’s some really slow growing ones and if you just trim them to shape them in that little triangle sort of shape ever year and keep them in the garden. We’ve probably got around ten in our garden just in pots and they’ll stay alive for years. Not just four or five years, ten years, fifteen years. They’re just in pots, that’s all. So they’ll be fine.

Laura:

That sounds like a really great, sustainable option for a Christmas tree as well like if someone is growing it themselves and keeping it.

Steve:

They do and you can have more. We have one in the house, we’ve got a couple out in the back garden. We’ve got a bit of an arbour with some lovely Jasmine and we always put one in the middle there and I think there’s a couple near the front door. I mean, we’re in the business of it but it’s just – my wife’s Polish, we just absolutely love Christmas.

Laura:

I love it too. It’s just that magical time of year and like I said, it’s going to be even so much better this year for us with a real Christmas tree.

Steve:

I better make sure you get a good one.

Laura:

Now you know, you’ve seen my order, we want to choose the perfect one. Because again, I’ve opted for convenience and I’m getting you guys to deliver it to us because we don’t have a trailer so when Paul finally gave in he goes well you’ve got to get it delivered, you’ve got to get it picked up. Yes, sure, I’m happy for a real Christmas tree if you do this, this and this. So yeah, anyway. He was a bit grinchy about a Christmas tree.

Steve:

You put that bit of pressure with that perfect tree because when people come up to buy the trees and they jump out the car and the whole families there, usually somebody wants the perfect shape. It has to be symmetrical, it has to be exactly shaped like a Christmas tree, the tip of the tree has to be that stem on it that you can put the angel or the star on the top. It has to have a bit of space underneath for the Christmas presents and they look all around, even if it’s going in the corner, they’ll walk all around the trees to make sure it’s the best looking tree. And then other people will come up and they’ll say oh I’ll have that one because it’s got character. You know like, they’re all Christmas trees, they’re all going to be individual but some of them aren’t quite perfect. But it’s called character.

Laura:

Oh yeah, character’s good. We’ll be happy with whatever we get delivered, I’m sure. It’ll be a novelty for us for our first one.

Steve:

See when people get it delivered, you know there’s some people that they get it delivered for convenience but you do place a lot of trust in me in getting you a nice tree. And there’s other people that love to get it delivered but they want to choose it themselves. It’s part of the process, we want to choose our tree. That’s part of what we do.

Laura:

So, a side question, what do you put on the top of your Christmas tree? Is it a star or an angel or a santa? What do you pop on the top of yours?

Steve:

It’s star. We’ve got a star on the top, we’ve got decorations and baubles. I’ve got five grandchildren now and they’re starting to make decorations but I’ve got decorations from when my children made in Kindergarten school. And we’ve still got those hanging on the tree. A lot of the kids make them at school and normally make them out of corks and things like that and decorate them. We’ve still got those and we’ve also when we just did Poland a few years ago – they’re very Christmasy over there – we bought a couple of special decorations and brought those back and we hung those on the tree. When the decorations come out each year, we’ve got a thirty year history of decorations and some of them are quite special. That will all go back on the tree.

Laura:

It’s the same with me, I think a good portion of the decorations I have, my nan made for me when I was a little girl or I made some. My boys have made some now, but every year when I put them up, I’ve got all these beautiful memories of my nan and my great aunt. She was amazing at craft to and made – and my mom, but my mom’s still around. You know, people make beautiful Christmas decorations and that’s a really nice sentimental value of what they’re putting on the tree too.

Steve:

You going to have a decorating evening?

Laura:

Yeah, we will. Yeah I think …

Steve:

You have to because you have to have jobs, you can’t have everybody just all diving in and putting them where they want because somebody’s the decorator and somebody else will sort them out and suggest places to put them. So my job’s usually sitting there and supervising. My wife just decorates the tree, I don’t get to interfere with that but it is a nice thing to do, to decorate the tree together.

Laura:

Yeah, you’re a clever man. I think we’re going to have to draw straws to see who can put the star on the top. When I was a kid with my two sisters, whose going to put the star on the top of the tree. It was the biggest choice. So finally for our lucky local listeners, so in the Adelaide or South Australian area, how can they best order their real Christmas trees from Adelaide Hills Christmas trees. So feel free to just share how people can buy a Christmas tree from you.

For our Adelaide-based followers, how can they best order their real Christmas trees from Adelaide Hills Christmas Trees?

Steve:

Thanks, Laura. Well Adelaide Hills Christmas trees, we lease some yard space at the Adelaide Hills Garden Supplies. We’ve been working with them for a number of years now and because they’ve got this fabulous big couple of sheds in their yard where they normally sell firewood and things like that in Winter because it’s empty in December. So we lease that big space out. We decorate it, we put signs up. So if you’re coming up from the city, you can just take the Hahndorf freeway exit and we’re just there on the left hand side. You’ll see the signs. But if you want some more information about Christmas trees, tips on taking care of these Christmas trees, tips on choosing a good Christmas tree and if you want to place some orders or find out when we’re open you can just jump on our website. Adelaidehillschristmastrees.com.au.

Laura:

Yep and I guess for the people who are a little bit time looking for convenience like us, you can order your Christmas tree online there as well. Adelaidehillschristmastrees.com.au and get them delivered and arrange to get them picked up as well. So that’s a great service that you’re offering.

Steve:

Absolutely.

Laura:

Well Steve thanks so much for coming on to Eco Chat and talking real Christmas trees with us. I hope you have a lovely, lovely Christmas and I guess the next 6 weeks are going to be very busy for you and your family while you’re selling your Christmas trees.

Steve:

It is but it’s great because it’s a good time everyone likes. It’s not something that you really have to sell. People just love Christmas so everyone’s in a good mood, we talk Christmas we say Merry Christmas to everybody who walks away with a tree. When we drop off a tree we Merry Christmas so it’s a nice time of year. Thanks very much for having me on, Laura. It’s nice chatting to you and Merry Christmas to everybody listening and you’ve got me thinking a little bit about sustainability anyway so that’s really good. Especially about how to get rid of the trees after Christmas. I’ll put my thinking cap on for that one.

Laura:

Yeah, hopefully you can get a mulcher so they’re not just slowly breaking down in your yard. You can mulch them and put them to another use. That would be fabulous if you could get that installed.

Steve:

I’m going to talk to the council.

What Is the Most Sustainable Christmas Tree?

I hope this post has given you some insights into what’s involved in sourcing and caring for a real, living Christmas Tree.

To answer the question of which variety of Christmas Tree is the most sustainable I’d say the following options are in order of least sustainable, to most sustainable:

  • Plastic Christmas Tree with lights
  • Real Christmas Tree sourced locally every year (and composted or mulched afterwards)
  • Real Christmas Tree in a pot you can re-use for several years
  • Homemade Christmas Tree made from recycled materials. Click HERE for some pin-spiration!

Regardless of which Christmas Tree type you choose this season, I wish you and your family and very Merry Christmas!

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Laura

Laura

Laura Trotta is one of Australia’s leading home sustainability experts. Fusing her professional expertise as an environmental engineer with the down-to-earth pragmatism that comes from being a busy mum, Laura is an eco thought leader who’s not afraid to challenge the status quo.
Laura

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