The Third Option for Christmas Trees: Go Live
Having a Christmas tree at home normally means either cutting down a living tree or buying a fake one. And debate has raged about which is truly the greener option. But now there’s a third way: a living, potted tree.
Scott Martin, also known as “Scotty Claus,” started The Living Christmas Company in 2008 to deliver live rental trees to homes in California. He said the trend has really picked up over the years.
“We’re breathing new life into the symbol,” he said.
He doesn’t disparage the practice of cutting down trees, but he is happy to offer an alternative.
“There are people who’ve started to say it doesn’t feel good to be killing a tree, but the only other option was an artificial tree,” Martin said. “You can have a live tree that still meets the tradition of it, and … it’s something that continues living on into the new year.”
Though live-tree rental services are not available in the United States outside of California to our knowledge, many people across the country and in all climates buy live trees from nurseries for Christmas.
They then plant the trees outdoors when the season is over. Dr. Craig McKinley at Oklahoma State University, who has worked with Christmas trees for 40 years, said that he has heard of people planting them as memorials to loved ones.
For people in suburban or rural areas, planting the tree on their property can be a perennial reminder of a lovely Christmas. It can be more difficult for people in urban areas, but McKinley said that it’s still feasible if the tree can be planted in a park, near a church, or in an open area outside the city.
The rental and delivery option works well in metropolitan areas, Martin said.
He gets many requests from New York City, particularly Manhattan. “My plate is already full,” he said, “but I would support anyone who wants to try it in other places.” Martin said he would offer open-source information about his business if someone wants to start a rental service elsewhere.
It’s a busy business, and the profit margin isn’t as big as with traditional cut trees. Martin said his wholesale cost is about 10 times that of traditional trees. But he doesn’t charge 10 times the retail price.
As a rough comparison, he said a big-box store usually sells a cut tree for $60 to $80. A corner lot often sells for $150. He rents his trees for $175 to $200. He charges $30 extra to “adopt” a tree if you want the same one next year (with a caveat that about 10 percent of trees don’t make it from year to year).
He recalled that in 2010, he considered dropping the business because it was a lot of work and took his attention from his landscaping company. Then he got a letter from a customer that encouraged him anew.
The customer included with the letter a picture of her baby under the tree. She wrote: “I’m so excited, so proud that this is how my baby will grow up and the tradition she will grow up with rather than cutting down a tree. I’m so happy and so thankful.”
Martin said, “After I stopped crying, I said ‘OK, I’ll do it again.'”
Another customer told him that her 5-year-old daughter had spent all five Christmases of her life with one of his trees. When she saw someone transporting a cut tree and asked her parents what they were doing, she was perplexed by the practice of cutting down a tree for Christmas. “Why would anybody do that?” she asked.
What to Expect When Going Live
The benefits of a live tree are many: It isn’t as messy because it doesn’t shed needles as much, it’s less of a fire hazard because it isn’t as dry, and it lives a full life. But it does have its shortcomings.
“It’s a very green way of celebrating Christmas, but it’s a lot of work,” said Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association (ACTA).
Many customers end up planting their trees after Christmas, but this can be hard work. Even in areas where there’s no rental service yet, some people buy trees from nurseries to plant afterward. If your region is cold, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and dig a hole for the tree before the ground freezes.
McKinley from Oklahoma State noted that it’s usually best to have only small live trees, 1 to 2 feet tall, because the bigger the tree, the bigger the root ball. If you get a large tree, the root ball could be as big as 5 feet in diameter, he said.
Martin still rents out fairly big trees, above 8 feet tall. “The root ball gets pretty enormous,” he said. “Some of the trees we move are 1,000 pounds and take six guys to move them.”
Neither ACTA nor the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) keep track of live Christmas tree sales in the United States, so it’s hard to say precisely how much the practice has grown. But NCTA spokesman Hugh Whaley said he thinks living Christmas trees could really catch on with the younger generation given their other consumer habits.
“The millennial generation has also embraced lots of things that are natural that are real in the way of buying local and food, and that buy-local trend or belief certainly extends out to live Christmas trees,” he said.
Live Christmas tree rentals have caught on in Canada, Germany, the U.K., and Paris, to name a few places. The founders of a Canadian company, Evergrow Christmas Trees, wrote on their website that they “recognized a need for a green alternative to traditional cut trees and artificial trees, which are made from petroleum products. We believe that a living Christmas tree is the eco-conscious solution.”
Tips for Having a Live Christmas Tree
- Get a species suitable to your area so that it will thrive when planted outdoors.
- Don’t keep it indoors too long (a week to two weeks tops), or it will wake from winter dormancy, making it vulnerable to cold when it goes back outside.
- Keep it moist, but don’t overwater. A live tree requires different watering than a cut tree.
- Consider rosemary trees. They are nice, small options for apartments in the city. They look like Christmas trees, they are easily available (Whole Foods sells them), they thrive indoors, and you can eat them.