Garden Plot: How to recycle cut Christmas trees

Old Christmas trees are for the goats

Let’s start the new year with a feel-good story and yet another way to recycle your cut Christmas tree. As writer Michelle Merlin explained in a recent front-page story in the Morning Call of Allentown, “Some kids love Christmas trees more when they don’t come with presents, ornaments or lights.”

That’s because the “kids” she is talking about have four legs: They’re goats!

Turns out that goats absolutely love discarded Christmas trees. They climb on them for fun and eat the vitamin C rich needles and bark. One happy goat owner said that four goats can strip a discarded tree in a single day.

There are some caveats, however. Goat herders do not want trees that had chemicals in the water holder or that were treated with flame retardants. Another reason to ditch chemicals!

No goats? They’re also for the birds

Wondering what to do with a cut Christmas tree now that the holiday hangover is in the rear window?

Take it out to the yard and cover it with suet feeders; the winter birds will feast on the suet, nest near your house and eat pest insects for you in the spring!

Or, cut off whole branches and use their perfect springiness to protect pansies and other winter plants. Or, take it to a farm where they keep goats!

But no tinsel, of course, and don’t offer trees that had preservatives in the water holder or were sprayed with flame retardants or other chemicals.

Oh, and if you’re a goat keeper, drop me a line and I’ll try and connect you to a tree tosser or six.

An unexpected tree success

Jim, on the Eastern Shore in Maryland near the Charles River, writes:

“I ordered Japanese pagoda tree seeds online this summer — and then forgot about it. Two months later, in September, the seeds arrived. I got 40 seeds for under $6 and 30 of them sprouted! (I was expecting about four or five). I now have 12 Japanese pagoda trees about 1-foot tall growing under lights.”

Let me stop you there, Jim, to extol the virtues of this underutilized tree!

Japanese Pagoda Tree — also known as the Chinese scholar tree — grow large, an average 60 feet or so. It’s a member of the pea family (which means it’s a legume that can feed itself by capturing nitrogen in the air).

That makes them “specimen” or “statement” trees that usually grow alone.

It takes many years, but when they’re big enough to bloom, they produce massive numbers of heavily-scented white flowers in mid-to-late summer that are great for pollinators.

They tolerate a wide range of conditions and are considered an excellent street tree. (Just not under power lines.)

Jim has too many trees

Jim also asked:

“Should I keep them under lights all winter and then transplant them outside in the spring? Or, should I place them outside now to get them in sync with our weather cycle?”

These beautiful trees are hardy down to zone four (which is far north of us), so they should do fine outside in the D.C. area.

Plant them in pots and all in a protected area — away from strong winds — and then dig up the pots and plant the trees for real in the spring. Just be aware that these are “specimen trees” that eventually top out at 50 to 60 feet tall, which is why most people just plant one.

Any chance you have 11 friends looking for a unique tree?

Where to check out these remarkable trees

In the D.C. area, look for the large, white fragrant flowers in late July into August. It also has a beautiful, ridged bark; but it develops seed pods that are, unfortunately, poisonous.

Casey Trees, a nonprofit based in D.C. that advocates for the tree canopy in the area, notes that you can see specimens in many local places, including Dupont Circle and the Washington National Cathedral. They add that the most impressive local specimen can be found in President’s Park.

Mike McGrath was editor-in-chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated public radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and WTOP Garden Editor since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at

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