As you carefully pack away the ornaments, take down the holiday lights, and put your Christmas decorations in hibernation for another year, keep in mind that your Christmas tree can literally keep on giving.

Like your holiday wrappings, your Christmas tree can be recycled for use in a number of ways - ways that your garden, your local wildlife habitat, or your community agency will appreciate.

With more than 33 million real Christmas trees sold in North America each year, tree recycling is a way to give back to the environment.

Some ways to recycle your tree include:

  • Letting birds and wildlife feed on it.
  • Pruning the branches and using the boughs as a winter mulch. Place over perennials.
  • Chipping the tree and using it as a general garden and landscape mulch around trees, shrubs and flower beds.
  • As fertilizer. Trees can be planted in the snow in locations where the snow is alkaline. The falling needles will lower the pH, which is most beneficial for strawberry beds, bulbs and perennials. If it doesn't snow in your area, you can cut the branches off and cover bulbs and perennials. Hang bird feeders on the branches.

Another way to maximize the use of your tree is to see if any of your local agencies can use it.

For example, the U.S. Forest Service uses donated trees to improve the fish habitat at lakes, such as those in Ohio's Wayne National Forest.

While anglers may curse wood pieces and branches while fishing, they also realize that fish are drawn to underwater structures. Bass, crappie, bluegills, catfish, and other types of fish often use the structure to hide or build nests.

Christmas trees are perfect - they're inexpensive and provide quality underwater structures. Plus, they are easy to place in ponds and lakes and last for several years.

Biologists typically make reefs ranging from the shore to deeper water to ensure the structure is available to wide variety of fish.

Fishing enthusiasts can then fish near the underwater Christmas trees.

Meanwhile, other agencies have their own uses for recycled Christmas trees. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and its Coastal Restoration Division have a Christmas Tree Fence Program in place to protect the state's coastal wetlands.

The fence is made up of a treated wooden pen, which is constructed in a shallow open-water area. The trees, donated by Louisianans, are placed in the pen. This type of project creates an effective wave-break that can reduce marsh-edge erosion, enhance water clarity - allowing more aquatic vegetation to become established - and provide reef areas.

You can contact your local city, county, or state agency to see if any similar programs exist in your area. If not, many municipalities provide curbside recycling or a designated drop-off point for you to leave your Christmas tree to be recycled.

If you noticed a red ornament attached to your tree when you bought it, you'll find information you need to recycle your tree. The ornament means that the buyer or retailer you bought your tree from is one of the 4,000 growers involved in a tree recycling campaign.

You can also log on to the National Christmas Tree Association's web site or the Earth 911 web site to access local Christmas tree recycling information.

In the meantime, for every tree harvested, two or three seedlings are planted in its place -- in spring 2001, more than 73 million tree seedlings were planted, according to the NCTA.

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