Christmas Trees: From the Traditional to the Alternative

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner


Christmas Trees From the Traditional to the Alternative

Each winter, as Christmas approaches, I look forward to cheerful lighting, nostalgic decorations, and the scent of evergreens indoors.

I also struggle with the idea of killing a tree to fulfill my love of a real indoor Christmas tree. Although I do often end up buying a cut tree, which we recycle later, I’ve also begun doing more with live and alternative decorating options.

Many local nurseries now offer potted trees to use as an indoor tree. If you opt to purchase a traditional “Christmas tree” conifer like an Abies grandis (Grand Fir), keep in mind that you’ll need a large space to plant it later. In some locations, nurseries have teamed up with local parks and forestry programs to allow you to rent your live tree for the holidays. Afterwards, your tree is then donated to these restoration programs, which plant your live tree into an appropriate location.

If you want to keep your living Christmas tree for your own size-sensitive garden, there are smaller, evergreen tree options. A dwarf conifer like Picea omorika ‘Nana’ or Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’ offer traditional triangular form but won’t outgrow a smaller planting space. If you want to break away from the old school shapes and forms, consider a showy Magnolia grandiflora ‘Little Gem’. This smaller version of the Southern Magnolia has bold, glossy upper leaves further complimented by fuzzy, rusty-brown under-coating. Even without a single ornament, this one is a showstopper.

If you prefer an edible option, one of our family favorites is a tabletop rosemary “tree”. Early in autumn, small sheared rosemary plants begin showing up in nurseries and grocery stores. These plants have been carefully groomed to grow into a Christmas tree shape. To keep it looking that way you may need to do a little clipping during the holidays. Fortunately, what you cut, you can eat. Plus, if you transplant it into a larger container in spring and continue to clip your holiday rosemary topiary regularly, you will have this Christmas tree for several years. Or just plant it into your garden beds come spring.


Any living tree is going to need some extra TLC during the holidays and afterwards. These trees – the rosemary included – are not houseplants. Bringing them indoors where our heaters create unseasonable temperatures and dryness, will both stress roots and possibly cause otherwise winter-dormant buds to break open. Dry roots and soft, new growth are a combination for disaster if you shuttle your tree out into freezing temperatures after the holiday. Be sure to water your living tree very well, and slowly acclimate it to the outdoors before planting it – much as you would harden off seedlings started indoors.


One of my favorite holiday trees is the one we decorate for the outdoor birds. Each Christmas morning, my grandfather would bundle up the kids and take us outdoors to feed the birds for the holidays. In addition to filling up his regular feeders, we would hang our homemade pinecone holiday ornaments and string garlands of popcorn and berries for the squirrels. Making wildlife edible tree ornaments is a great way to keep anxious kids busy and entertained just before Santa’s arrival.

Here’s how:


What you’ll need:
- Several large pinecones, untreated, and exposed to dry heat to help them expand before you begin working with them
- Peanut or Sunflower Butter, chilled but spreadable
- Homegrown sunflower seeds, millet or purchased bags of birdseed
- Jute or other natural fiber string

How to do it:
This is a fun, messy project, so spread out lots of newspaper on your work surface to make clean up easy.

Cut about a 12”-18” length of jute and thread it around the base of a pinecone. Tie it firmly, but take care not to break the cone in the process. Leave the other end, with plenty of length, untied.

Because cone sizes vary, the amount of each ingredient will vary as well.

Spread about 2 Tablespoons to ¼ cup of seed butter all over the cone, squishing it into the layers deeply.  

Spread seed on the table and then roll the buttered cone through the seed to coat it. Not everything will stick, so go ahead and push a few seeds into any empty areas.

If your cones are drippy, line a baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper and set finished cones on top. Place the filled tray into the refrigerator or freezer (or outside where critters can’t get to it) until everything firms up. (Warning: If you live in a warmer climate, buttered cone ornaments may melt fast in the garden.)

Hang the cones all over a tree viewable from the room where the family gathers for the holidays. Just tie the jute loosely to the branches. Soon, hungry wildlife will provide hours of entertainment.

Some may run off with entire cones. Others will nibble and peck, leaving the cones for you to untie and re-use more than once.