The no-kill Christmas tree

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This is my husband posing under the family tree at my mom's house. Pajamas by Duchess Clothier.
This is my husband posing under the family tree at my mom’s house in his bespoke pajamas by Duchess Clothier.

My mom does not like cutting down trees. I grew up in the forest, and my mom was just morally offended by the very idea of cutting down a small tree for Christmas. She’s also repulsed by fake trees. To accommodate these contrasting concerns, I grew up with a malformed potted dwarf Australian pine that made Charlie Brown’s tree look robust. Every year we’d bring the poor potted tree inside, and try to hang ornaments on it — but the needles were so long and the branches so sparse that the whole look was just kind of sad.

In the 25 years since then, my mom has completely refined her no-kill Christmas tree. Unlike previous attempts, this no-kill tree actually looks like a “Christmas Tree.” It’s conical! It’s solid! It smells delicious! There is no tree death NOR plastic involved. Here’s how she does it.

First: the frame!

No-Kill Christmas Tree (1 of 9)

First, my mom drags a pea-vine frame in from the garden. This thing was cobbled together by a family friend from a few boards and chicken wire. Honestly, the contraption is not much to look at, and definitely doesn’t look like it belongs indoors. There are screws and wires poking out all over, and the wood could generously be described as “unfinished” (but is probably better described as “rotting”).

No-Kill Christmas Tree (3 of 9)

Second, the materials

Grief Retreat includes lots of cedar for healing and beauty

Then, mom goes out into the forest around Sacred Groves (her eco-retreat B&B hippie sanctuary) and collects branches that have fallen from the trees. Autumn in the Pacific Northwest may not be especially colorful, but the fall storms are generally windy enough to blow down a fair assortment of cedar and fir boughs.


Then, the assembling

Having now collected a pea-vine frame and a huge pile of felled boughs, my mom gets to work poking the boughs into the frame.

No-Kill Christmas Tree (5 of 9)

A “tree” slowly takes shape. There’s really no special method here other than “Jam boughs into chicken wire.” The shape of the boughs hooks them into place pretty securely.

No-Kill Christmas Tree (4 of 9)

No-Kill Christmas Tree (6 of 9)

Almost there…

No-Kill Christmas Tree (7 of 9)

No-Kill Christmas Tree (8 of 9)


No-Kill Christmas Tree (9 of 9)

In terms of maintenance, the boughs do dry out over of the month of December, but that’s all part of my mom’s plan: she ceremonially burns the dry boughs as part of her annual New Years Day sweatlodge. #hippiemoms, ammirite?

Comments on The no-kill Christmas tree

  1. When I was 8 or so years old, my parents got me and my bros our own live trees. They were probably 4.5 feet tall, including the root ball. After the holidays, they lived on the porch until the ground thawed out (so, about earlyApril in MI). We then planted them in our front yard. 20 years later, two of the trees are ~20 feet tall, and one is dead (it apparently didn’t like the hill). Now my parents are getting ready to sell the house and I’m hella bummed that I have to leave “my tree” there.

  2. Emmet Otter’s Christmas Branch.
    If you don’t know, the internet will help you. (Meanwhile, watch Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas – surprisingly friendly to many or most offbeat aesthetics.)

  3. Wow, I kind of love this! This year I saw a clip of them putting up that giant tree in New York and felt bad that they would fall such a big pretty tree. Then I realized, why don’t I feel bad for all the trees that get cut down just so they could be brought inside to die? I know they’re grown on farms for the specific purpose, but still. I like trees. I’m also awful at making fake trees look good. All that in combination of getting a kitty this year, I was going to just not get a tree at all, but someone in our apartment complex was throwing away their tree because it was nearly completely flat on one side. However, this meant we could tuck it in the corner and have it save space in our tiny apartment. So I brought it in, because a loved dying tree is better than an unloved dying tree (and also this town seems to have turned me ultra-hippy!) 😛

  4. I have wired large branches together in the past to make small Christmas trees. We live in a very small house so we don’t have space for the average tree that is sold at a lot. Last year my Father in Law suggested that come get one of the small trees that were sprouting in his front yard, there wasn’t space for them to continue to grow there, so we took some pruners and cut down a 3′ Charlie Brownish tree for our living room, it was small enough that I could just put it in a large vase, it had enough branches on it that I could hang a few ornaments and it smelled nice.

  5. I really like this idea!
    My husband hates pine needles in the house (more specifically; anywhere near his computers), so he does not want a real tree.
    I love real trees, and I don’t like the idea of killing a tree just so I can hang stuff in it for a month and then dumping it (we tried buying the ones with roots and then planting them, but they always died).
    But I also hate those fake trees…
    In the end we did end up getting a fake tree, but we got a silver one (and a tiny hot-pink one!) because I didn’t want it to imitate a real tree (and the really good fakes are sooo expensive!).
    I thought, if you go fake, go FAKE!
    So silver it was!

  6. It looks so lush! I bet it could support a TON of ornaments if you just attach them to the chicken wire with long hooks or cord.

    Also, when can we expect the Staffers and SOs of the Empire pinup calendar?

  7. This is fantastic! My husband and I are sort of “permanently borrowing” a small fake tree from some friends and don’t even have the room for a real tree in our current apartment, but if we eventually live in a bigger space, I would love to do something similar to this.

  8. In my town, the city workers collect the ‘used’ / dead christmas trees in january and turn them into compost/mulch. Then, people can pick up free mulch from the city later in the year. I assume that the city uses it for parks and other areas that need mulch, too. So, at least the trees don’t totally go to waste.

    • There is a tree pickup in a park near my house. I once saw one of my neighbors with her tree on the curb with the trash RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET from the pickup, so I took it over there myself.

      I can’t remember where I saw it, but putting a dead tree in a pond provides shelter for smaller or younger fish?

      I think I will still try to avoid synthetic and real christmas trees in my home, either by enjoying my parents’ when I visit, using cut greens to decorate, or crafting one of these “trees.” I saw a miniature version of this made by sticking branches in a florist’s cone once, but it never occurred to me to make a large one that way!

    • Yep, the vast majority of U.S. cities do mulch/compost xmas trees when they’re collected by the garbage company. Been standard practice for ages. I researched this & wrote about it several years ago for an environmental publication.

  9. I also live in a forest, I also love trees and hate plastic, and I have also thought about buying a potted christmas tree but this years there are none left in stores… I’m thinking I may try this! Thanks!

  10. We have a fake tree, due to really tiny apartment constraints, but I tried to be really responsible about sourcing it last year. I basically hunted Craigslist after the holidays a few years ago and found one that someone was essentially giving away. Saved it from the landfill and I’ll try to pass it on when (and if) we no longer need it.

  11. Love this. Me and the hubby wanted more Eco friendly options. We aren’t like full on green people, but we like to contribute what we can. Nearby there is a Christmas tree farm where you can hack your own down BUT, they also have live trees in pots you can take home, decorate, and then plant or donate to your local park. 🙂 They are so beautiful and have tons of options that it makes a fun tree picking experience! We get the regular Leyland Cyprus! We have a lot of land to grow it on. We’ve already convinced some of Hubby’s family a live potted tree is the way to go. Its becoming something bigger every year to do. Love!

  12. The hubs and I just picked up a rosemary tree. While it is incredibly tiny and definitely wouldn’t support ornaments, I think I will drape some sort of shiny stuff or garland around it. And then, when Christmas is over, we can eat it for the rest of the year!

  13. Mmmm cedar and fir boughs…I bet your no-kill tree smells incredible.

    We started a no-kill tree tradition of our own this year. Last January a coworker gave me a tiny potted cypress she bought to decorate her office for Christmas. I planted it in a ginormous pot outside, and last weekend we dragged it in and decorated it. It’s so big now! Like, at least 18 inches tall. Last year I doubt it was more than a foot.

    Anyhoo, I totally feel you on the tiny Christmas tree blues. We can’t use some of our ornaments for fear of breaking the tiny branches. But in 5 or 10 years? It’ll be awesome!

    • I bet you could lush up your fake tree with live branches run through the middle. The tree will look fuller and smell like GREEEEEN.

      We also always had a fake tree growing up, but my mom would make centerpieces, wreaths or swags out of live branches. I think that’s another grrrreat option. Plus? If you don’t happen to live in a woodland wonderland, a lot of places that sell live, pre-cut trees give away loose branches that have fallen off.

    • Little Bird, cedar or pine essential oil spritzed on the tree will “real” it up for you! Or even better, pomanders made out of cloves and mandarin oranges

  14. This is awesome! I shall definitely be giving it a go. You could probably make similar trees using different types of branches at different times of year if you wanted to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes.

  15. I’m hoping to find a suitable twiggy branch (eg. taller, and full enough) or something, to support some lights and small decorations. I have a cruddy little tabletop tree I’ve used for a few yrs, but truly don’t like it. I’ve got a great copper umbrella stand to stick whatever in-so I’m casting about for ideas. It seems to me that fellow Homies might be an ideal source for somewhat twisted ideas that will work in a teeny apartment. Does anyone have any ideas? I’m about googled out…

  16. The first real fake tree I ever made was for my Grandmother, who was a lovable Scrooge. I went out into the forest and got one of those skeleton fir trees that just happen and all the fallen branches I could find. Then I attached them to the skeleton and decorated. It looked a bit droopy, but it smelled nice, my grandmas eyes glistened and my little cousin was excited about assisting me in that Frankenstein-Tree-Operation.

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