Home & Garden

Christmas tree can insulate garden and protect birds

When I got back home from being out of town for Christmas, my little balsam fir was so dry I decided against switching on its lights. (You may recall that I had made the mistake, early on, of putting the bottom of the tree flush in a bucket, sealing it over so that it no longer took up water.) So I unstrung the lights and prepared to hoist the tree out of the house.

But then I realized that I liked the look of the tree without the confusion of light strands all over it. It looked good. Why would I be so eager to toss it outside? Why would I suddenly not want a tree in the house, especially when we're still in the midst of the 12 days of Christmas, and when we're actually probably supposed to be living in tree houses anyway?

The idea of an unadorned Christmas tree is gaining momentum in part of my family. When my sister and I brought an Austrian pine from a tree farm to her house for Christmas, she was loath, at first, to put lights on it. It looked so good all by itself. But we soon decided we had to have lights — that's part of the idea of a Christmas tree. Neither one of us, however, unpacked the ornaments this year. We just got out the stars for the top and called it good.

While I plan to leave my friable tree in the living room for a while longer, I also love to take my trees outside and put them in a corner of the yard for the winter. We have plenty of places to take our Christmas trees for recycling once they dry out, but I like putting the tree in the yard most of all.

"That's always the best thing to do," says Nick Clausen, owner of the Backyard Nature Center at 8336 E. 21st St. "When you lay it down you instantly have a cover. It's almost like a little shrub."

If you're feeding the birds in your yard, you may notice that they don't always come to the feeder these days. One reason may be the presence, common this time of year, of Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks, Nick says. If you don't have shrubs and trees around where the little birds can find protection, they may not hazard a trip to a wide-open feeder.

"By adding that Christmas tree to that area by your feeder, there's instant cover they can flee into to get away from predators," Nick says. You can catch him on Wednesday at Botanica, giving a lunchtime lecture on caring for wild birds during the winter. It's from 12:15 to 1 p.m.

Another option is to prune the branches off the tree and use them to make a brush pile, he says.

"That's a great way to add cover to your yard and some protection" from the weather as well as the hawks. Nick has a large brush pile in his yard and says it contains "scores and scores of birds." The same is true of the firewood pile. "Constantly Carolina wrens are flying into the firewood stack. You see them go in one place and come out another."

Ahhhhh. There's nothing I love better than watching little birds skittering here and there out of brush of one kind or another.

Charles Barden, forester with Kansas State University Research and Extension, gives some other twists on using the old Tannenbaum for birds as well as in the garden:

* Place it in an outside corner of a patio, tie it to a deciduous tree or post it near a bird feeder. Then, spread some seed nearby to attract birds.

* Clip off the tree's branches and use them to add insulation around semi-hardy perennials or recently planted trees and shrubs. Or, use them to slow down runoff from melting snow and thus prevent erosion. Save the trunk to use as a garden stake next spring.

"If you let the trunk dry out for a while, you also can use it as easy-lighting firewood," Barden says. "You need to be aware, though, that most conifer species tend to spark and pop more than hardwoods do. Resin pockets in the wood make tiny explosions, which can delight youngsters but will require special attention to keep things safe."

You can also do what the county's Christmas tree recycling sites do and chip your tree. Use the long-lasting mulch around such acid-loving plants as rhododendrons, azaleas, conifers, ferns and hydrangeas, Barden says.

But most plants in the landscape can also benefit from a wintertime mulch now that the ground is frozen. You can use Christmas-tree mulch from the recycling sites (first-come, first-served, for free) or other mulch.

Mulch helps lock in moisture and protects plants from freeze-thaw cycles that can be more deadly than sub-zero cold.

"Those cycles can literally heave shallow-rooted plants out of the ground," says Ward Upham, horticulturist with K-State Research and Extension. "That's why winter mulch is particularly important for garden mums and strawberry plants."

Mulch should not touch woody trunks, Upham says. Give woody plants a "doughnut hole" of space several inches wide on all sides. The only exception is hybrid tea roses, which need be covered with mulch and/or soil to insulate the graft.

We'll have a happier new year if our plants get the attention they need year-round, too.

Christmas tree recycling locations

Leave only trees that have no decorations, lights, stands or bags attached to them.

In Wichita:

* Boston Park, 6655 E. Zimmerly

* Buffalo Park, 10209 Hardtner

* College Hill United Methodist Church, First and Erie streets

* Earhart Environmental Magnet School, 4401 N. Arkansas

* Edgemoor Park, 5815 E. Ninth St.

* Extension Education Center, 7001 W. 21st St.

* Great Plains Nature Center, 6232 E. 29th St. North

* Old Cowtown Museum, 1865 Museum Blvd.

* Osage Park, 2121 W. 31st St. South

* South Linwood Park, Hydraulic and Mount Vernon

In Sedgwick County:

* Cheney, East South Avenue and Garfield

* Clearwater, Aquatic Center parking lot

* Colwich, 115 S. Third St.

* Garden Plain, water tower

* Kechi, 107 Sioux St.

* Maize, 4900 N. Maize Road (east side)

* Mount Hope, 400 S. St. Thomas

* Mulvane, 117 E. Main St.

* Park City, 6801 N. Hydraulic