Alys Fowler

Recycling Christmas

Read Alys' top tips on how to recycle Christmas and turn your rubbish into something good.

The tatters of Christmas, the leftovers that no one can face, the wrapping paper, the slightly drooping tree, these are the bittersweet remnants of all that cheer. Once they are gone, it's just the bleak expanse of January ahead, but leave them lingering and it's somehow worse.

I wish all of Christmas could be neatly recycled, but much to everyone’s horror Christmas these days is wrapped tightly in plastic. I long for the day when all this plastic is made out of plant material and can be rotted down rather than filling up landfill. However, until that day we must do what we can and turn the rubbish into good.

Most councils offer a Christmas tree recycling scheme; the more progressives ones pick up your tree for you. However, if you miss your pick up date and are left with a huge tree and a tiny compost heap, here’s what to do.

The needles make an excellent acidic mulch for things like blueberries, cranberries, rhododendrons, camellias and other acid lovers. Rather than try pulling the needles off, chop the branches off, put them in a bin bag and wait a week or so, all the needles will drop quickly. You can either leave the needles in the bag to slowly rot down into a compost, or you can just mulch around your plant with the fresh needles and let nature do its thing.  It’s such a good mulch that I often collect up other people’s forgotten trees for this reason.

The branches, now denude of needles, are useful props for emerging peas or perennials or to keep birds off young seedlings. Tuck them away till they are needed in spring. A season outside in the veg garden and by autumn they are ready to break down in the compost.

The trunk of the Christmas tree is a bit more of a pain to deal with. If you have a fire you can chop it up for burning, but remember pine spits a lot because of the resins in the wood. Otherwise chop it into manageable lengths and tuck them away somewhere out of sight to rot. They can make the beginning of a beetle bank, beetles being excellent at slug control, or an insect refuge. Rotting wood is an excellent wildlife habitat. 

The trunk will take an absolute age in the compost heap, even if chopped so I wouldn’t advise this route. But if you have a big shredder...

Christmas wreaths and natural decorations can all be put on the compost heap as long as you remove any non-organic bits, such as ribbons or wire. Everything will break down so much more quickly if you take a lopper to it first and break it into pieces. If, however, you don’t have loppers, even jumping on the wreath or bashing it will help, essentially any breaking down of the plant material allows bacteria to start work quicker.

Now what else can you put on the compost? Well, all those vegetable trimmings are an obvious one, any plain cardboard packaging from presents, likewise any tissue paper used for wrapping, natural string or colourful raffia twine, but not ribbons. A little wrapping paper as long as it’s not shiny as the inks in glossy paper can be toxic to the compost system.

Natural wine corks if broken up can go in the compost, they take a lifetime to break down, but they will aerate the soil, whilst that happens and certainly do no harm. Christmas cards are better recycled in the household paper recycling than the compost, but if you want to recycle them at home, again, nothing glossy and scrunch them up first.

Any leftover nuts and raisins can be chopped up and added to oats to feed to the birds. These can be added to lard or suet to make fat balls. However, don’t use any leftover fat from Christmas roasts, there’s too much salt in it and it’s not good for the birds.

Finally, if you have mistletoe with berries on it and an old apple tree try germinating your own mistletoe. Choose a craggy bit of bark on the north or east facing side and smear the berries into the crack. This is what the mistletoe thrush does when they have eaten too many berries and has sticky berry goo all over their beaks. They tend to choose cracks and fissures in the bark to wipe their beaks on and in the process smear some of the seeds into the bark. I’ve been doing this for years now and I have to say a very small percentage take, but it’s so very satisfying when it works. The rest of the mistletoe can go, you’ve guessed it, on the compost.

Happy Christmas, folks!  Until next year.