The recyclable/compostable Christmas tree


I must confess: Erik and I are Scrooges. Ask anyone who knows us and they will tell you our Christmas spirit is measured in negative numbers. There are a lot of reasons for this, but those are beside the point. The point is that this year we’ve decided to embrace the madness instead of rejecting it. We’re getting our Christmas on.

To do this right, we needed a tree, a real tree.* Sticker shock prevented us from getting a big tree, but we’ve got a cute little tree balanced on, of all things, a stack of bee boxes in the living room. (Bees Not Included.)

Because of our essential scrooginess, we have very little in the way of Christmas decorations, especially for people of our advanced age. Usually Christmas decorations grow and multiply over the years like a tinsely coral reef. Kids, of course, generate many decorations. And some families give or buy commemorative ornaments every year. Ornaments get passed down. And some people just can’t resist a new ornament. None of these things apply to us. And, as I said, we are scrooges. I started this tree pretty much from scratch, like a kid in her first apartment. We had a string of white lights, and a couple of random things here and there.

buck tree

I just had to throw in the demented cat.

Since I was starting from scratch, I could saddle up my high horse and take her for a ride. I declared this tree and its decorations would all be compostable, or at a stretch, recyclable. Except the lights. I don’t know if the high horse would allow me to buy lights or not, so I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.

As I mentioned in the wreath post a couple of weeks ago, I really like the idea of natural, ephemeral holiday decor. There’s pleasure in finding decorations in nature, and in crafting by hand. There’s also pleasure in being able to send most of it back to the earth when the holiday is over. It saves money, saves storage space and gets you in touch with nature and your own creativity. What’s not to like?

So anyway, this year’s tree is fairly minimalist so far. I may make/find some more ornaments before Christmas, including a classic popcorn/cranberry chain. But  one thing I’ve realized is that this can be a year-round project in the future, because you never know when you’re going to find something wonderful in nature. And what better way to remind yourself to keep a sharp eye on what’s around you?

I want to collect bird feathers, and small pine cones, and young acorns and rose hips and pretty sticks covered with moss and dried flowers. I have more ideas right now than I have time. I do know that next year’s tree will be more wilderness themed than this one. This one I like, though.

Ideas for Ephemeral Ornaments

Most of these are classic, old-fashioned ornaments. I love the fact that they are free or inexpensively made, and don’t have to be stored from year to year.

  • Sturdy fruits and berries
  • Popcorn/cranberry strings
  • Paper chains
  • Dried herbs and flowers
  • Moss
  • Feathers
  • Cool looking seed pods
  • Nuts
  • Origami
  • Paper snowflakes
  • Homemade rock candy
  • Gingerbread figures

There’s tons more possibilities. What have I forgotten?

Some of my ornaments

sugared sage

This is a sugared white sage leaf. I added sugar because I decided the tree needed a little bling.

sugared toyon

Ditto with these–sugared toyon berries. I will do a separate how-to post on sugaring.


But berries don’t need sugaring to look nice. These are pink peppercorn tree berries.

twirl ornament

These  pretty twisty spiral things fall off a tree in our neighborhood. I’m sorry that I don’t know the name of the tree.

origami ikea

Next year I’m going to do my own origami for the tree. This year I’ve got some paper stars I dug up, which I believe came from Ikea.


And there’s always snowflakes.


*We considered a potted tree but decided against it because first, we could never plant it–we don’t have the space, and second, most of these conifers aren’t meant to live in the LA climate. I didn’t want to keep a potted tree on life support on our back patio. I think it would be unhappy. This little tree will be dismembered after Christmas and will become part of the ecosystem of our yard.

Leave a comment


  1. How about:
    Indian Cigar Tree seed pods.
    *I crochet tiny stockings from red and white yarn.
    *Sweet gum balls can be glittered or sugared.
    *Pieces of old jewelry, broken chains all can adorn a tree.
    *Cut, sew, turn and stuff ornaments of cloth and dress them. The best (sarcasm) example of this I have seen was a stuffed Noah in a yellow slicker with a little copy of the Bible in his pocket.

    *I have Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man, all in felt.

    They are not ephemeral because I put them away each year. However. they all could easily composted. Scraps would work for all of these sewing and crochet projects.

  2. If you feel like crafting is you can make little shaped ornaments from a dough made from equal amounts of cinnamon and applesauce, mixed together and rolled out like cookie dough, then cut into shapes and left to dry. If you make a hole in the “cookie” you can hang them on the tree, and since they are made from food they are entirely compostable. They have a distinctive scent of cinnnamon, and I first read about them decades ago in Sunset magazine

    • I’ve done those cinnamon and applesauce ornaments with my kids. They smell GREAT and when the aroma wanes, rough them up with a bit of sandpaper or an emery board and they’ll start smelling great again!

  3. I, OTOH, am a certified Christmas junkie so I’ve pretty much done it all over my 60+ Christmases.

    Here are some things you might want to know:

    • Pop your corn kernels several days ahead if you want to string it. It will resist shattering when you put a needle through it and not resist it so you have to push so hard you end up with a hole in your finger from the wrong end of the needle.

    • Dried slices of citrus are really pretty on trees. They pick up the light and look like vaguely sparkly stained glass. Dried apple slices have a different folky look.

    • You can leave the above on the tree and put the tree out in your yard for the birds after Christmas and before you shred up what remains for mulch.

    • You can make really beautiful ornaments by glueing dried seeds, beans and small pods onto hollowed out eggs. Use their natural color to form mosaic patterns. When you’ve filled the exterior space dip them into hot paraffin or beeswax to get a thin coating (optional but very pretty). These take some time and trouble but also look pretty all year round balanced on a small shot glass or wooden spool podiums. And they’ll last for years if you don’t break the shells. You can avoid that too by letting some of the wax into the interior and swirling it around to fortify the shell.

    • Lots of origami shapes like cranes and simple cubes are very attractive on trees. You can use colorful wrapping paper or recycle magazine pages or some of the glittery seasonal junk mail we all get.

    • Great ideas. Thanks for the popcorn tip. I didn’t know that–you’ve saved me some trouble!

  4. Paper cones with a paper/ribbon/raffia handle filled with… berries? sweets?
    Blown eggs (especially very tiny or white eggs, so quail/duck/goose) with a ribbon looped and knotted a la Sarah Raven ( a British garden/cookery writer who uses organza, but you could use raffia to make them fully compostable. TBH, it’s a faff, blowing eggs so I’d keep them for a few years 🙂 ) She also hangs runner beans on her tree, but spray paints them silver which detracts from the compostability somewhat…
    Bundles of cinnamon sticks
    Star anise
    Chillies, either individually or as a garland
    Orange peel roses (google- dead easy to make)
    Dried oranges and other citrus, either slashed, studded with cloves to make a pomander or carved with a lino cutting tool or similar into rococo swirls or geometric designs. (scroll down). These will keep for years too. They’re too big to hang on a tree (unless you use kumquats) but you could display them in a (papier mache) bowl.
    Twig stars
    Cardboard stars wound with yarn. I saw these for sale at a huge price in a smart gift shop and promptly got my 5 year old Rainbow Guides to make some for their Christmas craft last year
    Tiny Mexican godseyes with twigs and yarn
    Google BBC Victorian Christmas activities- lots of ideas with the brilliant Ruth Goodman. I like the ivy ribbon
    Tiny circles of (cran)berries, like mini wreaths
    Paper birds, with pleated paper wings or cut from old books. Lots of pictures if you google Christmas paper bird decorations
    Needle felted ornament in an acorn shell or walnut half, or a walnut shell boat with a twig mast and paper sail

    I may have got slightly carries away…I’ll stop now 🙂

    • Okay, can you come to our house and make our ornaments? Please?

      I love the acorn boat idea! And it brought up a memory of an ornament I made when I was a kid that I really loved: half an acorn shell, a rafia nest inside, and nestled in the nest, two chicks made out of chickpeas (garbanzos). All the needed to make them birds were little dots for eyes.

  5. There’s a tradition in Scandinavia and Finland of making goats out of straw for Christmas. They range from tree ornament size, to enormous outdoor sculptures. When I was a kid in Sweden, I remember making the smaller ones in school on a craft day. I found some instructions in English for a large-ish version, but it should be possible to scale it down:

    (I suspect you wouldn’t need to soak the straw beforehand if you’re making small ornaments.)

    • Cool! I happen to have a bale of straw in the backyard.

      You know what’s funny–those instructions come from the website of the man who taught the guy who taught me how to make shoes.

  6. Here in FL we use shells with a hole drilled in them to hang – after Christmas they can be smashed and added to garden as soil amendment or on a walkway. Use whole, sliced, pieces, etc.

    In CT I used halves of milkweed seed pods glued together in star formations, also hops, fresh ivy, fresh holly, dried citrus peel spirals, wild grapevines made into tiny wreaths, all sizes of pinecones, bay leaves glued into wreaths and stars. Some were given a very light brush of white, silver or gold paint, others a little glitter glue and some a little brush of oil to make them sparkle. Also used narrow strips of all cotton Christmas fabric or red gingham. All were then used on paths in our woods were they still sparkled and finally broke down.

  7. We used to have a potted evergreen that was a tree every year (and a houseplant the rest of the year) but now it’s just a houseplant. I’ve recycled my sister’s in-laws reusable tree (which is a nice word for “artificial”) for a bigger one now that we have a little one who generates more ornaments.

  8. Thank you, all, for the great ideas. I’m going to compile a list of these ideas for quick reference, so if anyone wants to add something–please do!

  9. The local Pennsylvania Dutch in my area shared with me the early immigrants to the area had very little and decorated their trees with cookies, which was quite a treat for the kids. Typically they made a type of hard sugar cookie of varying shapes with a hole in the center that went directly over a small branch. I love the idea of decorating with edibles, how very eco-friendly!

  10. I found instructions for a beautiful modular origami wreath. The folds are easy, and assembly of the 18 pieces is pretty simple. One thing I learned: the smaller the squares of paper you use, the thinner the paper should be. I used construction paper for my first effort, cut into 4.25″ squares, and that worked well. My second attempt was with 6 cm construction paper squares; that led to frustration and tearing when I tried the assembly! Origami paper would have worked better.
    Here is the link for the instructions:

  11. Pingback: Big List of Earth-Friendly (homemade, compostable, recyclable, no-plastic) Christmas Decorations | Root Simple

  12. My tree has lots of standard glass ball ornaments, but also pine cones gathered on walks, corks from special bottles of champagne, and the first egg we got from our first batch of chickens. I love my eclectic tree!

  13. Are there no ants in LA? If we put anything that even hinted at being “sugared” on a tree in our house it would be an ant tree in about 6 minutes flat. We’d have to give them all tiny Santa hats and reindeer antlers to stay within the theme.

    • LOL. There are plenty of ants in LA. There are plenty of them right outside our doors in the yard. But for some reason ants never come in our house and I have no idea why this is (an ancient spell, perhaps?), but I do thank my lucky stars every day.

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