Saving potted trees

Ditching toxic prezzies

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QWhere can I find a living, potted Christmas tree?

AO tannenbaum, how did things get so complicated? I bet 16th-century Germans worried more about trees catching fire from candles than deforestation. Now it’s a whole different world, and axing a spruce to shove presents under it is tantamount to skinning a mink in some circles.

This year, however, popular opinion seems to be thawing around the cut-tree biz. Plastic is clearly not so fantastic, no matter how often you can restring the same pink pine, especially when it’s made from lead-heavy PVC.

Tree plantations, on the other hand, provide valuable wildlife habitat on rocky terrain unsuitable for food crops, and the trees pump out plenty of precious oxygen for the seven or eight years they get to live.

Really, as long as you avoid the vast majority of trees that get doused with chemical pesticides, you could potentially sail through the whole tree thing relatively guilt-free. Even heavyweight enviros are snagging themselves chem-free cut varieties – grown locally, of course. (The Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf on Bayview carries Martin Dorion Tree Farm’s organic trees at $10/foot. Since he doesn’t use pesticides or fungicides, Dorion loses about 40 per cent of his trees to bugs, so the slightly higher prices help keep the fourth-generation farm in business.)

Still, going the potted route is probably the most pious option – that is, if you don’t end up killing the tree. Even a hardcore nature nurturer I know couldn’t keep his alive. The key is to have a hole pre-dug in your garden before the frost (at this time of year you’ll need a pickaxe). Set aside that dirt you dug up in a bag so you can use it later.

Once you’ve purchased the tree, keep it indoors (and well watered) for no more than seven days, preferably in a cool spot away from roaring fireplaces. Warning: if you ignore these directions, you’ll end up confusing the poor thing into thinking it’s spring and it’ll start popping out buds. Shove it outside at that point and it’ll get the shock of a lifetime.

Soon after Santa blows town, move the tree to a shed or garage for a few days so it can slowly adjust to cooler temps. Then pop your tree out of its pot, toss it in the hole, pack it well with all that soil you saved earlier, and cover the whole thing in a insulating layer of snow (or better yet compost, if you have any).

Make sure to water your special tree when temps go above freezing to give it a fighting chance. If all goes well, repeat with next year’s tree until you’ve got a full-blown coniferous forest. But if you have a track record of killing ferns and underwatering cacti, you might be best off with a potted Norfolk Island pine or a cypress tree instead. They look sort of Christmasy, and since they originate in warmer climes they’ll be happy houseplants, staying indoors all year long. You can keep them for years on end if you treat them right. Just a string a a few cranberries around your plant come December and you’re good to go.

QI heard there’s asbestos in some kids toys. How do I know which toys to avoid?

AName your poison. Okay, not your favourite poison, like alcohol, but classic skull-and-crossbones stuff like mercury, lead, cadmium and, yes, asbestos. While lead gets all the media attention these days, all these toxins are turning up in places they shouldn’t – namely fire trucks, dolls, lunch pails and pretty much anything kids love to unwrap come the 25th.

Earlier this month, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization found that six of eight CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Fingerprint Examination Kits tested positive for asbestos – and not just some regular kind, but an especially deadly form called tremolite. Not good, especially when loose fingerprinting powders could easily be inhaled.

Trouble is, warnings about which prezzies are toxic aren’t as centralized as they should be. Yes, you can find the official recall list on Health Canada’s website ( or the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission site (

But plenty of toys that haven’t been recalled still test positive for toxins. The Consumer Action Guide To Toxic Chemicals In Toys (see ranks 1,200 kids’ products according to the levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, fire retardants and other nasty chemicals they found with X-ray guns – but not asbestos. You have to go to for the full results of asbestos tests carried out by certified labs.

Better yet, ask for organic and sustainable toys that are sure to be free of any poisons, available at smaller toy shops like the Toy Space on Bathurst or Treasure Island on Danforth. Pop your head into the kids’ section at Grassroots on Bloor or Danforth or head online to sites like I’m a fan of the 5-foot-high recycled-cardboard rocket kids decorate themselves from Ottawa’s Paperpod ( Not sure I can fit through its mini-door, though.

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