Every year starting after Thanksgiving there is a debate in the minds of Christmas shoppers: Should we buy a real Christmas tree or an artificial one? However, if you count each tree sold as one vote, artificial trees have been winning the debate handily in recent years. Approximately 33 million real trees will likely grace our homes this holiday season compared to about 50 million artificial ones. Not nearly that many artificial trees are bought each year, however, since the average artificial tree is kept about six to seven years.

So what’s to debate — most people have already voted with their wallets, right? But even those who purchase artificial trees are not always sure they have made the right decision. There are a good reasons for buying either an a artificial or real Christmas tree.

Artificial trees

Convenience is one of the biggest selling points for artificial trees. There are no frigid trips to a retail Christmas lot or a Christmas tree farm to argue over which tree to buy. There is no haggling over price — and no need to go through the gymnastics of tying the tree on top of your car for the trip home.

Once purchased in a nice, warm retail store and taken home, artificial trees are a snap to set up. Unlike real trees, they come with permanent stands, which can add considerably to the cost of a real tree. And the newer artificial trees look convincingly real. Many artificial trees also come prestrung with lights — some with LED lights, which is another selling point.

And no vacuuming fallen needles and no water reservoir that must be kept filled. For families with members who are allergic to terpene, a substance found in the sap of real Christmas trees, an artificial tree is the one to buy.

Real trees often dry out in about 10 days after they are set up, even if they are faithfully watered.

At that point they become a fire hazard. Artificial trees can be left up as long as a family wishes — some people display their trees through Valentine’s and redecorate them with appropriate Valentine decorations. Once the tree is finally taken down, it is easy to store until next Christmas.

In the long run, artificial trees are less expensive and have a carbon footprint no bigger than live trees — if they are kept eight years or longer. They may cost more initially, but top quality ones will last 20 or more years.

Real trees

Some of the best reasons for buying a real tree are environmental ones. About 80 percent of all artificial trees sold in our country are manufactured in China. They are made mostly from polyvinyl (PVC), which is derived from petroleum and contains harmful toxins. Additionally, China uses coal — one of the dirtiest fuel sources — to generate electricity for manufacture of their artificial trees. Then the carbon footprint is further increased when they are transported thousands of miles to our country and then trucked to retailers throughout the United States.

Christmas tree farms are good for the environment because they stabilize soil and help to prevent soil erosion, which helps protect our water resources.

They also create scenic green belts and provide refuge for small wildlife.

One real Christmas trees produces enough oxygen every day to meet the oxygen needs for 18 persons. With 400 million trees growing on about 343,000 acres on Christmas tree farms and plantations, they produce a tremendous amount of oxygen! Additionally, these trees sequester a massive amount of carbon during their average lifetimes of seven years of life on a tree farm before they are cut and sold.

Christmas trees are an agricultural crop. There are approximately 12,000 retail Christmas tree farms and wholesale plantations located in our 50 states. They employ about 100,000 people a year, seasonally and full time. So helping to build a strong economy for our country is another important consideration when deciding whether to go with a real tree or an artificial one.

Farmers must use sustainable farming methods or they would soon run out of trees to market. For every tree sold, nine more trees are left to grow for future years. Many tree farms use land that is not suited for other crops. In some cases the soil is not particularly rich or it is too hilly for most crops. And nationally, only 4 percent of tree farms need to use any irrigation.

There are many other reasons for preferring real Christmas trees. Only real trees have the aroma of Christmas. Custom is another big reason. Some families have long traditions of cutting their own tree at a U-cut tree farm, going to a tree lot to pick out the “perfect” tree or buying a permit to cut their tree in a national forest.

Only real Christmas trees can be recycled. Artificial trees made from PVC may look like the real thing, but they won’t decompose — ever. Once taken to the landfills, they languish endlessly and shorten the life of landfills, which are already in short supply. But real Christmas trees don’t need to be vanquished to landfills, even though they are completely biodegradeable.

Instead, they can be easily repurposed or recycled.

Some families choose to move their trees outdoors after Christmas and decorate with strings of popcorn, homemade suet/seed balls or fresh fruit slices that attract birds.

Other gardeners cut off the boughs and use them for protecting young perennials and shrubs from subfreezing weather.

In some areas, Christmas trees are used to improve fish habitats. They are sometimes used to prevent beach erosion along coastal areas.

Recycling programs are popular and are located in over 4,000 sites throughout the United States, including Yakima, where Christmas trees are ground into mulch. The resulting mulch has many uses in gardening, including being composted into compost.

Locally, recycling of Christmas trees runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 6 at Barnett of Yakima Implement, located at 3110 Fruitvale Blvd. A small donation is asked for the service.

All proceeds go to Camp Prime Time, which provides fun-filled weekends for families with serious or terminally ill children.

Even if you don’t have a tree to be recycled, you may want to drop by and leave a donation for this wonderful volunteer organization.

• Freelance gardening columnist Jim McLain can be reached at 509-697-6112 or ongardening@fairpoint.net.