It's three days after Christmas, and now is the time

Fire officials start to recite this annual rhyme:

Take down your tree before the chance of a blaze.

Its needles are drying. It's in a dangerous phase.

So, I'm not another Clement Clark Moore, but the message is clear: It is time for cut Christmas trees to go. But there are plenty of ways to get some more use out of them.

There is the standard way. Call and ask your local jurisdiction for guidelines regarding how they collect and dispose of trees. Typically they will have you put the tree at curbside for pick up. Their plans usually include grinding the trees for compost with leaves and other lawn debris and returning the material to the community as mulch in spring.

But there are many other ways to get more out of your Christmas tree before composting it.

* Stand the tree as a perch for birds. Rub suet on the branches to attract them. They can use it this time of year when insects and berries are scarce. If birds flock to it, you might need to install a feeder when the tree declines. If a bird nests in it, leave it undisturbed until the baby birds grow up and fly away. This gives the tree several additional months of use. And, by the way, legend says finding a bird's nest in a Christmas tree is good luck.

Once the tree is outside, you can hang hearts on it for Valentine's Day, shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day, eggs at Easter and so on, until the tree browns and boughs break. Winter temperatures may preserve the tree.

* To protect plants in your garden that are subject to freeze damage, cut off the tree's limbs and lay them as a blanket over low plants. They will shield tender shrubs such as loropetalums and cleyeras and the roots of perennials such as hardy mums, verbenas, plumbagos and bulbs. Cut the limbs from the main trunk with a pruner or saw and lay them lightly, just one or two thick, over the area. Remove them before growth begins in spring.

* If you prune the greens for winter protection, you can use the trunk as a totem. Dry the sticky sap from your tree by leaving it outdoors to season. Carve and paint it. This is fun to do with younger children. Your totem can be classic or contemporary and should last well into spring. Stand the trunk in a bucket filled with gravel or use your tree stand.

* Cut off the perfect length of pine, Douglas fir or spruce with a handsaw. Season it, sand it and carve it to turn it into a walking stick. Keep it natural, or make this an activity for children, too, and decorate it.

* Create a wildlife habitat. Lay your tree in the background of your garden, slightly out of view. Let it collect leaf litter and other plant debris. Place a hollow log behind it and maybe a dead bush, and you will have created a shelter for wildlife and a possible habitat. Animals, such as squirrels, rabbits, foxes and even toads, turtles and birds count on this type of protected area to hide from predators and to nest in. This shelter is also food for insects and worms whose purpose it is to eat and decay your tree. Plant it with several native shrubs and a tree, such as spicebushes, inkberries, winterberry hollies or a serviceberry tree. Stretching the season with your Christmas tree this way also creates a permanent native planting on your property.

* Make your tree a windbreak. Put it where branches and needles will protect tender shrubs in your garden, such as camellias or roses. I've known nurseries to do this with their leftover Christmas trees. Simply lay the tree between the plant and the path of the prevailing wind, which usually blows from the north or northwest in winter. You can also stand the tree to get extra ornamental value while it's protecting your shrubs. Tie it to a six-foot-long length of lumber pounded into the ground a foot or two deep. Lumber that is 2-by-2 inches in size makes a great stake.

* Use the tree as a soil erosion barrier on a hillside. If you have an area where sediment washes off your property and is leaving an erosion ditch, lay your Christmas tree, branches and all, across the ditch. Anchor it with a couple of 2-by-2-inch stakes to hold it in place. It will catch the sediment runoff and stabilize the soil in that area until other vegetation takes root. If you have a larger area of erosion, you might want to use the neighbors' discarded Christmas trees to extend your barrier.

* If you have a natural lake or pond on your property, Christmas trees can be lowered into the water to provide cover for aquatic life. Tie a rock or concrete block to the trunk and sink it to make the perfect shelter for small fish and other aquatic animals that need protection as they mature.

* You can't root a cut Christmas tree, but you can grow one from a seed. If you find a cone, remove it before discarding the tree and put the cone outside to dry for the winter. Peel back its armor in spring to find a seed in a papery covering behind the woody scales. Plant the seeds in a sunny spot, and in five to 10 years you'll have homegrown Christmas trees.

* If you have a chipper, prune the limbs from the main trunk and grind them yourself. Grinding nitrogen-rich green needles together with the carbon of the wood makes great compost. It offers an excellent carbon-to-nitrogen ratio that will make possible efficient composting.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is jml@gardenlerner.com; his Web site is at www.gardenlerner.com.