As lovely as a fresh tree is on Christmas Eve, lights shimmering, ornaments reflected in their glow, it's a different picture a week or so later when, stripped of its finery, it becomes a sad, twiggy shadow of its former self. Even when water is added to the tree's reservoir base, central heating and the Sahara-like lack of humidity in most homes and apartments soon produce a constant soft rain of needles falling to the floor below.

When I was a child, this was not always the case. Our tree was always set up in our family room, which was on a separate heating system from the rest of our house. Chilly during the day, it was only briefly warmed up in the evening when it was in use. Thus the life of our tree was greatly extended. So much so that my mother decided to see just how long the tree would remain viable. At first, it reigned, fully decorated, well into January. Then she upped the ante and, after putting away the Christmas ornaments, left the tree up until Valentine's Day, complete with heart-themed decorations. Her finest hour was realized when the tree made it to St. Patrick's Day before shedding. Oddly enough, we children never found these antics odd: it takes an outsider sometimes to point out these eccentricities. I was in college when a friend I'd brought home looked around and said, "Wow, it takes a lot of guts to paint your kitchen green and purple." Silly me; I just thought Mom was ahead of her time when it came to home decor.

But back to the tree. When we finally put ours out on the curb for trash pickup, in those days it went straight to what was fondly known as the dump, to be burned or buried with all the other garbage. Today, we have many other options for end-of-life tree disposal. At the very least, many communities post times when the trees can be brought to a lot somewhere to be chipped and made into mulch. The resulting mulch is often laid down on municipal hiking trails, a fitting end for a former forest dweller. Check your local newspaper and see if your town has such a program.

If your community has no tree reuse program, there's no reason you can't recycle a tree for use in your own yard. Branches can be removed and laid down as mulch over perennial beds. This gives a bit of protection from drying winds and helps to stabilize soil temperatures. If you have a chipper, or have a neighbor with one, when spring comes the branches can be picked up and made into mulch for home use. If you leave 6- to 12-inch stubs along the tree's trunk, it can be used in the spring as support for pole beans or peas in the garden. In fact, you could take in a few cast-off trees and use them, teepee-fashion, for a pole-bean house.

If yours is a yard without many trees, a Christmas tree can end its days in dignity as a bird feeder. This also makes a great project for small children who are reluctant to say goodbye to the magical tree. You may need to wire the tree to some stakes pounded into the ground to support it, but once that's done, decorate it with edible garlands made from fresh apple and orange slices or cranberries and popcorn. Roll pinecones in peanut butter and then in birdseed and hang them from the branches, along with suet cakes. If you already have a bird feeder, place the tree nearby as additional sanctuary during the winter months.