For years, Pat de Garmo's Christmas tree was her aging yucca plant.
She doesn't like the idea of killing trees, and the size of her yard prevents her from getting a potted one. So year after year she strung lights and ornaments on the indoor yucca plant, hanging toy drums and colored orbs from its stiff branches.
For environmentally conscious consumers like de Garmo — and their numbers abound in this liberal Northwest city — a venture that rents out living Christmas trees is filling a void.
The Original Living Christmas Tree Company founded by John Fogel, 39, has rented out 419 Christmas trees this holiday season, starting at $55 for a 7-foot Douglas fir.
The trees are taken out of the ground, roots and all, put into pots, and delivered to families in the Portland area. Soon after New Year's, Fogel and his crew pick up the trees and deliver them to parks, school districts and other groups who pay around $10 to have the trees planted on their property.
"It seems like to cut a tree and put it in your house and have it dry out and then just toss it away is such a shame. This way, I know it will be replanted — no guilt," said the 61-year-old de Garmo, a retired nurse, who hasn't decorated her indoor plants since she discovered the rent-a-tree business three years ago.
Officials at the National Christmas Tree Association say they know of no other rent-a-tree business venture in the United States.
While Fogel says he could grow beyond his current orders, he maintains a strict policy of accepting no more orders than he can find buyers willing to plant the trees come January.
"Just the idea of cutting all of these trees — these living things for decorations — kind of appalls me," said 44-year-old Glen Jacobs, a high school theater teacher in Portland, who along with his family has turned renting a tree into a yearly tradition.
While tree-rental businesses appear to be a rarity, buying live Christmas trees that have been placed in pots is less so.
Steve Mannhard is a board member of the National Christmas Tree Association. About a decade ago customers began showing up with shovels at his sprawling Christmas tree farm on Alabama's Gulf Coast.
"People started trying to dig the trees out of the ground. I asked them: 'Why are you doing that?' They said, 'Because I want it to live,'" said Mannhard, 57, who began offering potted trees in addition to cut ones at Fish River Trees, near Summerdale, Ala., in 1992.
Last year, out of a total of nearly 5,000 trees he sold, about 1,000 were potted, said Mannhard — a fact he says underscores the popularity of the living tree concept.
"Trees and human beings have a close relationship — and some people are more sensitive to that," he said.
Fogel started the Original Living Christmas Tree Co. in 1992. He says the seed was planted by his father decades ago in upstate New York, when he read to him a fable about a lonely tree in the forest that longed to be decorated by a loving family.
On a recent December afternoon, Fogel watched his two helpers lean a Douglas fir against a green house in a leafy Portland neighborhood. The owners were not home, so he left an envelope tucked among the tree's branches, outlining a few simple instructions on how to care for the tree — and the date when he planned to return.
"My market happens to be people that feel guilty about cutting trees," Fogel said. "But this also happens to be a convenient alternative."
Artifical trees gaining popularity
And that is what makes his venture unique, said Bruce Judson, an expert on small businesses at the Yale School of Management, who points out that the $791 million Christmas tree industry has been reeling from the growing popularity of synthetic trees.
In 1990, 35.4 million households put up real trees and 36.3 million displayed artificial ones, according to a consumer survey by the National Christmas Tree Association. A decade later, the split was 32 million live and 50.6 million artificial.
Those numbers show that Americans are increasingly choosing convenience over tradition, said Judson — and a venture like Fogel's neatly straddles both worlds.
"This gives you the convenience of a plastic tree with the aesthetics and environmental values of a live tree," he said.
While Fogel's trees have become a yearly tradition in hundreds of Portland homes, the endeavor has not yet made him rich. Someday, he hopes his business will support him year-round. But come January, he'll be out looking for a part-time job.
"I've probably made 17 cents an hour over the last 15 years," Fogel said, "but at least I'm working for myself."