This time each year, Michael Rock leaves work smelling like pine needles, weary from a repetitive chore that signals the final curtain for the Christmas holiday.
Rock and a dozen other Baltimore County highway workers spend the last three weeks of January shoving Christmas trees -- stripped of their lights and tinsel, thank you -- into chippers that grind the trees into mulch.
"When I go home, I smell like a pine tree," said Rock, 33, of Parkville. "It just stays with you."
The daily grind is part of a winter rite this month at landfills throughout Maryland, as jurisdictions collect thousands of Christmas trees and turn them into mulch. The mulch is distributed to area residents and spread on public grounds and parks.
"My Christmas tree's probably in there somewhere," Rock said this week, amid the pervasive scent of pine needles at the county's Resource and Recovery Facility in Cockeysville, off York Road.
There, the Tannenbaums were brought in by the truckload, ground up by one of eight industrial-size chippers and sprayed into a mountain of mulch, at the rate of one tree every three seconds.
Baltimore County will grind an estimated 60,000 trees as part of a collection effort -- that costs $200,000 -- between now and Jan. 29, county officials said.
Nationally, about 65 percent of the 35 million Christmas trees sold each year -- roughly 23 million -- are recycled, said James Corliss, a tree grower in Newburgh, Maine, who is chairman of the National Christmas Tree Association's recycling committee.
The number of trees collected by area jurisdictions this year is not available, but officials said that each year for about the past decade, thousands of trees have been collected and recycled.
Kurt L. Kocher, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, said the city collected 14,000 Christmas trees last year and that hundreds of city residents dropped off Christmas trees last weekend at the Memorial Stadium parking lot and at Polytechnic Institute. They were provided with bags of mulch in return.
Mulch not distributed to residents is used at area parks and on grounds around public buildings, officials said.
Charles Reighart, Baltimore County's recycling coordinator, said the county is giving out mulch at landfills in Halethorpe, Cockeysville and White Marsh.
Horticulture experts say that Christmas tree mulch is not quite top of the line.
"Shredded Christmas trees make for pretty good mulch, but they're not the best," said Robert Bishop, a horticulture expert with the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Frederick.
Most of the mulch sold at gardening shops is higher quality, with the best made out of the shredded conifer bark, he said. Another good mulch is from shredded hardwood bark, he said.
Bishop said the problem with Christmas tree mulch is that large chunks of wood remain in any mulch made by passing an entire tree through a chipper -- instead of just the bark. The large chunks don't break down in soil as easily as mulch from tree bark, he said.
Bishop said the mulch will work well if mixed with nitrogen fertilizer. "The important thing about mulch is to keep it to 2 or 3 inches in depth," he said. "Don't layer it on deeper than that."
Officials in area jurisdictions acknowledge that Christmas tree mulch might not be the best available. But it's free, a price tag that keeps complaints to a minimum.
"We don't give any guarantees with our mulch," said Vinnie Legge, Carroll County recycling manager. "Some of it's been lying around for two or three months, but they have to take it as is."
Horticulture experts say a market always exists for mulch, whether it's top of the line or not.
"One of the big benefits is that mulch just looks good, aesthetically, in a garden," said Avery Harden, Baltimore County's landscape architect.
Here is a schedule for Christmas tree collection in the metropolitan area:
Baltimore City: Trees will be collected during the second trash collection day of the week. Collection will continue until the end of the month. Residents are asked to place trees where they normally place trash for collection. Information: 410-396-5916.
Baltimore County: Residents should place their trees at curbside as soon as possible. If trees are not collected by Jan. 29, residents should call 410-887-2000.
Anne Arundel County: Residents should place trees at curbside on their regular yard waste and recycling collection days. Collection will continue until Jan. 30. Residents are asked to cut in half trees taller than 4 1/2 feet. Information: 410-222-7951.
Harford County: The county has seven drop-off sites that will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Information: 410-638-3417.
Howard County: Trees will be collected from curbsides from residents who have regular recycling pickup until Jan. 22. Information: 410-313-SORT.
Carroll County: Many towns and haulers offer curbside service. Residents are asked to call their towns and haulers for details. All tinsel and ornaments should be removed from trees.
Pub Date: 1/15/99