A cut Christmas tree, no matter how lush and lovely, just wasn't going to be green enough for the members of Palo Alto's Grace Lutheran Church.

Respecting all of nature's creations, they didn't want to kill a perfectly healthy tree, watch it become brittle-needled after a month inside the sanctuary, then kick the sad sapling to the curb post-holiday like yesterday's trash.

So they leased a living tannenbaum instead.

"Our congregation has tried to make a number of changes in recent years involving what we call stewardship of creation -- basically being environmentally sensitive," said the Rev. Matthew Smuts, pastor of Grace Lutheran. "So this fits right in with our sense of how we ought to be working with nature. Being green."

Evergreen, to be exact. A robust 11-foot-tall live redwood -- pot and all -- was delivered to the church Tuesday afternoon by Eric Manning, owner of San Jose Christmas Tree Rental (plantman.com). It is to be decorated, enjoyed and then picked up in January, taken back to the place of its nativity in Manning's nursery to grow and thrive and be ready for next year's holidays and beyond.

Rental trees are not new in the far Northwest and British Columbia, and even Manning says he's been doing it off and on for the past several years as a branch of his regular plant-leasing business. But the idea has only recently taken hold in the Bay Area, Los Angeles and a smattering of sites around the country.


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"This is a natural for the Bay Area," Manning said after another delivery of several trees to the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall and a couple of residential stops. "It's great, what with everyone being into repurposing and reusing. And you don't really have to do anything about it yourself. No needles to clean up. No dead tree to put out on the curb."

It's a refreshingly simple concept. The rental generally costs a little more than purchasing a high-quality precut tree -- Manning's range from $95 for a 6-footer to $280 for an 11-foot tree (extra fees apply for long-distance hauls). A real tree smells better than plastic. A living tree is better for fire safety. And you can rent the same tree year after year if you want.

"It can become like part of the family," said Monica Hudson, co-owner of Rent A Living Christmas Tree (rentxmastree.com) in Carmel, who delivers fir, spruce and cedar trees to customers in Monterey, Santa Cruz and the South Bay. She'll go up as far as Berkeley and Burlingame if she gets group orders.

"A lot of people start with small trees and say they want their family to grow with it, but they don't want the mess of buying their own live tree, planting it, then digging it up at the holidays again," she said. "Some people even name the tree they rent. We had one family call and say, 'How is Carl doing? We'd like to have him back this year."

While tree rental has not yet killed off the farmed-and-cut tree industry -- the National Christmas Tree Association reports 27 million real cut trees were sold in 2010 -- going green has been gold for Hudson. Her business, started in 2009 with partner Roland Garcia, has been "spreading like wildfire" -- an apt description, but perhaps not the best when discussing forestation.

"Oh, maybe I shouldn't say that," she joked. "But we're doing great. We rented about 400 last Christmas and expect more this season."

Hudson's offerings run about $60 for a 6-foot Deodar cedar to about $140 for an 8-foot Nordman fir. She agrees that a big part of the draw is the reuse factor. "The trees will return to our nursery in the forest and keep producing oxygen, so it's improving the air quality, and the wildlife will welcome it back and use it as habitat," Hudson said.

Be advised, with great trees comes a wee bit of responsibility. You need to water them daily. Provide them with lots of natural light. And use the cooler LED Christmas lights to protect the needles.

Last year, one of Hudson's 7-foot Nordman firs went to Bill Baeck, 52, a writer based in Sunnyvale. He and his wife had an artificial tree for a few years. Then for a while, he'd go up to the mountains and chop his own tree, which gave him "a certain caveman satisfaction," he said. Eventually he gave that up, and would just pick up a precut tree from a lot.

"But I always felt bad about the way it faded over the weeks to New Years," he said. "It always started off looking like Dickens' own Christmas, but by January inevitably ended up like the one in the 'Peanuts' special. So for us, (renting) was the best way for us to have a real tree."