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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What To Do With Pine Needles

Pine needles are a scourge to many gardeners. While leaves that have fallen from trees can be easily raked up, blown away, or crushed underfoot, pine needles lie in ever-growing mats on the ground and are more difficult to remove. If left in place they choke the life from grass or flowers planted beneath a tree. Leaves can be composted easily while needles seem to take forever to break down. For many gardeners pine needles have a place in the forest, but not in the garden.

I look forward to my annual resupply of pine needles. I think they have a definite place in the garden and offer a great example of how to recycle nature's bounty. My Ponderosa pines play an important role in my landscape.

Newly-raked needles

Pine needles, for my purposes here, are the brown, dried needles that have fallen from pine trees. You may also have heard them referred to as pine straw. Just as deciduous trees drop there leaves in the fall, pines drop a portion of their needles from the innermost sections of branches. Spruce and fir trees will also drop needles, but they tend to be much shorter in length and don't pose nearly as many problems as the longer pine needles. My Ponderosa pine needles are 6-7 inches long.

One of the first negative issues with pine needles is that they're notoriously difficult to remove from your lawn. When you try to rake them, their slender profile causes many of them to slide through the rake's tines and remain where they were. If you try to pick them up barehanded, their sharp points prick your skin. They cling to grass and plants and won't blow away even in the strongest winds.

If left in place, they form a thick barrier that keeps sun, water, and air from reaching plants underneath. That's why you see so many bare areas beneath pine trees. Though needles are slightly acidic, they really don't change the pH of the soil. The reason you have difficulty growing under a big pine is that the tree shades the ground and reduces the amount of moisture that reaches the soil. Add a layer of needles and plants will struggle to survive.

Another negative factor is that they take a long time to decompose. You can add them to your compost pile, but after everything else has broken down and turned into lovely, black compost, the needles will still remain intact. Burning them is rarely an option for many people, so you're left with piles of needles that take up space.

I see all three of these negative aspects as advantages for using pine needles in the garden. Think about areas of your garden where you want a mulch that stays in place and won't blow away. An area where you want to choke out the plants that may grow there. An area that's big and needs to be filled with something that will last a long time.

The path between my raised beds
The first place I use pine needles is on the pathways between my vegetable garden beds. After raking up needles, and raking again and again in the same spot to get as many as possible, I place them in thick layers on my garden paths. Rain, snow, my wheelbarrow, and multiple trips through the garden will compress them into a dense mat that keeps weeds in check. Any weeds that do manage to grow are quickly spotted against the brown background and easily pulled out. Before they're compacted, while still fresh, needles can be slippery when wet so be cautious.

I think they're a near-perfect mulch for my strawberries. They stay in place and keep the fruit dry and off the ground. In sections I use pine needles, my strawberries have fewer fungus and mold problems. I also have fewer issues with slugs; I suspect the sharp tips and rough edges help keep them at bay. When using pine needles as a mulch in the garden it helps to have irrigation in place first. If they're not compacted, the needles will allow water to seep to the ground and the plants, but a soaker hose or drip system in place under the needles works best.

They're also a great mulch for many other areas. Use them alone or with bark as mulch under fruit trees. They don't interfere with perennial plant growth and add a nice color contrast to leafy plants like hostas. The needles don't attract termites and can be used as a mulch in beds directly next to a house.

Individually, I use them as temporary seed markers. In the spring as I plant rows of seeds, I'll use a pine needle bundle to mark where I've already planted. They're already shaped like a stake and are easy to push in the soil. As the new plants grow a few needles don't hinder their progress and will become additional mulch.

Helping with erosion
They're a cheap and easy way to control erosion in problem areas. I've had sloping sections in my garden where the soil always flowed away in heavy rains. A heavy addition of needles helps keep it all in place. They work their way into the soil when it's wet and create a natural wall that inhibits erosion.

They can also be used, like straw, as a protective blanket during cold months. Cover tender plants or bulbs with a pile of pine needles and you've added a nice insulating barrier to the cold.

Of course there are many other uses. They're easy fire starters for an outdoor fire pit. Birds will pick through your beds for needles to use in nests. They can cushion clay pots from the hard ground. You can even weave baskets with them.

So look upon your needles as a blessing, not a curse. Sure it takes more effort to collect every last one of them, but they really do benefit to the garden. I saved one of the best advantages for last: if you or a friend has a pine tree, they're free. You won't need to spend hard-earned money on store-bought mulch for areas where pine needles will work. How great is that?

(Want more ideas for using pine needles? Check out my update article, "Uses for Pine Needles" on November 30, 2011)



Pine needles are a scourge to many gardeners. While leaves that have fallen from trees can be easily raked up, blown away, or crushed underfoot, pine needles lie in ever-growing mats on the ground and are more difficult to remove. If left in place they choke the life from grass or flowers planted beneath a tree. Leaves can be composted easily while needles seem to take forever to break down. For many gardeners pine needles have a place in the forest, but not in the garden.

I look forward to my annual resupply of pine needles. I think they have a definite place in the garden and offer a great example of how to recycle nature's bounty. My Ponderosa pines play an important role in my landscape.

Newly-raked needles

Pine needles, for my purposes here, are the brown, dried needles that have fallen from pine trees. You may also have heard them referred to as pine straw. Just as deciduous trees drop there leaves in the fall, pines drop a portion of their needles from the innermost sections of branches. Spruce and fir trees will also drop needles, but they tend to be much shorter in length and don't pose nearly as many problems as the longer pine needles. My Ponderosa pine needles are 6-7 inches long.

One of the first negative issues with pine needles is that they're notoriously difficult to remove from your lawn. When you try to rake them, their slender profile causes many of them to slide through the rake's tines and remain where they were. If you try to pick them up barehanded, their sharp points prick your skin. They cling to grass and plants and won't blow away even in the strongest winds.

If left in place, they form a thick barrier that keeps sun, water, and air from reaching plants underneath. That's why you see so many bare areas beneath pine trees. Though needles are slightly acidic, they really don't change the pH of the soil. The reason you have difficulty growing under a big pine is that the tree shades the ground and reduces the amount of moisture that reaches the soil. Add a layer of needles and plants will struggle to survive.

Another negative factor is that they take a long time to decompose. You can add them to your compost pile, but after everything else has broken down and turned into lovely, black compost, the needles will still remain intact. Burning them is rarely an option for many people, so you're left with piles of needles that take up space.

I see all three of these negative aspects as advantages for using pine needles in the garden. Think about areas of your garden where you want a mulch that stays in place and won't blow away. An area where you want to choke out the plants that may grow there. An area that's big and needs to be filled with something that will last a long time.

The path between my raised beds
The first place I use pine needles is on the pathways between my vegetable garden beds. After raking up needles, and raking again and again in the same spot to get as many as possible, I place them in thick layers on my garden paths. Rain, snow, my wheelbarrow, and multiple trips through the garden will compress them into a dense mat that keeps weeds in check. Any weeds that do manage to grow are quickly spotted against the brown background and easily pulled out. Before they're compacted, while still fresh, needles can be slippery when wet so be cautious.

I think they're a near-perfect mulch for my strawberries. They stay in place and keep the fruit dry and off the ground. In sections I use pine needles, my strawberries have fewer fungus and mold problems. I also have fewer issues with slugs; I suspect the sharp tips and rough edges help keep them at bay. When using pine needles as a mulch in the garden it helps to have irrigation in place first. If they're not compacted, the needles will allow water to seep to the ground and the plants, but a soaker hose or drip system in place under the needles works best.

They're also a great mulch for many other areas. Use them alone or with bark as mulch under fruit trees. They don't interfere with perennial plant growth and add a nice color contrast to leafy plants like hostas. The needles don't attract termites and can be used as a mulch in beds directly next to a house.

Individually, I use them as temporary seed markers. In the spring as I plant rows of seeds, I'll use a pine needle bundle to mark where I've already planted. They're already shaped like a stake and are easy to push in the soil. As the new plants grow a few needles don't hinder their progress and will become additional mulch.

Helping with erosion
They're a cheap and easy way to control erosion in problem areas. I've had sloping sections in my garden where the soil always flowed away in heavy rains. A heavy addition of needles helps keep it all in place. They work their way into the soil when it's wet and create a natural wall that inhibits erosion.

They can also be used, like straw, as a protective blanket during cold months. Cover tender plants or bulbs with a pile of pine needles and you've added a nice insulating barrier to the cold.

Of course there are many other uses. They're easy fire starters for an outdoor fire pit. Birds will pick through your beds for needles to use in nests. They can cushion clay pots from the hard ground. You can even weave baskets with them.

So look upon your needles as a blessing, not a curse. Sure it takes more effort to collect every last one of them, but they really do benefit to the garden. I saved one of the best advantages for last: if you or a friend has a pine tree, they're free. You won't need to spend hard-earned money on store-bought mulch for areas where pine needles will work. How great is that?

(Want more ideas for using pine needles? Check out my update article, "
Uses for Pine Needles" on November 30, 2011)



12 comments:

  1. Hi Scott, This is a great post! I too live in the Ponderosa Pine forest, and use my pine needles much the same as you - for paths, for mulch, and for erosion control. I also rake them up and give them to my clients who use them the same way. I do leave my pine needles on the perennial beds over the winter and have never had a problem with the plants getting smothered. I only wish that people would not put their bags of pine needles out to the garbage - they're very useful! Kathy

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  2. Thanks, Kathy. Yes, pine needles are very useful. I've been known to stop at strangers' homes and ask if I can take the bags of needles and/or leaves that they have set out for the trash. When they ask why, I am more than glad to explain their usefulness. On occasion they pull the bags back in to use for themselves. It's great when they do.

    ReplyDelete
  3. We have new property in NW Montana and I desperately need an effective way to mechanically get needles out of the grass under the 29 Ponderosas in our acre-and-a-half-front yard? Any experience using a rotary broom on front of a compact tractor?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Don and Marty, I haven't used a rotary broom, but for a large area it should do the job as long as it is set to rotate above the surface of the soil. Set too low and it will rip the grass out and you'll be left with a bare lot. I have used a de-thatcher on a lawn and it effectively releases the needles (and a good portion of grass), but they still need to be raked up. If the broom is adjustable, you might consider making a high pass with the broom to remove the top layer of needles. If it's successful, gradually lower the broom by increments until you reach the point that it gets out most of the needles without damaging the grass and soil. Regardless, it will be a lot of work and probably still require hand-raking. Please let me know how it turns out.

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  5. I have 23 Ponderosas on my .22 acres in the Boise Mountains. That is a lot of pine needles. I hand rake them with a metal rake (those plastic rakes just grab them and don't let go). I use what I can and am more than willing to share the rest of them. (please!) I have seen neighbors use a leif blower to raise them up and pile them into strips, then rake them onto tarps.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I agree that a metal rake is the way to go. With that many needles, try composting the needles. I've found that a very big pile of pine needles that is kept moist will actually decompose quite easily, faster than adding needles to a regular compost pile. After two or three months, peel back the outer needles and you should find dark, decomposed organic matter at the base of the pile.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello Scott,
    We live in the Sierra Nevada foothills of CA amid a lot of Ponderosas. Talk about needle drop! At our age, raking was becoming very old. My husband finally bought a DR Equipment lawn vac. It attaches to the mower deck of our riding mower and sucks and cuts the needles as they go into the unit. This is done in Oct-Dec. They he wets them down, piles them up and they sit through several rains before he tarps them. Once they start heating up, they are turned on a regular basis through the winter. Come Spring, the decomposing mulch is dried somewhat and he drive over them again with the lawn vac to make the most beautiful, finely ground mulch you have ever seen. If anyone is interested, they can look at the machine here (I have no financial connection to this company) http://www.drpower.com/leaf-lawn-vacuum_tow-behind.aspx

    Great article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Yes, I had a bit of serendipity one summer when I moved a large pile of needles that sat undisturbed through the winter. The pile had turned into beautiful black compost. I mention that in the link above for "Uses for Pine Needles"(http://gardenerscott.blogspot.com/2011/11/uses-for-pine-needles.html). For gardeners with too many needles, making compost is an excellent decision.

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  8. Here in the West we have issues with pH being around 6.2-6.5. This seems to be a very good number per the Master Gardeners fro most vegetables. When using pine needles in the garden you can drive pH down so I use small amounts of soil sweet (lime) to maintain the pH in the correct zone. My needles are mixed with bark mulch and do break down nicely over time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment. Contrary to common gardening folklore, pine needles really don't lower the pH of soil. Colorado State University and many other researchers and institutions have shown that in numerous studies. An individual pine needle is slightly acidic, but rain water is even more so. When both contact and interact with soil the end result is a positive one and overall pH doesn't change. Most garden plants like a pH near 7.0 so a slightly acidic soil of 6.2-6.5 might benefit from a light application of lime, but it isn't necessary because of pine needles.

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  9. I AM SO HAPPY TO HAVE RAN ACROSS YOUR SITE. SOMEONE TOLD ME LAST YEAR NOT TO USE PINE NEEDLES AROUND MY TOMATO PLANTS. OF COURSE I WAS SO SURE HE KNEW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. NOW, I KNOW THE REAL TRUTH, THANKS SO MUCH.

    JT FROM NC.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, JT. Pine needles are very misunderstood and have many uses in the garden.

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