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.
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|
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 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)