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How to Effectively Use Pine Straw as Mulch

Pine needle mulch, or commonly referred to as “pine straw” is simply mulch that utilizes pine needles. Unlike rocks and rubber chips, it breaks down over time and must be replenished. However, as it breaks down it returns nutrients to the soil, improving soil health.

Depending upon where you live, pine needs may be readily available for use as a mulch. Mulching is beneficial because it suppresses weeds and allows the soil to better retain moisture.

How Pine Needles Differ from Other Types of Mulch

Again, depending on your location, pine needles may be more readily available, and cheaper than other mulch options. If you have pine trees growing in your lawn, you can easily harvest the straw as it falls and use it in your beds.

Pine trees are evergreens, however they still shed leaves (needles). Just not all at once like deciduous trees. Pines will always keep needles on their branches but begin to shed in late summer till early winter. This is a great time to harvest the straw and refresh beds.

Having a renewable source of pine needle mulch will save money and space in the local dump. However, if you are purchasing pine needles versus a traditional mulch, wood chips or rock, the pine needles are typically less expensive.

Another benefit to using pine straw is that it is less likely to wash away from the beds. The loose, intertwining of the needles allows water to flow freely into the soil and excessive water leave without washing away the mulch. As for moisture retention, pine needles will help, however traditional mulches are better.

Another under-appreciated benefit of mulch is the aesthetic value. Pine needles, preferably longleaf pine, will keep a uniform color throughout its life. Longleaf is the preferred species for pine needle mulch because of the color retention and the long needles. These needle lengths (8-18”) will also help retain its shape and fluffiness longer  

However, these traits will eventually fade, therefore traditional mulches will usually win out in sheer longevity. 

Pine needle mulch is also easier to spread than traditional mulches. Simply grab a bale, or handful and shake it over the area. No tools are needed to spread this type of mulch. Traditional mulches typically need to be spread with garden rakes and shovels to adequately get enough coverage.

Cost, Benefits and other Considerations

Pine needle mulch comes in bales or rolls. A bale of pine needle mulch covers between 45-50 sq ft at a 3” depth (recommended depth). Price can vary regionally, and on the quantity bought at a time, but expect $3-$8 per bale. Pine needle mulch rolls will contain around 2.25 bales of mulch and cost $8-10 per roll.

Another thing to consider is the weight of the products. Bales will typically weigh between 10-15lbs, while rolls will weigh 20-35lbs.  Pine straw mulch is easier to handle for most people, since bark mulch will be sold in 20-30lb bags, which weighs double when wet.

Pine Needle Mulch is Best Used in Flower Beds

Pine needle mulch is best used in flower beds and gardens. It’s also great in natural areas to reduce weed growth. Pine needles are also effective for use on a bare slope to help prevent erosion.

Downsides to Use Pine Need Mulch

Pine needles do not block out light as well and as a result do not block the growth of weeds as well as most other mulches.

Pine needle mulch is also very lightweight and will blow away in heavy winds, especially when it hasn’t had time to settle after it is has been newly added to a flower bed or garden.

When they are dry pine needles are also more combustible and will catch on fire more easily than most other mulches.

Many internet blogs and articles will reference to not use pine needles in areas sensitive to lower pH levels. Yes, pine needles have an acidic pH, however there is no concern that pine needle mulch will leach into the soil. In fact, university research has shown that there are no considerable changes in pH that could impact plant health from the use of pine needle mulch. 

How Long Does Pine Needle Mulch Last?

The longevity of pine needle mulch varies depending on sunlight, rainfall, and temperatures. But as a rule of thumb, you can expect it to last 2-3 years. However, many of the factors that attract homeowners to pine needle mulch will fade before that. For example, the light, fluffy appearance that it has when first laid will only last a few months. Just like any type of mulch product, it will eventually begin to compact and lay flatter. In addition, the reddish-brown color will begin to fade to a dull gray over 5-6 months. 

The best pine needle mulch to use is longleaf pine, as it keeps its color the longest. Longleaf pine needles are between 8-18” in length which will also help resist settling and compaction. These traits of longleaf pine are due to the heavy waxy coating on the needles. Manufacturers are also beginning to dye pine needles different colors. These dyes usually hold up 9-10 months, before starting to fade.

It is recommended to replace, or refresh pine needle mulch twice a year. This ensures you have the perfect look in your flower beds and retain all of the natural benefits. At this frequency, there will not be too much compaction and the reddish-brown color will be retained. If time and cost are a concern, replace pine needle mulch once a year.  

Brian White is an owner of Lawn & Petal and lifelong outdoor enthusiast. Brian enjoys spending time tending to his lawn and growing seasonal gardens with his family.  

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