Time to Rake Pine Straw

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Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

I’ve notice the pines are starting to drop their older needles. This, of course, brings out the gardeners to rake up the needles.

The question is: What do you do with them? I’ve heard several times over the years that pine needles acidify your soil.

Really? Let’s look at that.

An acid soil is anything below 7 on the pH scale that goes from 1 to 14. We know that most soils range anywhere from an acidic 5 to a slightly alkaline 8. Acidic soils “tie up” (prevent the absorption of nutrients and waste your fertilizer). Most plants will grow just fine with a pH in the range of 6.4 to 7.5. Acid loving plants like Azaleas like a pH of 4.5 to 6.0.

Green pine needles (still on the tree) are indeed slightly acidic measuring in at 6.0 to 6.5. Acidic? Yes, indeed. But by the time a pine needle gets old and are ready to drop off the tree they are barely acidic. After a few days on the ground, they lose their acidity completely.

Interestingly, pollution-free rainwater falls on your lawn at a pH of 5.6 – a much more acidic value. But you don’t see anyone racing out to cover the landscape to prevent the naturally acidic rain reaching their plants, do you?

Why then do we have this distrust of pine straw? I haven’t a clue, but I can extol on its virtues.

Among its many attributes pine straw mulch insulates tender roots from temperature extremes keeping the soils warm during cool spells and cool during warm spells. It conserves soil moisture by reducing water evaporation rates and moisture loss. It also eliminates erosion caused by wind and rain splash impact.

As pine straw mulch slowly breaks down, it releases organic matter. Over time, this organic matter improves soil texture by allowing air to infiltrate the soil and encouraging beneficial soil microorganisms. There is little direct nutrient value in the mulch, but a variety of physical properties give it advantages over other organic mulches:

Pine straw doesn’t float and wash out of beds like wood mulches. This helps keep walkways cleaner further reducing maintenance efforts. Unlike some other mulches pine needles interlock and hold together during hard rains, heavy winds, and even on landscapes with considerable slope.

Pine straw remains loose and friable and does not form a top crust like grass clippings, leaves, and some wood mulches. Loose mulch allows water to infiltrate readily into the soil for plant availability and avoids wasteful runoff of irrigation. The large air pockets, however, help prevent it from remaining excessively wet and damaging roots.

Pine straw mulch greatly reduces weed control efforts as wood mulches have a higher tendency to import weed seed in an ideal seedbed for germination. Pine straw around trees reduces the need to use string trimmers (“weed-eaters”) around the base of each tree. This reduces maintenance costs, but also prevents plant death from girdling wounds caused by the trimmer.

The fine texture and uniform color of pine straw is simply more aesthetically pleasing to some users. The non-detracting, earthly facade brings out the color, contrast and texture of landscapes. Pine straw also prevents plants, flowers and fruit from becoming splashed with mud. Added annually, it gives landscapes a fresh clean and renewed appearance.

In truth, pine straw has been a popular landscape ground cover throughout the South for the last 25 years. In fact, it is one of the most widely used mulches for all size projects ranging from residential flower beds to industrial complexes and highway landscapes.

Finally, if you are not convinced, I have a solution. Go ahead and rake it up. From there, stuff it into garbage bags and give me a holler. I’ve got a great place to take your pine straw to, um…, dispose of it.

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