Mulching with pine straw

Mulching with pine straw
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Right under our collective noses - and probably in your very own yard - is a great gardening tool that we have typically shunned. Pine straw.

Raked up often to be disposed of, this all-natural, completely organic, and recyclable material is an outstanding mulch for your garden and landscape. It just takes a little change in our way of thinking.

In truth, pine straw has been a popular landscape ground cover throughout the South for 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 in states just east of Texas.

Throughout the South, the needles are raked into bales of pine straw and sold in retail outlets as a landscape mulch. I only know of one local business that rakes, bales and sells pine straw. I held a seminar years ago to share with East Texas forest landowners this potential stream of income and got absolutely no response.

Some folks will say that pine straw makes your soil acidic. I think that we’ve just repeated this so often that we think it is fact.

In truth, green pine needles (still on the tree) are indeed slightly acidic measuring in at 6.0 to 6.5. Remember that 7 is neutral on the pH scale. Values above 7 are basic and below 7 are acidic.

But if green pine needles are slightly acidic, by the time a pine needle gets old and is ready to drop off the tree they are barely acidic. And after a few days on the ground, they lose their acidity completely.

Interestingly, even pollution-free rainwater falls at a pH of 5.6-- a much more acidic value than pine straw ever was. According to rainfall records published by Lufkin Daily News at our airport, for the past 30 plus years, we receive just over 50 inches of rain a year on average. It is our rainfall coupled with our inherent soil types and some fertilization practices that make our soil acidic.

So, let us brag on pine straws qualities.

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.

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

Pine straw remains loose and friable and does not form a top crust like grass clippings, leaves, and some wood mulches. This looser 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.

The fine texture and uniform color of pine straw is simply more aesthetically pleasing to some users. The non-detracting, earthly look 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.

It breaks down more slowly than wood mulch, so it needs to be re-applied less often. It is also lightweight and is easily handled.

Typically, new applications will require three inches of straw that settles to 1.5 inches. That equals to half a pound of straw per square foot. An additional inch per year is required to maintain the proper depth.

Compared to alternative organic mulches that you’ll purchase, most of us will have plenty of free pine straw to rake from one area of your landscape and use in another.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu