Published on 10/14/96

Trees Bearing Gifts: Versatile Pine Straw

If you think of all it can do, you'll thank those pines for the pine straw they're raining into your yard.

Yes, somebody has to rake it all up. But pine straw can be more of a blessing than a chore, said Mel Garber, a horticulturist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"If you use it right, pine straw can actually help you have less yard work to do," Garber said.

Pine straw can free you, he said, from having to do so much:

Mowing. Contoured pine straw islands, with just a few plants, can replace large areas of high-maintenance lawn. "Where you already have groups of shrubs or trees, use pine straw to tie them together," Garber said. "Then you won't have to mow around them individually."

Watering. "Sunshine and wind will take away much less water if the soil surface is covered with mulch," Garber said. Reduce water needs with pine straw mulch around shrubs and in flower beds.

Weeding. "Mulches help control weeds," he said. "That provides two advantages: One, you don't have to pull weeds yourself. And two, you don't have to spray chemical herbicides around your yard."

Pine straw actually falls year-round, said extension forester Dave Moorhead. But needle-fall is heaviest in fall, winter and early spring.

If you have more pine straw than you can use in the fall, just find an out-of-the-way place to pile it up and save it.

You could be happy you saved it next spring; for all the reasons it's so good in your landscape, pine straw can be just as valuable as a mulch in your vegetable garden.

It can help keep the soil moist in small gardens, raised bed gardens or small beds of vegetable plantings. It can also be good for mulching small fruits, such as strawberries or blueberries.

It can also help keep soil from washing from heavy rains, Garber said. That protects water quality and keeps you from having to repair eroded areas.

Here are some tips, Garber said, to help make the most of your pine straw.

Don't remove the old pine straw. "One of the benefits of mulching is the organic matter it adds to the soil as it decomposes," he said.

Replenish. Don't replace. Just add new straw on top of the old to make a layer at least two to three inches thick. That's the least it will take to be effective.

Don't pile it too thick. "I don't know that it will hurt so much," Garber said. "But any more than about six inches just won't do any more good."

Don't push it up close to the stems. Especially with azaleas, he said, mulch piled up around the stems can lead a second root system to develop. That often happens at the expense of the deeper root system, which leaves the azalea even more susceptible to drought damage.

Don't just stuff it under the branches. Spread it beyond the drip line, the line right under the outermost leaves. "Getting it over the feeder roots is the key," Garber said.

Mulch young trees. "It's really important in the first two or three years," he said. "With shallow-rooted trees like dogwood or redbud or crape myrtle it's good to mulch even after that."

Don't put plastic or landscape fabric under the straw unless your main purpose is complete weed control. If that's the case, you won't need as thick a layer of straw.

"In most cases," Garber said, "pine straw that's two inches deep after it settles does 90 percent of what you'd expect the fabric or plastic liner to do. Four or five inches of fresh straw will settle to about two inches."

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.