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When deciding on a weed barrier for a flower bed or garden, one idea that comes up often is the use of Pine Straw. This offers quite a lot of appeal for me personally since I live in the “Big Thicket” of Southeast Texas where Pine trees are everywhere. I could literally rake my yard in a weekend and have enough pine straw to “mulch” several flower beds. But is it really worth the bother?
Pine Straw offers unique advantages for mulching. It is light and easy to work with, known to last longer than many other types of mulch and does well at holding in soil moisture. As an added benefit, it is also available for free to many homeowners who live in areas with pine trees.
That being said, pine straw is in no way the perfect mulching material. It has its challenges. If you are thinking about using pine needles to mulch your garden or flower bed, you will need to know the facts.
I want to break down the research I’ve done on this. My hope is that this information will help you decide whether or not pine straw is the right mulching solution for you.
Benefits Of Mulching With Straw
First, let’s outline the key benefits that pine mulching offers over other materials.
Light And Easy To Work With
I’ve spent my share of weekends shoveling bark mulch and rocks for flower bed covering. I will concede to this one. Pine straw is much lighter and easier to work with than most other mulching options. It can be a little irritating with the needles sticking you as you work it but compared to shoveling heavy piles of bark, yeah, pine straw wins this one.
Holds Moisture Well
A thick blanket of pine straw does an excellent job of maintaining moisture levels. That is one of the key benefits that pine tree needles actually provide for the soil in the forest (source).
This is not to say that pine straw holds in moisture more effectively than bark mulch. But it is fair to say that it can hold its own in this area.
Pine Straw Lasts Longer Than Other Mulches
Pine straw is known to decompose at a slower rate than many other carbons. The selling point here is that it takes longer to break down than bark mulches and therefore, in theory, should last longer before replacement is needed.
May Be Readily Available At No Cost
This is probably the greatest single appeal of pine straw as a mulch. Many people like myself live in an area where pine trees continuously blanket the ground with a fresh supply of potential mulch.
The idea of free mulch is certainly an appealing one and depending on your situation this may be the deciding factor for you.
Before you go all-in, however, let’s balance these benefits with a few of the less-wonderful aspects of this mulching material.
Disadvantages of Pine Straw Mulching
Everything is not rosy and rainbows when it comes to mulching with pine needles. Be sure to take these aspects into consideration as well.
Not An Effective Weed Barrier
By its very design, pine straw is a poor solution as a weed barrier. The needles are thin and light. It is difficult to keep weeds from pushing right through it unless you pile it on really thick. Doing that, however, can create welcoming habitats for pests (more on that later).
We have to remember that living plants (that includes weeds) usually require moisture, nutrients, air, and light to grow (source). A good mulch will block out the light and therefore inhibit the growth of unwanted plant life.
A pine needle lacks the surface area necessary to be effective at blocking out light. Unless you pile a lot on you may find it very disappointing as a weed deterrent.
That being said, pine needles do pack well over time. They settle and will form a dense blanket but in my experience, it takes a couple of years for them to decompose to a point that this occurs.
Flies Away In The Wind
One of pine straw’s biggest advantages is also its downfall. Because it is so lightweight, it is easily blown out of the flower bed or garden. A nice gust of wind can litter your yard with pine needles.
During my research, I ran across an old blog titled Garden of Aaron. This gardener posted a glowing review of pine straw as mulch some years back, raving about the benefits.
A couple of months later, the author found themselves retracting most of their initial convictions in a post aptly titled “Eating my words on pine straw“. Pine straw blowing out of the beds in the wind was one of the key issues cited.
It’s only fair to point out that this problem resolves itself over time as the needles settle You may still lose a few stray needles in heavy winds but after a season or two, you likely will not suffer from this except when adding new needles. Keeping them moist will also help to prevent your mulch from flying away.
Does Pine Straw Mulch Attract Pests?
A common concern with using pine straw as a mulch is fear that it may attract pests. There is some truth to this. Pine straw piles provide cover for small insects and rodents. They can burrow down into a thick layer of pine needles easier than they may be able to with bark mulch or rock.
Does Pine Straw Mulch Attract Snakes?
Pine straw mulch offers cover for insects and rodents. This attracts snakes in search of a food source. In addition, the pine needles provide cover for the snake as it moves through the flower bed or garden.
Is Pine Straw Mulch A Fire Hazard?
This is an important consideration. Pine straw is very flammable when dry and is in fact the second most combustible commonly used mulch, second only to shredded rubber mulch.
This is based on a study of multiple mulch materials and their combined combustion potential, taking into consideration temperature, spread rate, and flame height (source). Because of its combustion characteristics, pine needles are recommended for mulching only in areas at least 30 feet from the home (source).
Alternatives To Pine Straw Mulch
If you are not sure that the pros of pine mulch outweigh the cons for your situation, you do have alternatives. Bark mulch, of course, is very common. It offers a lot of advantages over pine needles.
If there is one complaint that I’ve had with bark mulch in the past it has been that it tends to float when we have heavy rainfall. If your garden or flower bed is built with fir mounds this may get a little annoying. I had a large flower bed next to our driveway in our previous home and heavy rains always resulted in bark mulch debris all over the driveway.
I actually ended up using bull rock in my latest flower bed, mainly because I didn’t want to deal with floating bark all over my yard. It’s a different look than what we’ve had in the past and, aside from the labor involved, it was not a bad choice for our situation. I also added in larger rocks to enhance the look.
The bottom line is you have a lot of choices when it comes to mulching. You can even use compost as a mulch and gain the additional benefits of improving the soil and providing essential nutrients for your plants.
If you are interested in learning to make your own compost to use as a mulch or for other purposes, be sure to read our series of articles on composting.
Pine straw can provide benefits to your flower bed or garden when used as a mulch. It’s not perfect but there are definite advantages to this approach. If you have access to free pine straw and understand the disadvantages (and potential hazards), then you are heading into your project well-informed. And that’s the most any of us can hope for.
The truth is every kind of mulching material has some disadvantages. There is no perfect solution so it may come down to price, accessibility, and the particular aesthetic look that you are going for.