Pining for pine needles

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In autumn, it’s not all about the leaves – at least not in my garden. Yes, I gather dozens (and dozens) of bags of leaves each year for use in my veggie and flower beds, as well as my compost bins, but there is another source of organic material on my property that provides a long-lasting natural mulch that also retards weed seed germination. What is this botanical wonder you ask? Pine needles! Growing right next to my driveway is a mature eastern white pine tree, a lofty evergreen that has the agreeable habit of dropping its oldest needles every two years. As autumn winds loosen those spent needles, I quickly rake them up to scatter around the garden.

 

All pine trees shed their needles, but depending on the species, it may be between 2 to 5 years before you’ll be able to gather the pine straw, the name for fallen needles, from your trees. For example, Jack and scotch pines shed their needles every two years, Austrian and red pine every four years, and mugo pine every five years. As mentioned above, my eastern white pine gives me about four large garbage bags of needles every two years. Garden gold!

Another lovely trait of pine needles is that they contain terpenes, a substance which inhibits seed germination. This helps reduce weed growth around plants like roses, perennials, asparagus, shrubs, veggies, and annual flowers.

Common lore is that pine needles  acidify  soil and you should only use them on acid loving plants like blueberries and rhododendrons, but fresh pine needles are only slightly acidic. Once they fall, they lose any lingering acidity and make a beautiful and effective mulch.

How do you use pine needles in your garden?

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11 Responses to Pining for pine needles

  1. Kim Smith says:

    Good info on those pine needles. I have two white pine out front and i will get those needles all swept up. I would love to smother some seeds to keep them from sprouting. It can help my paths. Hopefully it will smother that prostrate spurge!!

  2. We let the pine needles mulch the bed of Hostas and rhodies in the vicinity. Such an effortless pursuit!

  3. Alyce says:

    Do pine needles inhibit the growth of flower sees?

    • Hi Alyce.. great question!! Pine needles do have high levels of terpenes, which are known to inhibit the growth/germination of plants and seeds.. so yes, they could affect flower seed germination. I use them in pathways and around my highbush blueberries..

  4. Dave Chapman says:

    I am concerned that a dwarf white pine seems to be turning brown and losing a lot of needles. Are you suggesting that’s normal? I’ve never noticed it before.

    • Hey Dave.. if the yellowing needles are the older, innermost needles, it’s prob the annual needle drop.. which can seem rather alarming in immature plants.. but it’s a normal part of their growth cycle.

      However, if branch tips are turning yellow/brown.. or sections of the plant, that indicates another problem – root rot, insect damage, blight, or even general unhappiness if the tree was planted too deep, not getting enough sun, etc..

      Let’s hope it’s the annual needle drop!!

  5. Pam Duff says:

    Since I live in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, I leave my strawberry plants out all winter. I cover them with several inches of pine needles. In the spring, when I can remove the mulch from the berry patch, I use those pine needles in the pathways of my garden. That cuts down the weeds considerably and by fall, they have become part of the soil. I also use pine needles to hold down leaves I put over flowering plants and herbs to overwinter. I’ve even had pansies come back for the 3rd year but doing this. I do love the pine needles and other leaves for mulch.

    • Thanks for your garden inspiration Pam! I use pine needles on many crops, but not on my strawberries.. good tip! I love the look of them in the pathways – and they have a nice crunch when you walk on them. Thanks again! Niki

  6. Ariana Robbins says:

    I have quite a bit of trailing lantana ground cover in my front garden bed that is currently covered in pine needles. I did a quick search on the site to see if I could use it as a mulch and of course there’s an article answering my question! I love that! I would like to use them to mulch my strawberries, blueberries, and maybe some other vegetables like tomatoes. Can I add it to the beds after the vegetable seeds have germinated (or transplants are in)? Would it inhibit growth at any stage past germination?

    • Yes, you can use pine needles to mulch around your plants, but depending on the natural pH of your soil, the needles could cause the soil to become too acidic, especially with repeated applications over time. Blueberries will love it, but vegetables not so much. We suggest using pine needles as a long-term mulch only around acid-loving plants like evergreens and blueberries.

  7. Lori says:

    I looked this question up and according to the extension service from Oregon, pine needles do not turn the soil too acidic that plants can’t grow. It’s said that it slightly lowers the pH, but not enough to affect the plants growth even with long term use. Another site said the majority of extreme acidic soil comes from acid rain, not pine needles.

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