Pine Needles for Mulch and a Garden Experiment

Tomatoes mulched with pine needles

I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Salman, Founder & Chief Horticulturist of High Country Gardens, for a short gardening article I wrote for Sunset. Being the opportunist that I am, I couldn’t resist asking him an off-topic question about my own garden. “What do you recommend for mulch?” I asked. I was curious because I’d tried grass clippings, leaves and wood chips and none really seemed to keep the plants happy and cool while fending off weeds.

“Pine needles,” he said, without hesitation. I was surprised, having always thought that pine needles (also known as “pine straw”) were too acidic for mulch. But he thought they were fine (he suggested pecan shells, too), and my research confirmed that the needles’ high acidity is a misconception and generally isn’t an issue. We have a large Ponderosa Pine in the corner of the yard, so I have a ready supply of pine needles that have been rained and snowed on for several seasons.

So this summer, I’ve mulched the tomato plants with pine needles and we’ll see how they do. This is our kitchen garden, which is right off the back patio:

Mulch tomato plants with pine needles

In addition to six types of tomatoes, plus basil and thyme, we have an aromatic section with chives, onions, shallots, garlic and leeks:

Onions, garlic, chives and leeks

I don’t mulch these plants because they’re pretty tough. Don’t you appreciate tough, hardy plants?

I’ve been working on this garden for nine seasons. When we bought the house, the space was filled with two huge dying fitzer bushes, myrtle and gravel. For years I’ve been digging in compost to improve the soil, and clearing out rocks, myrtle shoots, fitzer roots and hard, packed clay. I kept some of the myrtle along one edge, and it grows like Jack’s beanstalk in the summer so I’m constantly cutting it back. It’s so pretty in the spring.

Garden with tomatoes

The bamboo and fencing are to keep rabbits out, although they can still squeeze through sometimes. How about you? Have you planted your summer garden? Do you have a favorite mulch? Have you ever tried pine needles? We’d all love to hear your experiences.

Here’s to a happy summer, and good gardens this season for all!

Hugs,

The signature for Eliza Cross

About Eliza Cross

Eliza Cross is a full-time writer and the author of seven books about food and home design. She has been blogging about simplicity and sustainable living since 2006.

8 comments to Pine Needles for Mulch and a Garden Experiment

  • Awesome garden. Nine years is a long time in the making, but that’ll make everything taste all the better.

    I’m all about using whatever is most readily available (or free) for mulch. Luckily the city mulch yard is just a mile from my house and they have free wood chip mulch for the taking, so wood chips it is!
    John recently posted..Golden Currant in Bloom

    • Lucky you! Wood chips look nice, and it’s great that you get them for free. I really like your blog, too – can’t wait to see more photos of your blueberry garden with that nice new fence!

  • Cal

    I mulch with wheat straw, but I have tried pine straw. My concern about pine straw is it must be removed or I must we willing to be patient with its slow rotting when tilled in. It lasted almost two years after I tilled it in.

    Yard leaves works well as long as they are damp to wet when mulching, which prevents the wind from blowing them off.

    I have also held leaves in place by covering them with commercial garden cloth that is made to use as mulch

    Cal

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences with leaves, Cal. It’ll be interesting to see how the pine needles break down this season. I may just remove them and put them back under the pine tree if they’re still intact. Do you use a leaf shredder, and what kind of leaves do you generally use? Inquiring minds would love to know…

  • Rose

    I agree that pine straw takes a while to break down but I haven’t used it as mulch (yet!). The last two years I’ve been using straw, but I have to deal with some weed growth from seeds left in the straw and the slugs and other things love the damp climate underneath. I’m wondering if pine needle mulch would be a little slower to break down and therefore less slimy and appealing to slugs. I might try this next year. My brother has plenty of ponderosa pines and is constantly raking up their needles and sending them off with the municipal compost truck. This might be a good tip for him to try this year, I’m passing this along! :)

    • Let me know if it works for you, Rose. We have slugs here, too, and I had the same thought that they might not like the pointy needles. We’ve had two hot days in Colorado and the tomatoes still seem very happy. Fingers crossed!

  • sproutsmama

    I’ve never tried pine straw as mulch, but I’ll be interested to hear how it goes!

    Here in NC, people say that ticks particularly like to hang out in pine straw. Tick-borne illnesses are a big deal round here, so that would give me a moment’s pause before I tried it myself.

  • Pine needles? Definitely a different idea for mulch. It’s great to see more and more urban farming starting to happen as well. It’s all about local. Local farming and local generation of energy. It doesn’t get any more local than your roof – solar power is the way to go as well.

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