Over the years we have tried different types of ground covering in our garden. Pine needle mulch has become our covering of choice. In this article I will tell you how and why we chose it and what the benefits are for using pine needles instead of wood mulch.
When we first moved into our house we didn't pay much attention to what kind of mulch was in the garden. All we knew was that weeds kept growing. It seemed that we would never be able to control them. It got to a point where we just stopped trying and let the weeds grow wild.
Taking our garden back
One day we decided to take back our garden. We determined that the best thing to do was to dig everything up and put down a weed blocking material. Once we got the weed blocking stuff in place and the plants back in the ground, we needed something to cover it. First we tried wood mulch. The major problems we had were that it kept sliding out of place, it smelled funny, and it was bleeding dye. The dye turned our sidewalk several shades of red. In addition, we were concerned with the wood mulch attracting termites.
We were so unhappy with the wood mulch that we bagged it back up and brought it back to the store. At this point we were unsure what to do with the garden for ground cover.
We spent some time reading about what type of mulch is best to avoid termites. People talked about using cedar, but we wanted to stay away from wood. That's when we came across pine needles. There were mixed messages as to their effectiveness of keeping termites away, but they didn't seem to be any indication that they would attract termites either.
Where we bought our first pine needles
We first looked at Lowes and Home Depot for pine needles. At the time we were only able to find bagged mulch pine needles. These bags contained pine needles that had been mechanically mulch in to smaller pieces. That was definitely not what we were looking for.
Next, we checked a local garden nursery. They had small and large bundles of pine needles. We weren't sure how much we would need. We didn't take a very scientific approach. So we just bought one large bundle and brought it home.
How much did one large bundle of pine needles cover
When we started spreading the pine needles out through our garden, it seemed that we may be able to cover the whole garden. But we soon found out that we were short. We didn't need much more and we didn't want to go back to the store and get more. We decided that we could harvest some from our backyard to try and fill the empty space.
We have one large pine tree that hangs over the fence in our yard. At certain times of the year it drops a good bit of pine needles. The amount it drops is not enough to cover our whole garden, but it makes for a good source of filler, especially if we collect it throughout the year.
The amount we collected from the backyard was enough to fill the empty space.
What were the benefits we found in using pine needles mulch
One of the first things we noticed is how the pine needles interlock with each other. This kept them from sliding around in the garden; even when it rained. This was especially important because we were using a weed blocking material over our soil. Wood mulch slide down the raised areas when applied on top of the weed blocking material. Pine needles mostly stayed in place. I say mostly because a good, hard downpour did make them move some.
Another benefit we liked was the pleasant smell. Many candles and deodorant sprays are pine scent. This is because pine smells so good. And now our garden spells just as good.
The pine needles also seemed to keep a lot of bugs out of our garden. When we did some maintenance to our garden, we did find a lot of bug activity under the weed blocking material. This was good, because we want a healthy ecosystem in our soil. There was one type of beetle that seemed to like the pine needles. I'm not sure what it is, but it hasn't done any harm to the plants in our garden.
One other side benefit is the sticks and bark that come tangled in with the baled pine needles. At first, we were agitated by all the sticks. Then we realized that the sticks would be good for getting a fire started. We love to make a fire in our fire pit. These little sticks work great for getting your fire going. The pine needles are also a good source of kindling. Be careful making a fire around your pine needles in your garden. They can catch fire.
The negatives to using pine needle mulch
The single biggest negative to using pine needles in our garden was the fact that they break down over time. Water seems to be a big factor in this process.
At one point in time we had a dip in the back of our garden along the whole length of the garden. This dip held a lot of water against our house because it didn't drain well. The pine needles in that area fell apart fairly quickly. To their defense, I think any organic material would deteriorate fast under the same conditions.
Also, like other mulch, as it breaks down there is dust created. This dust, if left unchecked, will begin to pile up. When the wind blows the piles can get kicked up and cause dust to fly into the air. I guess this is a problem with any garden, particularly if you are using a weed blocking material. The material doesn't allow the dust produced by the organic breakdown to bind with the soil, but instead leaves it sit on top.
Another negative is that cats like to bed down in the pine needles. They don't just like to lay in it, they like to get comfortable. Their process of getting comfortable involves moving large portions of the pine needles around so they can rest in peace. We don't even own any cats, but there seems to be one or two that finds our garden a good place to kick up their paws.
Now, I don't want to leave the wrong impression. The pine needles didn't bring the cats. The cats already liked to hangout around our house. The pine needles just made it a more luxuries place to stay.
The pine needles in your garden will eventually have to be replaced
Recently we had to replace the pine needles in our garden. They had been in place fare too long. You should refresh your pine needles once a year, but at some point you will have to clean everything out and start over. This is what happened to us.
We had pine needles in our garden for a few years. We would add some from the backyard to fill spots that had become void of pine needles. These voids happen because pine needles breakdown and because some of the pine needles find there way out of the garden.
In fact, so many of the pine needles had disappeared through decay and other mean, that our garden looked like it didn't have much pine needles at all. We decided the best thing to do was to remove all of the pine needles and all of the dirt and dust.
What we discovered under our pine needles and weed blocking material
Upon removing our pine needles we discovered that weeds were growing under our weed blocking material is some areas. We figured this was due to not having many pine needles to help block sunlight from getting through the weed blocking material. We had to unpin some of the weed blocking material so we could get the weeds out. It really was that bad. Because the sunlight was not very strong through the material, the weeds had very weak roots, so they were easy to pull.
Repairing the weed blocking material before laying new pine needles down
We also learned through this process that some of our weed blocking material pins had rusted badly. We replaced all of the badly rusted pins.
In addition, some of weed blocking material had holes in it. It appears that the holes were caused by three factors. First, bugs or snails or slugs or something had eaten through some of it. Second, a few strong weeds had found a way to take root and push pass the barrier. Finally, some of the material had naturally broken down.
We fixed the holes by cutting some new pieces of weed blocking material and laying it over the old material. Where every we could, we used the existing pins to secure the new material.
Getting new pine needles
For our replacement pine needles we went to Lowes. If you remember, the first time we put down pine needles, Lowes only had bagged pine needle mulch. Well, this time they had bales of pine needles. We bought five bales to fill our garden. If you go to buy pine needles and you are not in a truck, bring garbage bags with you. The pine needles will make a serious mess if they are not put in bags.
Putting the new pine needles in the garden
Once the garden was ready to go, it was fairly easy to put the new pine needles down. When you take the pine needles out of the bales, they will be stuck together. This is due to the baling machines pressing the pine needles together. We had to do a fair bit of pulling to get the needles to not stay in clumps.
When we first spread the pine needles out, they looked like someone's hair when they first wake up. But one they are down for a few days, and especially after there is a good rain, they will settle into place.
You will notice that after the pine needles settle for awhile, you will need to go back and fill some spots in. When the pine needles are first laid down, they look thick and fluffy. But once they settle you will realize that you don't have as thick of a layer as you originally thought.
Final thoughts on pine needle mulch
From my experience, pine needles are a great ground cover for a garden. The broken up pine needle mulch is not to good because it will deteriorate fast. The full length needles are the best. They smell good. They keep some bugs like termites away. And they stay in place longer than wood chip mulch. Pine needles are our family's preferred choice for filling our garden.