Harvesting Pine Needles : Why Should You Harvest Pine Needles

Harvesting Pine Needles : Why Should You Harvest Pine Needles

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Whether you are a fan of pine needle tea or want a home-based natural business, knowing how to harvest pine needles, and process and store them is part of satisfying either goal. There are many pine needle uses in the landscape as a weed repellent, mulch, soil acidifier, and even to line paths and stabilize soil. Read on for some tips on harvesting pine needles for edible, medicinal or outdoor garden use.

Pine Needle Uses

Gardeners with pine trees in the yard may consider the debris from dropped needles a nuisance; however, these conifer leaves are actually useful in many different ways. Why should you harvest pine needles? The needles are make excellent fire starters, flavoring for teas and vinegars, grill smoke to season meats, air fresheners, and, of course, mulch. They have many medicinal properties as well. Collecting pine needles and processing them correctly can help you harness any of these natural properties.

Pine straw is often sold cleaned and bailed to use in the landscape. Care should be taken when collecting pine needles to keep them free of weeds and debris. Layers of the straw mulch will conserve moisture, enrich soil and help reduce weed growth. They also help enhance the acidity of soil for such plants as hydrangea, azalea, and holly.

The scent can also help repel certain insect and animal pests from digging in the garden. Outside of garden use, a tea made from the leaves is not only delicious but the scent can help clear sinuses. Cooled, the tea is used as a cleaner and deodorizer. The needles have antibacterial properties which can help fight certain skin diseases when used as a foot soak. These tree cast-offs are helpful in many household uses.

How to Harvest Pine Needles

If you plan on making pine mulch, keep the area under the trees free of weeds and other debris. That way when you rake up the needles they will be relatively clean, as the plants shed between August and January. Pine needles break down slowly and can be used as a mulch but also to line paths and don’t need replacing as often as other organic amendments. Leave some of the needles as a bed around the tree roots to help nourish the trees and prevent moisture loss and excessive weeds.

Spread out the needles to let them dry if they will be bailed for storage or for sale. For instant use, just move the needles to the location where they will be needed and spread a thick layer.

When harvesting pine needles, consider their purpose – not all needles have to come strictly from pines. For teas, it’s best to harvest needles fresh from the tree, and few trees are better than Douglas fir. The needles are high in Vitamin C and make a healing soak for arthritis. Spruce tea is also tasty and can be made into a zingy beer. Redwood needles have antimicrobial properties that may be beneficial when treating colds and flu.

Just remember to ascertain whether trees were treated with chemicals and avoid those which were, especially for consumption purposes. If you want pine straw for mulch, the type of tree isn’t as important, but blue spruce needles are very sharp and make barefoot trekking a painful journey. Any pine, however, makes excellent garden amendments.

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Pine Straw as a Ground Cover Mulch

By: Eric L. Taylor and Darwin Foster

The dead needles that pine trees naturally drop make an excellent mulch and an attractive landscaping ground cover. Pine straw has recently seen rising popularity in East Texas as a ground cover mulch for landscaping around trees and in flower beds. Although this gain in popularity may be fairly recent in East Texas, pine straw has been a popular landscape ground cover for use in flower beds throughout the South since at least the 1980s.

Like any mulch, pine straw helps insulate soil from temperature extremes, moisture loss and erosion by wind and rain. A mulch such as pine straw also decreases soil compaction and promotes favorable soil conditions for healthy root growth.

Some people prefer pine straw to wood mulches for a variety of reasons:

  • Natural By-Product—Whereas products such as cypress mulch are produced by harvesting and grinding up whole trees, pine straw is a by- product that is discarded naturally from trees.
  • Water Infiltration—Pine needles tend to interlock, which helps keep pine straw loose and friable and prevents the formation of a top crust as with some wood mulches. Loose mulch allows water to penetrate into the soil and prevents wasteful runoff of irrigation water.
  • Weed Control—Pine straw mulch greatly reduces the need for weed control compared to other natural mulches, which have a higher tendency to import and germinate weed seeds.
  • Stability—Pine straw does not float and wash out of beds like other mulches. This helps keep walkways cleaner and reduces maintenance.
  • Visual Appeal—The fine texture and uniform color of pine straw is more aesthetically pleasing to some.
  • Longevity—Because pine straw breaks down more slowly than other natural mulches, it needs to be reapplied less frequently.

Collecting Pine Needles: Learn How To Harvest Pine Needles For The Garden - garden

By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener

If you live in a neighborhood where ponderosa pines grow freely, you know about too many pine needles. Pine trees drop lots of needles, especially those 50-foot giants! Gutter guards protect my rain gutters, but I still have piles of needles on the ground. What is to be done with all these needles.

Are pine needles good or bad for our gardens? After reading this column you just may want to strike a deal with a friend who owns several large pine trees.

For years we’ve heard that pine needles should be used only around acid-loving plants. Since the needles themselves lean toward being acidic, it would seem to make sense that they acidify their surroundings. Right? Not true. Pine needles do not acidify garden soils.

Many things, such as climate, rainfall, irrigation water, and the soil itself influence soil pH. However, top dressing, or mulched materials break down so slowly that they hardly make a difference to a soil’s pH. The acidity of pine needle mulch remains at the soil’s surface and does not alter the soil around plants’ roots.

Are Pine Needles a Good Choice for Mulching?

Pine needles are a good choice for mulching, and really economical if you have pine trees in your yard or pine straw easily available locally. Because pine needles break down so slowly they are not good additives to turn directly into garden soils. Best to use them as a top dressing on flower gardens, around roses, and places where weed and moisture control are desired.

What is Pine Straw?

Pine straw is the name given to pine needles when they are used as top dressing mulch.

Despite our local concentration of pine forests, rarely is pine straw offered for sale. But if you can get your hands on some, whether commercial product or your neighbor’s surplus, pine straw makes excellent and inexpensive mulch.

Benefits of Pine straw

Negatives of too many Pine Needles

  1. We all know that nothing is perfect, including pine straw mulch. I’ve already mentioned that availability can be a problem. When you do find pine straw, be aware that until a new layer of needles has settled it can be blown around in windy locations.
  2. If it does not cover the soil fully, you still will have some weeds, and weeding in pine straw is not particularly pleasant. It may look light and fluffy, but those needles are sharp!
  3. Pine straw is flammable. If you are in the Wildfire Interface, composted mulch or cedar bark products are better, safer choices.
  4. Using too much is a bad thing. Pines use their needles to smother out all competitors within their root zones. So, more than a 4” inch layer of needles creates an interlocking turtle shell effect that sheds water away from your plants. A 2-4” inch layer is ideal.

No matter their drawbacks, I collect and use pine needles for my gardens.

How to Use Pine Needle Mulch

Use pine straw just like any other mulch. Spread it around trees and shrubs and use it to dress your garden beds. Just remember that a 2” layer settles down to a layer of about 1” inch. My experience recommends putting down a 4” layer of needles.

Shake and toss pine straw the way you would regular straw, so it forms a fluffy layer.

Cleanup Recommendations

If you already have native pines and junipers on your property you know how thick the layers of needles can be. To reduce wildfire risk rake up the light fluffy layer of needles, but leave a 2-4” layer of needles around the trees’ drip lines. This will ensure that your trees remain moist, while reducing native weeds and infestations of bark beetles.

Pine trees need some needles at their bases to protect their health. Give the rest away to friends and fellow gardeners in the neighborhood.

Recommendation – If you are fearful of wildfires and just can’t leave an insulating layer of needles behind after cleanup, try using a 2-4” layer of shredded cedar bark or composted material instead. Composted material and bark products don’t burn as easily as pine straw. Use collected pine needles around fire- resistant plants like roses, lilacs, rhododendrons, azaleas, and distyliums.

Until next week, I’ll see you at Watters Garden Center.

Myth vs. reality: What’s the truth behind some common gardening practices?

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Reality can get skewed when there are so many sources of information - books, magazines, newspapers, nurseries and, most of all, the internet and social media open up lots of room for contradiction. So, how do you find the right answer for gardening questions?

Nine experts from Oregon State University Extension Service stepped up to bust some common gardening myths. Read on to get some research-based answers to 10 common misconceptions.

For additional questions, call the OSU Extension master gardeners in your area.

MYTH: You should top a tree to control its height.

REALITY: Trees are programmed to attain a certain height. Topping only temporarily delays the inevitable. The resulting sucker growth, which grows rapidly in an attempt to provide food for the compromised root system, is weakly attached. This creates an even greater hazard. Additionally, the trunk is not a limb and cannot use the tree’s architectural physiology to seal the wound caused by topping. This often leads to a slow death for the tree. – Al Shay, horticulturist and site manager for OSU's Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture

MYTH: Lime will remove moss from your lawn.

REALITY: Lime will not fix the problem. Moss prefers to grow in wet, shady conditions. Lawns with moss need more sunlight, i.e. trimming, pruning and thinning trees. If you like the trees the way they are you will continue to have moss and you should think about shade-tolerant alternatives to grass. Moss also grows well in infertile soils, which includes acidic (low pH) soils, but more importantly it also includes nitrogen-deficient soils. Lawns, like a lot of cultivated plants prefer nitrogen-rich soils. Regular fertilizer applications (four applications per year, two in the fall and two in the spring) with products containing nitrogen, combined with improved sunlight will result in a green, dense lawn that can out compete moss. – Alec Kowalewski, OSU Extension turf specialist.

MYTH: Ponderosa pine needles make the soil more acidic (low pH).

REALITY: The notion that pine needles change the soil pH so that nothing will grow or that it will damage plants has been out there for years. The truth is pine needles do not make the soil more acidic. It is true that pine needles have a pH of 3.2 to 3.8 (neutral is 7.0) when they drop from a tree. If you were to take the freshly fallen needles (before the needles decompose) and turn them into the soil right away, you may see a slight drop in the soil pH, but the change would not be damaging to the plants.

If you run pine needles through a shredder they will break down faster.

For those of you that leave the needles there on the ground, they will begin to break down naturally and the microbes (decomposers) in the soil will neutralize them. So, you can leave them there (if you’re not in a wildfire prone area). They are a good mulching material that will keep the moisture in, suppress weeds and eventually add nutrients back to the soil. You can also add them to a compost pile they will slowly break down over time. If you run them through a shredder they will break down faster. A general rule of thumb is not to add more than 10 percent of pine needles to your compost pile.

If you are having difficulty growing other plants under your pine trees it is likely due to the fact that evergreen roots are numerous and shallow and compete for water and nutrients. The shady conditions under a tree cans also make growing other plants a challenge. – Amy Jo Detweiler, OSU Extension horticulturist

MYTH: Just add more compost to the soil.

REALITY: Adding organic matter to soil in the form of compost helps to improve soil structure and promote long-term plant health, but adding too much compost at once or over time can lead to problems. If the soil organic matter is much higher than ideal (5 to 8 percent), the soil can have too much available phosphorus, which can stunt plant growth and potentially leach into the water table. Also, some composts can be high in salts, which can also impact plant growth. – Weston Miller, OSU Extension horticulturist

MYTH: Bee houses help promote and conserve bee diversity.

REALITY: Although some bee species nest in the cavities provided by bee houses, most bee species nest in the ground. Research out of Canada shows that most cavities in bee houses are colonized by native wasps (that help control pests), and not native bees. So, bee houses still do good, but not necessarily the good that you might think. – Gail Langellotto, OSU Extension entomology specialist and state coordinator of the Master Gardener program

MYTH: Tree roots go only as far as the drip line.

REALITY: Many trees extend many times beyond the branch crown diameter. For instance, magnolia extends 3.7 times the diameter red maple 3 times poplar 3 locust 2.9 and ash 1.7. – Steve Renquist, OSU Extension horticulturist

MYTH: Epson salts are a must for great tomatoes. Use them in every garden.

REALITY: If you have done a soil test and your soil lacks magnesium and your plants are not growing well, give it a try. In most soils and gardens, they can do more damage than good. Steve Renquist, OSU Extension horticulturist

MYTH: When you plant a new tree or shrub, dig the hole and add an amendment to the soil before you backfill the hole.

Adding an organic amendment to the soil only in the planting hole will tend to reduce growth of the plant.

REALITY: Although amendment of soil with organic matter is often a good idea, it should be done on an area-wide basis, not just in a planting hole for an individual plant. Adding an organic amendment to the soil only in the planting hole will tend to reduce growth of the plant. This happens because roots may stay within the amended soil and not grow into the native soil, creating a root-bound plant within the amended soil. If the organic amendment is not completely decomposed it may require nitrogen for further decomposition, which will compete with plant roots for minerals, thereby resulting in reduced growth. And in the case of large shrubs or trees, decomposition of the amendment will cause the plant to settle and the root collar will sink below the soil. – Neil Bell, OSU Extension horticulturist

MYTH: Brown recluse and hobo spiders are common in Oregon.

REALITY: It is commonly thought that hobo and brown recluse spiders cause necrotic bites in this state, when in fact the brown recluse is not found in Oregon and the hobo spider does not cause necrotic bites. The hobo spider was in fact removed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of venomous spiders in 2015. The black widow is the most harmful spider to humans in the state. – Heather Stoven, OSU Extension entomology specialist

MYTH: Watering on hot sunny days will burn the plants because the water droplets magnify the sun’s rays.

REALITY: It rains during the summer all around the world and plants are just fine. More of an issue is that the irrigation water will evaporate and not be as effective. Note though that sensitive houseplants like African violet can show leaf damage from very cold water applied to the leaves. – Brooke Edmunds, OSU Extension horticulturist

Homemade Balsam Sachets

My daughter got her first sewing machine for Christmas. Her first project was a homemade pillowcase, and we were trying to figure out another easy project. When we took down our Christmas tree, we had fir needles everywhere, so I realized we had a cute project ready to go! Balsam sachets are little pouches filled with pine needles. They smell amazing and you can keep them in a drawer or other place, where you can enjoy the fragrance.

Your first step – collect pine needles! Our Christmas tree was a Fraser Fir, and the needles are perfect for this project. We even saved branches from our Christmas tree to “harvest” more needles after the holidays. If you want, you can add a little balsam oil to the needles if you want to give them a little extra scent.

Once you have gathered enough pine needles, choose fabric and cut into either two squares, or a longer piece folded into a square. The size is really up to you – we did approximately 4×4″ square. Also, if this is a beginner sewing project, make sure you leave a generous amount for the seams – as a beginner sewer, my 7-year-old sews about 1/2 inch or more from the edge. You can always trim excess fabric.

Sew three sides of the fabric, with the print to the inside. If you have a longer piece that is folded in half, you only need to sew two sides. For this, I marked the fabric with a pencil so that my daughter had a guide line to sew on.

At this point, you turn the pocket inside out so that the seams are hidden. (The top is still open in the photo below).

Fill the pouch with your balsam needles. (You might not want to stuff it too full if you have a child who might struggle with the pouch spilling while trying to sew). Remember, you can add a few drops of balsam oil if you want to add a little extra scent!

Tuck your remaining edges in. You probably want to iron the seams and/or pin them so the edges stay neat while sewing the pouch closed.

Remove any pins you may have used.. you’re done!

This is such a cute project and great for little ones! My kids loved collecting needles from our tree, using the sewing machine, and giving balsam sachets as gifts!

For this project, my 7-year-old is using her Janome sewing machine. This is a compact beginner’s sewing machine that works well – plus it comes in lots of cute colors! (affiliate link)

Watch the video: How to Harvest, Store and Use Pine Pollen