Amanda McNulty

Local gardening: The fineries of pine straw

amcnult@ clemson.eduOctober 17, 2013 

Now is the time to mulch with pine straw

For Thanksgiving, Christmas and other dinners of importance, the Columbia McNultys always had creamed celery. When I asked why that instead of something fancier, I learned that my grandmother thought we should always remember when we didn’t have any money when she was growing up after the Civil War and during the Depression when she was raising her family. It would keep us from getting big-headed.

Maybe that’s why we children were sent for several weeks each summer to Camp Gravatt near the sandy fields of Aiken rather than to the cool and refreshing North Carolina mountain site of the Episcopal Church’s Camp Kanuga. My strongest camp memory is when I couldn’t get my swimming buddy’s hand by the count of five (she was on the high dive and wouldn’t jump) and had to sit on the bank in pine straw for punishment. The real consequences came several days later when all the places where my suit’s elastic were tight were itching like mad from chigger bites.

Since it was church camp, after all, I have taken the high road and not held that experience against pine straw. With fall coming, and the almanac’s prediction of a cold winter, most of us need to replace mulch that was given a head start toward decomposition from the heavy summer rains we had.

Mulch not only holds moisture and cools soils in summer, but in winter it insulates plant roots from cold and helps prevent desiccation when harsh, dry winds blow.

Pine straw was what we all used for years and years. It is plentiful, inexpensive, and easy to spread.

When taken from the woods, the animals — both vertebrate and invertebrate — that used it as cover disperse, so you shouldn’t have to worry about scratching in places where your elastic is tight. Long leaf pine straw is preferred because of its beautiful color but all varieties are equally beneficial to your plants.

One particular benefit from pine straw mulch is its tendency to weave itself together, sort of like the mats that form in your dog’s coat. On slopes, this helps prevent erosion as the straw intercepts hard pellets of rain and scatters them into smaller droplets, which don’t loosen the underlying soil. This multi-layered pattern also provides anti-compaction cushioning. The soil stays loose and friable, creating a healthy matrix for microorganisms, earthworms, and plant roots.

Disadvantages of pine straw are that it does decompose more quickly than lignin-rich materials like ground wood and does require annual additions to remain three inches deep. Keep it several inches away from the woody stems of camellias, dogwoods and all other plants. The good news is that the amount lost to natural weathering becomes an organic-matter top dressing applied right at the soil surface.

In our relatively warm South Carolina soils, we lose organic matter constantly and must reapply it every time you turn around. It’s easier for me to let nature take her course and convert pine straw into that valuable soil component rather than having to bring in bag after bag of composted manure.

To further encourage you to consider pine straw as your mulch of choice, let me remind you that ground wood mulch is the preferred substrate for stink-horn mushrooms who even if you have year-round hay fever and aren’t offend by their malodorous smell, might consider that their appearance could cause a swoon if viewed by a visiting member of the Mayflower Society.

Sadly, the aspect of pine straw that shaped the natural ecosystem of South Carolina and provided the perfect environment for red-cockaded woodpeckers and other fire-dependent species is that it is highly flammable. If you live in an area likely to experience forest fires, this is not the mulch for you. Ground pine bark settles into place nicely and doesn’t float away like larger pine bark nuggets and would be a good substitute.

Any pine straw you buy is likely to be South Carolina grown – you’re putting money back into the local economy. Many people take freshly baked pies to friends with large pines in their yards and barter for raking rights.

Or, like my cousin, who particularly took the message of creamed celery to heart, you can keep a rake and tarp in your car. If you are shy about curb-side recycling, buy some Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and wear a cap for the opposing football team. They’re adjustable in case you get big-headed.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and the host of “Making It Grow!” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website: www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/

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