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Pine Needles, Pine Straw and Pine Fines


Pine Needles, Pine Straw and Pine Fines

Q. Karen in Joppa Maryland writes: "First, a thank you; you and your show are the reasons I started gardening over a decade ago. Thank you for bringing such joy into my life! I never would have tried it without the knowledge and wisdom you shared.

"Now: About three years ago, a friend of mine from Media PA shared several bags of pine needles with me. At first I was excited to use the pine straw as mulch but then I thought, what if it's hosting an invasive species such as the spotted lantern fly? What if lantern fly eggs are in those bags? I could be responsible for introducing this horrible creature to Maryland! So I left the needles untouched in large 'yard waste' paper bags on our back porch.

"But I couldn't throw them away. I mean, PINE STRAW is so useful!

"Since three long years have passed with those untouched bags sitting through the seasons, is it now safe? Can I finally use the pine straw without loosing an evil invasive species into my neighborhood? Or can lanternfly eggs stay dormant for longer than three winters?"

A. You would not have had the dubious honor of such an introduction even if there were egg cases in those bags, as this invasive Asian planthopper is already in Maryland, specifically Cecil and Harford counties, which are under quarantine like most of Eastern PA. And I doubt that your bags harbored any eggs, as lantern flies lay their egg masses on large solid objects, like trees, vehicles, firewood,and the kind of decorative stone they originally used to enter the country illegally.

And, after three years, I suspect that at least half of your pine needles have become a compost-like material called 'pine fines', which are a great soil amendment sold in bags mostly in the DC area and South.

However, in a subsequent email exchange, you said that you felt the terms pine straw and pine needles were interchangeable. They are not.

In a highly informative online article that I found, Scott Satterfield of 'Four Seasons Pine Straw' in Acworth Georgia, explains that the pine straw that is the mulch of choice in the South is VERY different than the pine needles that decorate your living room floor after Christmas. Those well-named 'needles' are what? A couple inches long at best? And if they came from a blue spruce or similar tree, they are sharp! Southern "Short Needle Straw" from loblolly pines averages four to six inches in length; while "Long Needle Straw" can be seven to nine inches in length (if it comes from the 'slash' pine tree) or a whopping seven to sixteen inches if it comes from the Southern Longleaf pine. And while you could say that they are technically pine 'needles', the individual pieces of straw are as large or larger than the material found in a bale of hay (which may be why pine straw comes in bales).

Straw from the Southern Long Leaf pine is the most desirable, as it is thicker and more durable than the other types and has a beautiful reddish color, especially in the Spring and Fall. I should know, as I have been the happy recipient of several bales every Spring from one of my favorite entrepreneurs, Bill Strock, who has been making genuine Southern Pine Straw available to us Northerners for several years.

I spoke to him yesterday as he was heading home from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he had delivered 200 bales of Long Leaf pine straw to a neighborhood co-op, whose green space is now the envy of all. His original business is called 'Mid-Atlantic Pine Straw' and he offers free delivery inside the greater Philadelphia area with the purchase of a minimum number of bales. He also shares a retail location with Maxwell's Hardware in Downingtown, PA, where you can 'grab and go' (after you pay for it of course).

When I asked him 'what's new'? He happily answered, "New England Pine Straw Mulch!"; a new business based in the town of Rutland, Massachusetts. When I explained the invasive pest impetus for my call, he said, "that's an excellent question; we go to great lengths to ensure that our bales are clean and safe.

"Pine straw drops naturally from the trees in the Fall, is collected sustainably by hand and then baled in South Carolina, where every batch is inspected for invasives by Clemson University before it leaves the state. They're mostly looking for fire ants, but they are very thorough."

I love this. Many of you know that I despise the AWFUL trend of mulching with chipped-up pallets from China that have been spray painted the color of an abandoned Burger King, but there weren't many alternatives in the north besides shredded fall leaves or compost. Now, thanks to John and his lovely wife Catherine and an increasing number of other people and companies making what I call "Nature's Finest Mulch" more available, we may finally see the end of Volcano Mulching!

Well, I can dream, can't I?

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