Pine Straw Gardening

***Today at 10 am is DIL’s Tami’s live bee interview in Athens, Georgia. Now, 330,000 educators have signed up to view it live, along with school children and some adults. Details are on yesterday’s post. It can be viewed taped later, which I will do as I have a dentist appointment this morning.


I grew up with pine straw being used in my Georgia grandmother’s magnificent gardens and on her open back yard areas.

I remember that in the shady back yard areas, people visited together in a ring of metal garden chairs, or worked in the summer kitchen to can tomatoes, or ate some wonderful and special food at the long wooden outdoor table. This backyard area got new pine straw a couple of times a year.

New pine straw is prickly on children’s bare feet, which was our condition most of the time in our summer visits, unless we were made to put on shoes to run up the block to the local grocery store to get something someone needed immediately, like, for instance, cold coca-colas for a morning backyard chit-chat break. But no weeds came up under the pine straw, which offered a pretty way to cover a shady back yard space that would not have supported grass.

This use of pine straw would have predated the current market for wood chips and/or mulch made of composted wood pieces mixed with composted dirt which now is used to cover garden beds. But here in the Deep South, pine trees are abundant and are sources of…pine straw. And pine straw, unlike mulch, covers dirt and keeps one’s feet clean.

The builder of my house and neighborhood used pine straw around the new houses. And that triggered memories for me. Honestly, I don’t remember what grandmother had in her formal flower beds, but I don’t remember weeding being a huge issue either.

As an aside, look what I saw in my front garden bed the other day. One of the little lizards so common in the South. Hello, my friend.

I’m seeing, also, tiny little black rain frogs in the pine straw when I have an occasion to disturb it. So the pine straw is doing a good job holding in moisture. And these tiny frogs will consume smaller insects I think. Pine straw, thus, is a natural part of the habitat here. And it is inexpensive and not heavy to transport.

After years and years of mulching in both Virginia and Maine, I’m enjoying this reunion with pine straw being used in one’s garden. I’ve been in my new home since early January, and I’ve only had a few sprigs of grass or weeds spring up in my pine straw beds, so I am kind of amazed, actually. That is so not true of other forms of mulch I’ve used over so many years. I had to do a lot of weeding in both Virginia and Maine.

Pine straw is high in acid and is a boon to acid-loving southern plants like azaleas, camellias, rhododendrums, tea olives, and many more southern plants.

It’s really easy to lift the edge of a pine straw mat and fold it back to weed beneath, which I had to do along some of the beds’ edges where the pine straw covered the centipede sod mats that come with a grid of plastic to hold them together. It’s a bit like folding back the covers on a bed one is making up. Then, when the sodded grass and its plastic grid is cut and removed, one just refolds the turned back pine straw edge.

Many of my neighbors are taking out the pine straw and putting in types of wood-chip mulch. Heavy wood chip mulch without added compost will retard weed growth, but it also pulls nitrogen out of the soil for a year or two while it degrades, which is not so good for the plants. Or so I read many years ago. And heavy compost mixed with wood chips feeds weeds as well as plants.

One neighbor told me she thought the pine straw harbored insects, which I took to maybe mean the dreaded palmetto bugs. But I’ve been outside a lot working in my beds, and I have not seen more than a spider or two. And, yes, a few of the tiny rain frogs. And that beautiful lizard, which also eats bugs.

The folks coming around to spray garden insecticides help foment this dread of “insects,” of course. Inside and outside. Can I just say data today clearly shows that herbicides and insecticides are WAY more dangerous than any insect–especially for children, which are happily abundant here in this neighborhood. (I love living where there is a healthy mix of human ages.)

One DOES have to treat for termites here. They are a menace. And once in Maine, carpenter ants got into one of my dry storage spaces upstairs, and I had to spray for those. And, then there was the time when we brought home bedbugs in, probably, our suitcases after traveling. That was a terrible spraying event. Terrible. So, yes, there is sometimes a need to stop a particular kind of destructive insect. But there are always health costs involved as well. Face it, we live in ways that encroach on the balance of the natural world all the time. But I hope that I’m making the point that insects are also part of the natural world and each has their place in it.

THUS, it makes no sense to me to spray to kill ALL insects (and creatures) in your lawn and on the whole of your house when many are needed in gardens and are doing no harm. My little lizard friend is here to EAT some of my insects, as are those tiny frogs, as are the spiders–insects and frogs and spiders that may have moved to my lawn and beds to escape death, as one sprayer predicted while standing on my front porch.

I can live with my insects for now. I baited some for roaches inside and in the garage where the big garbage cans live. And the house was treated for termites. But for me, that’s it for now.

And Alex, who mows for me, put down more pine straw Monday.

Look at how fluffy and pretty it looks:

Those azaleas and hollies are HAPPY.

I’m really liking recalling my Georgia pine straw memories–which are supporting what I think is the best thing to do in my own southern garden now.