Pine Needles

garf_gwSeptember 11, 2010

Do pine needles have any value in a container medium?

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I like all organic humus, and more importantly my plants love it. Pine needles will work best as a mulch on top of the ground around the plants. They also work well if you rake them into a pile, run over then with your mower, and then put them on your compost heap for few weeks with some grass clippings. In the absences of those things, I find that a few handfuls of pine needles or leaves mixed in with the soil in a pot helps to improve the soil as they decompose slowly.

Others on the forum will hate them. I'll leave it to Al to explain why all organic matter other than fir bark is evil.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 3:05AM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

It's not so much that it is evil.. But more that it packs down in time and affects the drainage. Plus it doesn't break down like it would in the ground.

I have plants(tomato's) in the 5-1-1 doing better than my plants in the ground. There's alot to show and be said for how well Al's mixes do work as is.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 11:07AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Garf - I'm sort of neutral about pine needles in compost and as mulch - nothing particularly special about it, but pine needles ARE high in terpenes and aqueous methanol, both substances KNOWN as allelopathic (inhibit growth of other plants), so I would probably question the wisdom of including them in container media and leave them out entirely ..... but that's just me. ;o) Spreading an inch or two of mulch over thousands of cu ft of mineral soil wouldn't have nearly the impact as it would if you made them a notable fraction of your container soil.

The organic compounds mentioned do tend to dissipate as the needles age, so if the pine needles no longer SMELL like pine needles, there is a much reduced concern about allelopathy, but the terpenes and other bio compounds are what inhibit decomposition, so by the time the affects of allelopathy are diminished, the needles are at a point where they break down quickly.

You can decide for yourself if you wish to try to tend your containers like they were a garden, and 'feed the soil' instead of the plant. This MO has to lead to rapid soil collapse. It can't be any other way. If you include organic ingredients in your soil that break down quickly, you should expect increased water retention and reduced aeration.

There ARE two different ways of looking at container culture. I simply prefer to set aeration and drainage above other concerns and work from that pivotal point. I, and many, many others, have found it MUCH easier and more productive. I've never said you can't approach container culture from an organic perspective and expect to have healthy plants. It's just harder and much more fraught with pitfalls. I think I can say w/o it being a boast that I'm no slouch when it comes to coaxing vitality into my plants growing under container culture. I've just never been happy about the amount of effort going in or the results coming out of the 'organic or nothing' approach to container culture when I compare it to the media and methods I currently employ.

FWIW - pine needles are no more organic than pine bark or peat. If pine needles offered better physical properties as a soil ingredient than either bark, peat, compost, or any other organic amendment I might choose, I'd use them - but they don't. Their only redeeming quality is that they can be had free, but that needs to be balanced against the negatives.

Take care, and good luck.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 12:38PM
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I used pine needle leaf mold as potting mix and had good results. See:

Next year I plan to compare this leaf mold mix with 5:1:1 both in 18 gallon totes and both using top watering.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 4:46PM
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Re: "pine needles are no more organic than pine bark"

But if you've got pine trees in your yard, they are free and easy to come by. The point that I try to make is that backyard gardening doesn't have to be like some "scavenger hunt" game, where people must search endlessly for the perfect medium to grow healthy plants.

If I were growing a bonsai that I my grandparent had tended for 70 years, or I had paid $1000 for, then I would probably be really picky about what I put in its container. When I'm transplanting some tomato seedlings I planted in a dixie cup from a packet of seeds that cost 50 cents, the tedium isn't neccessary.

Some people are searching everywhere to find the perfect sized bits of bark and sifting ingredients. Others are simply making a pile of leaves, grass clippings, pine needles, and shredded junk mail that cost nothing and are growing food in our yards. While Al's followers are still sifting their ingredients and measuring it, they could be shredding Parmesan cheese to go on top of tomato sauce and pasta made with fresh tomatoes and herbs from their own back yards.

My point is that if you're filling up a pot or bucket with potting mix and realize you don't have enough, it's fine to grab a few handfuls of pine needles, leaves, or tear up some junk mail and mix it with the potting mix and put your plant or seeds into the dirt.

Growing should be fun, it doesn't' have to be like equipping a NASA mission to grow their own food on a 500 year trip to another solar system.

I want people to know that without spending a lot of money or going to lots of trouble, they can grow vegetables in the yard or on their patio.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 6:00PM
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I have access to pine needles that have been on the ground for a long time. I might try to collect the lower layer that has partially rotted.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 7:25PM
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There are species of pine from Japan and Spain whose needles and roots have highly allelopathic chemicals that inhibit the seed germination and root growth of other plants. This has been observed in the Japanese Red Pine (Pinus densiflora), but not the North American Red Pine (Pinus Resinosa). The opposite is true of the North American Red Pine, which is highly susceptible to the allelopathic chemicals produced my many under-story plants that inhibit the germination and root development of red pine seedlings, which may account for the difficulties in regrowth of red pine forests after clear cutting. ("Allelopathy: A Potential Cause of Forest Regeneration Failure", Richard F. Fisher, 1987)

Oak leaves and pine needles mixed together were found to significantly increase the colonization of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. ("Litter quality influences on decomposition, ectomycorrhizal community structure and mycorrhizal root surface acid phosphatase activity", Christine Conn and John Dighton, Rutgers University Pinelands Field Station, "Soil Biology and Biochemistry", Volume 32, Issue 4, April 2000, Pages 489-496)

Wood chips from utility prunings decompose significantly faster than than do pine bark and needles. Research found that a decomposition rate of less than 10% for pine bark and needles was not significantly different after 1 year. Studies on the allelopathic properties of North American pines show that their bark and needles both release only very minor amounts of these compounds. Laboratory water extracts from wood chips from utility prunings and pine needles both showed stronger allelopathic effects on the sprouting of lettuce seeds, than did the laboratory extracts from pine bark, but when the wood chips, pine bark, and pine needles were tested as mulch on soil, there was no significant difference observed in seed germination. ("A comparison of landscape mulches: chemical, allelopathic, and decomposition properties", ML Duryea, RJ English, LA Hermansen - Journal of Arboriculture, 1999).

Pine needles can cause the pH of soil to drop over time. This fact has been disputed by some people on these forums who say that "tea" brewed from pine needles has neutral pH. The lowering of soil pH by pine needles is not through a direct action of their own pH, as vinegar or lime would have, but rather by their allelopathic effect on Nitrosomana soil bacteria. By suppressing the growth of some of these bacteria, the balance of ammonium-nitrogen and nitrate-nitrogen is altered, which lowers the pH of the soil when a large amount of pine straw is present. ("Allelopathic inhibition of nitrification and nitrifying bacteria in a ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl.) community" MAK Lodhi, KT Killingbeck , American Journal of Botany, pages 1423-1429, 1980)

Not surprisingly, pine straw and pine bark are not very different in their effects of other plants. When they are fresh, they both can have slightly detrimental effects on other plants, but this potential dissipates quickly as they age.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2010 at 9:19PM
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Boy, do I agree with you gtippitt. Gardening should be fun and it is for me. A handful of pine needles, some miracle grow, a bunch of petunias, a few geraniums, maybe a marigold or two and you've got a beautiful pot of colorful flowers.

Its a good thing!

And vegetables


    Bookmark   September 13, 2010 at 12:23AM
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So, I guess I'll go out and collect some older pine needles and see if I can use them to advantage.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2010 at 2:47PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

I would advise an experimental container, so that you don't lose any precious plants to the pine.
You might even wish to test the pH of your concoction - that way you'll have a base-line for acidity.
Batch to batch, pine to pine, you'll notice variation. At the very least, I'd add the same amount of
Dolomitic Lime that one would to a pine/fir bark-based soil - 1 Tbsp. per gallon of soil mix.

Good luck, and keep an eye out for yellowing plants.


    Bookmark   September 14, 2010 at 4:25PM
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No need to get fancy when growing seasonal annuals. Good sun, proper watering and they do great.


    Bookmark   September 15, 2010 at 1:30PM
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I grow all my flowering annuals such as marigolds, impatients which like water anyway, elephant ears, and so on in last years soil, straight very light compost, bagged mixes like MG, sometime soil from the ground mixed with pine leaves and old leaves from previous years, and so on..
By the time the soil rots or breaks down, my annulas usually die of frost or look horrible anyway while I have great looking plants for at least the one season..

I am finicky however about the mixes I use for my vegis and perenials I intend on getting the most fruit yield from ,or keep in the same pot year after year, such as succulents,peones, lilies, roses, tomatos, rasberries, certain perrenial herbs and so forth..

I use mixes that barely break down for the best possible growth imaginable and most yeild on those.....

I can't see wasting my money or time making my own top quality soil mixes that I intent on throwing into the mulch pile before the winter anyway..:-)

    Bookmark   September 15, 2010 at 5:09PM
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greenman28 NorCal 7b/8a

Fancy?! ;o
You mean like using a fork to eat pizza, fancy? ;)
Or pink flamingo color co-ordinated containers fancy ;)

The addition of Dolomitic Lime ain't no fancier than adding any other fertilizer.

It literally takes less than one and a half seconds to add.

And it's quite inexpensive, too.


    Bookmark   September 15, 2010 at 5:17PM
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What happened to all the posts after Josh's?????

I was learning quite a bit until.......:-((((((((((((


    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 12:51PM
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jojosplants(9/ Tucson, Az.)

me too!
Hi Mike!

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 2:02PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Admin came and cleaned them up. I don't blame them - they had drifted OT.


    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 2:34PM
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Something tells me that I don't check this thread often enough.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 3:38PM
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Masdevallia 'Rosemary' growing in tree fern and white pine needles.

They spent the summer buried under large white pines. They are beginning to bloom which will continue throughout the winter. Very pretty little orchids.


    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 1:29AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

You have the prettiest little orchids, Jane.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 10:58AM
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Thank you


    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 10:37PM
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