Many, many people want to know what to do with pine needles. Since I first wrote about using pine needles in the garden a year ago, (“What to Do With Pine Needles“, December 15, 2010), that article has been read by hundreds of people looking for help with the common problem of too many needles in autumn. This year I expand on the topic by offering more uses for pine needles, some that I do and others that I found through research.
First, using pine needles as a mulch is the best way to use large quantities of the pesky things. I have about a dozen large Ponderosa Pine trees around the house and can use all of the needles as a weed-reducing covering on my garden paths. I dump the pine needles by the wheelbarrow load between my raised beds. It helps that I have a large garden and plenty of paths that need weed suppression. With normal gardening activities the pine needles are compressed and broken down by mid summer and I usually desire more. If you have more needles than garden paths, consider saving them in bags for additional summer mulch applications.
My strawberries are mulched exclusively with pine needles. They’re the best mulch I’ve found for plants like strawberries that are perennial and benefit when their fruit rests above the soil. The stiff pine needles allow plenty of air and water to reach the soil and don’t compact when left undisturbed. The strawberry runners are able to dive beneath the needles and root, creating new sister plants. Many other garden plants can benefit from pine needles or a combination mulch along with straw.
Another use for pine needles offers an indirect benefit for gardens. Beekeepers use smoke to control their bees as they inspect and manage their hives. Pine needles are virtually perfect as the fuel in metal smokers. Many beekeepers budget the cost of fuel, often burlap or cotton, into their beekeeping and would welcome the opportunity for free fuel. Contact your local beekeepers association or beekeepers you may know and offer them a bag of pine needles as smoker fuel.
Along the same lines, pine needles are great fire starters. For our outdoor fire pit it’s easy to grab a few handfuls of pine needles from the nearest tree when I’m layering the kindling and wood; there’s no need for newspaper. For indoor fireplaces, pine needles can play the same role. To avoid the mess of loose pine needles all over the hearth, using thread I bundle the needles into little wands to supplement kindling wood. For a rustic decoration the wands can be stacked along with cut wood near the fireplace. Pine needles will burn quickly so they’re best when partnered with other basic fire starting components.
If you plan to go to the trouble of tying pine needles into bundles, consider using them as sachets. Fresh pine needles have more pine fragrance but can be mixed with dried needles to make a decorative, fragrant, long-lasting home accessory. Hung in a closet, they’ll quickly make it smell like a forest. Wrapped in a sachet bag, they can add fragrance to drawers, closets, and even automobiles; why buy a paper, fake tree to hang from your rear view mirror when you can have the real thing.
Expanding on the needles-in-a-bag concept, create outdoor pillows and mattresses. Using sturdy, weather-resistant fabric, sew large bags and stuff them with pine needles. Similar to straw mattresses commonly used for hundreds of years, these equivalents can work well on a patio or outdoor deck area. They will be slow to break down and should hold their shape and cushion for a long time. If the fabric material is plastic, thick, or used with an internal barrier, the pointy tips shouldn’t protrude.
You can also make tea with pine needles, primarily fresh ones. I stumbled across this use on the internet but haven’t tried it. Some holistic medicine practitioners say pine needles offer health benefits and are high in Vitamin C. Before you try it I’d recommend conducting your own research to confirm it’s what you want. There are many sites out there with more information about pine needle tea.
Start a pine needle compost pile. Last year I raked many piles of needles and used most of them, but one pile remained in an out-of-the-way corner of my yard. I raked in fall and in early summer I finally got around to using the pile, to replenish the mulch on my garden paths. Imagine my surprise when I began lifting the pile into my wheelbarrow and discovered that the inside and base of the pile was fully decomposed into nice, black compost. The snow, rain, and mass of the pile had effectively composted it. If you have more needles than you can use, put them in an area that will receive plenty of moisture and let them decompose.
For the truly crafty people, make a pine needle doll. Raffia and straw are often used in bundles that are bent and wrapped to create the doll’s head. Long pine needles that aren’t too dry can be used the same way. Once the head is formed a simple cloth dress completes the doll.
While many people with pine needles would prefer they just disappear, with a little effort and ingenuity you can wile away a winter’s day by using pine needles creatively. If you have another use for pine needles let me know. I’m looking forward to what next year’s pine needle article can offer.