Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Pine Straw Vs Mulch: Pros and Cons and Which is Better

By: Zac Friedman

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There are many different types of mulch that you could use in your garden. One popular mulch option is pine straw. Other common types of mulch include bark, wood chips, straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, etc. The best type of mulch for your garden depends on a number of factors including your budget, the type of plants you grow, and your personal preference. In this guide, I’ll outline the difference between pine straw and other types of mulch. I’ll also list some pros and cons of using pine straw vs mulch. 

I use a number of different types of mulch in my garden. The type I choose depends on what I’m trying to achieve. In this guide, I’ll share my experience mulching with pine straw. 

Key Takeaways

Pine straw is a great choice if you’re looking for a cheap (or free) mulch that is easy to transport and spread. Pine mulch offers many of the same benefits of other types of mulch including weed suppression and water retention. It can also add nutrients to your soil as the straw breaks down.

  If you’re spreading garden mulch for aesthetics, wood chips or bark mulch might be a better option. These types of much are available in a range of colors and textures.

Pine Straw Vs Mulch pin

What is Pine Straw?

Pine straw is made from pine needles that fall from pine trees. After the pine needles fall, they dry out from sun exposure and become brittle. The dried pine needles can be used as mulch for your garden. Pine straw is a type of mulch. It is also known as pine needle mulch.

Pine straw can be spread around trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals. It can help to suppress weed growth and retain water. Because pine straw is organic matter, it can add nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. 

The popularity of pine straw varies by region. It’s popular in wooded areas with lots of pine trees. It can give your property a nice natural look. Pine mulch is particularly popular in the South. You can use pine needles from a number of different types of trees including longleaf pine, ponderosa pines, and loblolly pines. 

The pine needles turn brown and then fall from the tree. The dry needles make great mulch.

What is Mulch?

Mulch is a layer of material that is applied to the soil surface. Mulch helps to suppress weed growth, retain soil moisture regulate soil temperature, control soil erosion, and add nutrients to the soil. It is also used for aesthetic purposes. 

Many different types of mulch are used. Mulch can be made from an organic material or inorganic material. Examples of organic mulches include wood chips, bark, leaves, straw, compost, grass clippings, and of course, pine straw. Examples of inorganic mulch include lava rocks, gravel, and rubber mulch.

Mulch is applied around the base of flowers, trees, and shrubs. In addition, it is used in agriculture to protect crops from cold weather. The best type of mulch depends on the climate you live in, the type of plants you’re growing and personal preference. 

A pile of wood chip mulch
Wood chips and bark chips are the most popular types of mulch

Differences Between Pine Straw and Mulch

Pine straw is a type of mulch. There are a number of differences between pine straw and other popular types of mulch. 

First, pine straw is lighter than most other types of mulch. This makes it easy to haul and apply. You can apply it by hand. It can blow around in the wind. 

Pine straw also has a higher acidity level (lower pH) than other types of mulch. This is good for acid-loving plants. If you already have acidic soil, you may want to stay away from pine straw. 

Pine straw also degrades more quickly than other types of mulch. It will need to be re-applied once or twice per year. Many other types of mulch last more than one year. 

The cost is another major difference. Pine straw is cheap. You might be able to get it for free. Other types of mulch can get pretty expensive. 

Pros of Pine Straw

  • It’s cheap or free- Pine straw is plentiful. It is naturally produced by pine trees. You can find it lying on the ground in forested areas. You may be able to collect it for free. Check your local laws. If you have pine trees on your property, you’ll have more than enough of it. If you have to buy it, it is very affordable. Pine straw is usually sold in bales. A bale costs around $5-$10. 
  • Pine straw is easy to spread- You can easily spread it with your hands and a rake. Just grab a bunch of it and scatter it over your garden. Use a rake to smooth it out to the desired thickness. 
  • Aesthetic appeal- Some people prefer the visual appeal of pine straw over other types of mulch. It can offer a nice natural look. Particularly if you live in a heavily forested area. 
  • Environmentally friendly- Pine straw is completely natural. Trees produce it naturally. They do not need to be cut down to harvest it like they do to produce bark mulch or wood chips. Pine straw also does not require any processing. 
  • Clean- Pine straw doesn’t make a mess during installation. It also doesn’t stain during heavy rains, like some types of mulch can. 
  • It helps to reduce soil erosion- Pine straw interlocks together and stays in place better than some mulches in wet conditions. This makes it a good choice for areas that experience runoff. It can also work well on hills. 
  • It helps to regulate soil temperature- Pine straw is a great insulator. It can insulate plant roots from extreme temperatures. It can protect your plants from the cold and summer heat. It can reduce extreme temperature swings between the day and night. This reduces stress on your plants. 
  • It reduces soil compaction- Pine straw cushions the compacting force of rainfall and sprinklers. 
  • Easy to transport- Pine straw comes in bundles or bales. The bales are held together with twine. It’s not loose like other types of mulch. This makes it easy to transport to your home.
A celery plant with pine straw mulch

Cons of Pine Straw

  • It can blow around in the wind- Pine straw is incredibly lightweight. When there is strong wind, it can get blown around. Some of the pine straw might end up in your yard on your lawn. In this case, you’ll have to rake it back into your flower beds. The wind can also make the distribution of the mulch uneven. There may be bare spots. You might have to re-spread parts of it after heavy winds. 
  • Pine straw can attract pests- Pine straw tends to attract more pests than other types of mulch. It can attract termites, cockroaches, centipedes, earwigs, slugs, snails, and other pests that you don’t want in your garden. These pests like to hide and burrow in the pine straw. It is an ideal nesting spot because it’s easy to burrow into. It also holds moisture and heat that these critters need. If you have a pest problem, it’s best to stay away from pine straw and look for an alternative mulch. 
  • Pine straw can be a fire hazard- When dry pine needles catch on fire, they burn quickly. If you’ve ever thrown pine needles on a campfire, you’ll know this. If you live in an area where wildfires are a risk, you will want to avoid using pine straw for this reason. 
  • It changes color over time- When pine straw is fresh, it has a nice reddish-orange color. As it weathers and begins to degrade, it can turn gray, dark brown, or even black. It doesn’t look as nice as it ages. When the color starts to change, you’ll need to add a fresh layer of mulch. 
  • Pine straw doesn’t retain much moisture- Pine straw retains some moisture but it doesn’t perform as well as other mulch types. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, pine straw doesn’t absorb much moisture. It also isn’t very dense. Air can pass through and cause the moisture to evaporate. It dries out fairly quickly compared to other types of mulch. Wood mulches make a better moisture barrier. 
  • Not long lasting- Pine straw degrades pretty quickly. You will need to replace it at least once per year.
  • It’s not the best weed barrier- Pine straw is a natural weed barrier but it doesn’t perform as well as other types of mulch. Pine mulch is pretty loose. Weeds can grow through it. You need a fairly thick layer to suppress weeds. If you’re looking for weed control, bark mulches are better. 
  • Aesthetics- Some people don’t like the look of pine straw mulch. It can look kind of messy. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the looks of it. I wouldn’t use it in the front of my home.
  • Availability- Pine straw isn’t sold everywhere. It’s common in the south. Particularly in Georgia and Florida. In other parts of the country, it may not be widely available. 
Pine needles that have fallen from a tree
You can collect pine straw for free if you live in an area with lots of pine trees.

Pros of Mulch

  • It stays in place better- Other types of mulch are heavier and denser. They don’t blow around in the wind. 
  • Better moisture retention- Other types of mulch retain soil moisture better than pine straw. Some materials, like shredded wood, absorb moisture and help keep the soil wet for longer. 
  • Better weed barrier- Denser types of mulch perform better at suppressing weeds than pine straw. They prevent weed germination. 
  • More attractive- Regular mulch can look nicer than pine straw. Some attractive mulches to consider include cedar, cyprus, and pine. Dyed mulches are also available in a variety of colors. It’s a great way to enhance the curb appeal of your home. 
  • Longer lasting- Other types of mulch degrade at a slower rate than pine straw. This means you don’t have to apply it as often. For example, wood mulch can last at least 2 years. 

Cons of Mulch

  • Mulch can get expensive- Some types of mulch are pricey. Wood chips can cost over $80 per cubic yard. A bag of mulch contains around 2 cubic feet. Rubber mulch can cost over $200 per cubic yard. To compare, a cubic yard of pine straw costs around $15-$30. 3 bales of pine straw is equal to 1 cubic yard. A single bale of pine straw will cover about a 40 square foot area. 
  • Harder to transport- Mulch is heavy. You’ll need a truck to haul it to your property. May have to pay for delivery if you don’t have a vehicle that can haul it.
  • Harder to spread- You will need a wheelbarrow, shovel, rake, and some muscle to spread mulch. It’s a job. 
pine bark mulch
Another popular type of mulch, pine bark mulch

Is Pine Straw Too Acidic for Plants?

One common belief is that pine straw is bad for plants because it’s too acidic. There is a myth that pine needles lower soil pH so much that plants won’t grow. 

This really isn’t the case. Fresh pine needles straight from the tree have a pH of 3.2-3.8. This is slightly acidic. In most cases, you won’t be mulching with fresh pine needles. You’ll use dry pine needles. 

After pine needles fall, they immediately begin to decompose. The decomposition process neutralizes the pH of the pine needles. By the time you apply the pine needles to your garden, they are pretty much neutral. They may be slightly acidic but it’s pretty negligable. 

If you already have acidic soil or if you’re growing plants that are extremely sensitive to acidity, you may want to avoid pine straw. The vast majority of plants won’t be affected by the slight acidity of pine straw. Pine straw does not add much acid to the soil. 

For more info, check out this interesting article.

Who Should Use Pine Straw

Pine straw is a great option for: 

  • Those on a tight budget looking for a cheap ground cover
  • Those growing plants that prefer acidic soil
  • Environmentally conscious individuals
  • Sloped landscapes
  • Mulching around trees and shrubs
  • Areas that are prone to erosion

Who Should Not Use Pine Straw

Pine straw is not a good choice for:

  • Fire prone areas
  • Areas with pest issues
  • Areas with high foot traffic
  • Windy areas
  • Around plants that prefer alkaline soil

My Experience

I use pine straw as mulch because it’s free for me. I have some pine trees on my property. When the needles fall, I rake them up into a pile and then spread them on some of my landscape beds for mulch. They help to control weeds and retain a bit of moisture so I don’t have to water as often. They are also easy to apply. 

The main reason I use them is because they’re free. I probably wouldn’t pay for pine straw because I’m not the biggest fan of the way it looks. For aesthetics, I prefer wood chips, such as cedar mulch. Bark can also look nice. 

A Few Tips for Applying Pine Straw

  • Apply fresh pine straw at least once per year. Twice is better. It degrades fast.
  • Apply pine straw with your hands. 
  • Spread the mulch 3-4 inches thick. You can spread it as much as 6 inches thick for better weed suppression.
  • Don’t spread the mulch up to the trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave some space around the base.
  • Edge your garden beds before mulching. This helps to prevent the mulch from blowing into your lawn.

Final Thoughts

Pine straw mulch is affordable and easy to spread. It helps to suppress weeds and retain moisture in your garden. It also looks since. 

Sometimes, another type of mulch is the best choice. There are other mulch options to consider such as wood chips, bark, or inorganic mulches. In some cases, these mulches can perform better than pine straw. 

At the end of the day, best option comes down to personal preference and the region where you live. If you live in an area with lots off pine trees, pine straw is worth considering. Whichever type of mulch you choose, I hope this guide helps you in making your decision. 

Do you use pine straw mulch? Share your experience in the comments below!

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