The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Growing your own mulch with pine trees

Raking pine strawMy favorite part of Sara McDonald's One Acre Homestead was the idea of growing our own mulch by planting a small pine plantation.  Sara notes that a 10-year-old pine forest can produce 125 to 200 bales of needles per acre, with each bale covering 120 square feet (and with yields increasing as the trees mature further).  You should give the trees two years off between mulch-gathering, though, so I estimate my blueberry patch would need the mulch from about 0.3 acres filled with 21 white pines.

Aerial photo of our homesteadFor the last six years, Mark and I have been focusing on what permaculture practitioners refer to as zones 1 and 2 and what I call our "core homestead," which covers a bit over one acre.  I do have visions for forest pastures ringing our core homestead...eventually...and I could see a pine pasture doing double duty as mulch producer and shady summer chicken pasture.  On the other hand, we've still got areas within our core homestead that haven't quite been reclaimed from the weeds and turned into productive growing space, and those areas always come first.

Still, I'll be adding the pine tree idea to other options I've tossed around for growing our own mulch.  Oats as a fall cover crop work well for the beds they're planted on and chop-'n-drop species are possibilities in the forest garden.  Meanwhile, I'll just keep raking leaves out of the woods, flagging down the wood chip guys whenever I see them, and buying straw.  What's your favorite way to complete the loop with farm-grown mulch?

The Avian Aqua Miser is a POOP-free waterer to put the fun back into chicken-keeping.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I love this idea - I have a lot of pine trees on my property - but I thought I read somewhere (can't remember now, of course!) that pine needles inhibit microbial activity. I've been avoiding using them for my compost because of that. If this works and I really can use them, I would be thrilled!
Comment by The Cheerful Agrarian Sun Dec 23 10:52:57 2012
Since we have a small lot (.24 acres) we have to collect most of our mulch from neighbors. The leaves from our trees break down where they fall and we feed garden wastes to the chickens then compost all of that. We get bags of leaves, bags of pine straw, and sometimes mulch from the curbs of our neighbors. This year I got 50 cubic yards of wood chips to mulch the beds and the aisles. It was enough to cover almost our entire property. I don't think we will ever run out of mulch in the city but I also don't have much ground to cover either.
Comment by Brian Sun Dec 23 11:44:09 2012
I switched to pine needle mulch this year after hay prices sky rocketed. We have a 1/2 acre grove of lob-lolly pines my father planted the year I was born (86). It worked great, seems to hold the weeds down a little better even. I just gather what I need with a rake and transport it across the yard with a leaf cart from TSC.
Comment by Phil Sun Dec 23 12:31:34 2012

My father had an acquintaince in New Zealand, a Dutch farmer who had emigrated. That man had pines growing on a portion of his land as his retirement fund.

If you have enough land and if the cutting is sensibly managed (a tree here and there instead of cutting down a whole lot) it could be a source of extra income and maybe a source of sawdust for your toilet. And maybe leftovers could be used as firewood. Does your wood stove have a problem with resin-rich wood?

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Dec 23 17:59:20 2012

I admit that this idea arose out of my aesthetic preference for pines. I planted pines first, then put the blueberries in next to them and maybe only after transplanting both did I realize "hey, this could work really well." I've also seen the wild blackberries grow well under pine trees.

I haven't heard about limiting microbial activity (though I think it makes sense, especially when fresh, because of the terpenes.) One reason they are recommended for gardens (particularly acid-loving plants) is because they have very low allelopathy compared to many other trees. I know a lot of folks immediately think of black walnut, but many trees suppress other plants to some extent, and pines do not.

In response to your question, Anna, I recently discovered a nice source for compost and mulch where an oak tree has been littering on a concrete slab near the old milk barn for decades. There's about 8 inches of rich compost under the top layer of recently fallen leaves. Since it's up on a slab, it's been out of the way of weeds. It seems perfect. Other than planning to use that, I've been using hay bales from the fields. It's not my favorite mulch, but it's free and abundant and it's working out so far. I'm careful about which bales I use so that they aren't too weedy. If there is any grass seed that germinates, it's usually easy to pull out of a thick layer of mulch.

Comment by Sara Mon Dec 24 06:38:02 2012
Living in Arizona, there isn't exactly a surplus of organic matter. I do have several mesquite trees in my yard however, and I used the beans for mulch, hugel material, and goat treats.
Comment by ashaldaron Mon Dec 24 09:04:27 2012

I enjoyed reading everyone's free mulch ideas!

Cheerful Agrarian --- I haven't seen any problems from using pine needles as a mulch on blueberries, but I'm not explicitly trying for microbial activity in the mulch layer. I might tend to agree with you that they wouldn't be a good addition to compost. Another factor to consider is acidity --- pine needles might acidify the ground too much for plants that like the soil sweeter.

Roland --- In our area, people who plant trees for lumber tend to aim for hardwoods, primarily oaks and walnut. Pine can be dicey in a wood stove if you use too much (although it does make great fire starter). Some other mulch-producing trees I've considered planting are the maples, which would make good firewood (especially sugar maples) and quality leaf mulch (especially silver maples).

Comment by anna Mon Dec 24 12:00:10 2012
We have three huge Red Maples, one Bradford Pear, and two that are unknown to me in our yard alone! (Lucky us!) Raking leaves and running the rest over with the mower works well!
Comment by stephanie Mon Dec 24 18:56:08 2012

I have many oak and sweetgums on 3 acres. So far I have harvested almost 10 yards of leaves with almost that much patiently waiting. After a quick trip through the shreader 3-4 inches get worked into garden beds with a bit of manure to breakup hardpan clay. Since we have trees where we plan on putting the garden we had to cut about 20 trees, both large and small resulting in large pile of small branches for mulch and possible bugul beds for future forest garden. A lot of work but time is free when you can find it.

Thanks for the encuragement.

Comment by Tom Wed Feb 6 10:40:55 2013

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