Pine Straw vs. Mulch

Pine Straw vs. Shredded Mulch

When people think of mulch, they often think of shredded wood mulch. It’s a good mulch option that prevents weeds, nourishes the soil, and maintains moisture. Pine straw is another type of mulch that offers many of the same benefits, but it’s easier to apply and is cheaper than garden-variety wood mulch. What’s better in the battle of pine straw vs. mulch?

The truth is that mulch and pine straw are both good and it mainly comes down to preference and what your landscape needs more. Learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of pine straw and mulch.

What is pine straw mulch?

Pine straw mulch
Photo Credit: Malcolm Manners | Flickr | CC BY 2.0 DEED

Pine straw is simply dry fallen pine needles. It’s a common type of organic mulch, and it’s especially popular in areas where pine trees grow, like Florida. There are two types of pine straw mulch that are typically found in gardening centers and big box stores: long-needle and short-needle.

Long-needle pine straw is more commonly found in stores. Harvested from longleaf pine trees, each needle measures about 12 to 18 inches long. Its length is precisely why suppliers like it.

Janice Dyer and Becky Barlow from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System say that long needles are easier to collect, longer-lasting, and less prone to floating away.

It also helps that long-needle pine straw has a naturally reddish color that pops in garden beds, making it more popular with homeowners.

Short-needle pine straw, on the other hand, only measures about 4 to 8 inches long. This type of pine straw is the dried-up needles of the shortleaf, loblolly, or slash pines. This light brown mulch is less striking but does stay fluffy, which some homeowners prefer. It’s also the cheaper pine straw option.

Let’s go over the pros and cons of pine straw to see if it’s a good fit for your landscape.

Pine straw pros

Pine straw has many advantages that make it an attractive mulch material, especially for those on a budget and the environmentally conscious.

  1. Pine straw is affordable (or even free).

Pine straw mulch is one of the cheapest mulches on the market, especially in areas that naturally have a lot of pine trees. On average, pine straw mulch costs $20 to $55 per cubic yard.

For some homeowners, it’s even a source of free mulch; just rake the shed pine needles from your yard if you have the trees.

  1. Pine straw is lightweight and easy to spread.

Pine straw is quite light compared to other types of mulch, making it easier to lay down mulch on your landscape beds even without tools. Its lightness also makes it easier to transport. Your back will thank you after you finish spreading mulch.

Because pine straw is so light, it’s also a good mulch for vegetable gardens.

The lightweight nature of pine straw mulch also makes it more efficient when it comes to coverage. “A 40-pound bale will typically cover about 100 square feet (a 10- by 10-foot bed) to a 2-inch depth,” says The Texas A&M System AgriLife Extension. They say that you’ll need the following to cover a similar area:

  • 8.33 bags of pine bark mulch
  • 5.56 bags of cypress mulch
  • 5.56 bags of cedar mulch
  • 8.33 bags of pine nuggets
  • 8.33 bags of red mulch

On average, a bag of mulch can weigh anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds – a far cry from the 40 pounds of pine straw that covers the same area.

  1. Pine straw is more eco-friendly.

Since pine straw is just the needles that have been shed from a pine tree, it doesn’t need heavy machines to be produced. Harvesting pine straw has a smaller carbon footprint than most wood chips and other hardwood mulches.

Note: Aim to buy locally harvested pine needles for the least carbon emissions.

You can even harvest pine needles yourself with tools you likely have in your shed: rakes, pitchforks, or shovels, all of which don’t consume fuel or produce smoke.

  1. Pine straw is low-maintenance.

Pine straw is the perfect mulch for homeowners who don’t like topping off mulch twice a year. It decomposes slower than other types of mulch, possibly lasting years – at least, according to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

  1. Pine straw stays in place.

Over time, pine needles (especially long-needle pine straw) knit together and interlock. Once pine straw interlocks, it stays in place even during heavy rain, floods, or strong winds. It even stays put on slopes and hillsides. 

However, it will be susceptible to floating and washing away before it interlocks.

  1. Pine straw lets water and sunlight through.

Even though pine straw knits together, it doesn’t form an impenetrable mat like shredded mulch does. So, water and sunlight will reach the soil even if it’s covered by pine mulch.

While this is good for your plants, it’s not great if you want to avoid weeds. Make sure to deal with weeds before laying this porous mulch in your garden beds.

Pine straw cons

Although those advantages may entice you to add pine straw mulch to your landscape, you must consider its disadvantages.

First, let’s dispel a myth. Pine straw mulch doesn’t make your soil more acidic — at least not enough to matter. Pine needles are very acidic, but they neutralize over time through decomposition.

“If you were to take the freshly fallen needles (before the needles decompose) and turn them into the soil right away, you may see a slight drop in the soil pH, but the change would not be damaging to the plants,” says experts from Oregon State University Extension Service.

Now let’s go over pine straw mulch’s cons.

  1. Pine straw is not good for weed control.

The porous nature of pine straw makes it more likely for weed seeds to germinate. Pine straw offers all the benefits other mulches provide, such as erosion control, moisture retention, insulation, and even weed control; it’s just not as good at controlling weeds as other types of mulch.

  1. Pine straw is flammable.

Many organic mulches are combustible, but the characteristics of pine straw unfortunately make it a severe fire hazard, especially if it’s dry. “Pine straw, a fine fuel with its high surface-area-to-volume ratio and high oxygen availability, bums very quick and hot,” says a research paper published by the USDA Forest Service.

Some areas have even restricted the use of pine straw, or at least strongly recommended homeowners avoid it. In 2017, the Planning and Inspections Department of Sunset Beach, NC released an advisory warning after a pine straw fire burned down a home and damaged four others.

If you want to use pine straw as a mulch, keep it away from your home and keep it moist, especially during hot weather. Also, avoid lighting fires and throwing cigarette butts near pine straw mulch.

  1. Pine straw is slippery on slopes.

A mat of pine straw is quite slippery and can be dangerous to walk on if used on slopes. It becomes even more of a slip hazard when it’s wet. Avoid walking on a slope with pine straw after a rain shower.

  1. Pine needles are sharp.

Working with pine straw may be unpleasant because the needles are sharp. It’s not much of a problem if you wear gloves, though. We recommend wearing safety gloves or garden gloves whenever putting down mulch, no matter the type.

  1. Pine straw changes color over time.

While pine straw breaks down slower than other mulch types, you may still want to replace it twice a year because it changes color over time. Some people prefer the look and hue of fresh pine straw. 

What is shredded mulch?

Close up of shredded mulch
Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

When someone says mulch, people often think of shredded mulch and other wood mulches. It’s one of the most popular (if not the most popular) kinds of mulch, used by homeowners all over the country. 

Shredded mulch is a type of wood chip mulch, often a byproduct of timbering and lumber mills. They also can be made out of recycled shipping pallets. Shredded mulch can be made of hardwood (oak, beech, hickory, maple, etc.) and softwood (pines).

Let’s look at the pros and cons of shredded mulch.

Shredded mulch pros

Shredded mulch is popular for a reason – or in this case, for many reasons. It’s easy to find, nice to look at, and very helpful in your yard.

  1. Shredded mulch has better water retention.

Any water that gets into the soil will have a harder time evaporating under a layer of shredded mulch. Compared to pine straw, shredded mulch is heavier and forms a thick blanket that sunlight can’t get through. This helps shredded mulch form a better moisture barrier than pine needles.

  1. Shredded mulch is easy to find.

Aside from its affordability, shredded mulch is also the most popular mulch among homeowners because of how easy it is to find. You can buy this mulch from pretty much any garden center or big box store. 

You also can check local lumber mills or your local tree service for mulch. Sometimes you can get mulch from there for cheap or even free!

  1. Shredded mulch is better for weed control.

Because shredded mulch forms a heavier and more impenetrable mulch layer, weed seeds have a harder time sprouting. Sunlight and water are the two most important factors for successful germination, no matter the plant.

It’s also easier to pull weeds out of shredded mulch because it’s not as sharp as pine straw.

  1. Shredded mulch is more nutritious for the soil.

Shredded mulch decays the fastest out of the wood mulches, which means it fertilizes the soil faster than other wood mulches. However, you have to be careful as shredded mulch uses up nitrogen as it decays. Pine straw doesn’t have this problem as it is rich in nitrogen.

This type of mulch also gives more organic matter back to the soil compared to pine straw. Organic matter (OM) is material from living things and includes plant material and microorganisms. More OM means healthier soil, as it improves water infiltration and makes soil easier to cultivate.

  1. Shredded mulch has more aesthetic options.

While pine straw also can be dyed, it’s easier to find dyed shredded mulch. Dyed mulches can come in all sorts of colors, from reds to greens and blues. If you’re going for a specific look, you might have more luck looking for dyed shredded mulch than pine straw.

  1. Shredded mulch is easier to keep clean.

Compared to pine straw, it’s easier to remove debris from shredded mulch without messing with it if you’re using a leaf blower. This is because shredded mulch is heavier and mats together more than pine needles do.

It’s not the best mulch to clean, though; choose a heavier and coarser mulch for that.

Shredded mulch cons

Like pine straw mulch, shredded mulch and other wood mulches have a common misconception – that they attract and feed termites. According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, shredded mulch doesn’t feed or attract termites. However, it does foster conditions they like – mainly, a moist environment. 

“[When] the termites wander into a suitable habitat they are more likely to remain and feed in that area,” the experts said. It’s not even limited to shredded mulch. They also report that “sustained [termite] activity over time was significantly higher beneath gravel mulch.”

  1. Shredded mulch is heavier and more difficult to install.

As we mentioned earlier, a bag of mulch weighs around 20 pounds, and a bag of mulch doesn’t cover much. You’ll need to lug around a lot of mulch — in bags or in a wheelbarrow — to cover the same area that a bale of pine straw would.

Aside from the inefficient coverage-to-weight ratio, the heavier nature of shredded mulch makes it harder to spread. You might need to use a shovel to make it easier to lay down shredded mulch.

  1. Shredded mulch mats together easily.

When wet, shredded mulch sticks together into a near-impenetrable mat. While that’s great for weed control, it’s not good for the roots of your plants underneath the mulch. This mat will prevent water from getting to the soil and from evaporating once it does get there.

Because it prevents water in the soil from evaporating, matted mulch also creates a dark and damp environment that fosters fungi (including those that cause diseases) and protects pests and other small critters. Some of the mulch-dwelling creatures, like centipedes and millipedes, are helpful decomposers, but some of them are household pests like roaches.

To mitigate this problem, you’ll need to break up the mulch mat with a rake from time to time.

  1. Shredded mulch can be more expensive.

On average, shredded hardwood mulch costs anywhere between $40 to $70 per cubic yard. In terms of price, it’s the middle of the pack among organic mulches. The type of wood that the mulch is made from is the main factor that affects its cost.

You might be able to buy mulch for cheap if you buy straight from a lumber mill, tree service, or tree care company, though. Always explore your options.

  1. Shredded mulch is not as eco-friendly.

Although shredded mulch is a byproduct of the lumber industry or made from recycled pallets, it takes heavy machinery to grind down the wood into mulch. This heavy machinery produces emissions that aren’t good for the environment. They’re also really loud, and heavy noise pollution disrupts the environment.

Pine straw vs. other types of mulch

How does pine straw fare against other kinds of mulch

Pine straw is an organic mulch, but not all organic mulches have the same qualities. It also has some similarities to inorganic mulches like rocks, plastic, and rubber mulch.

Organic mulches

Let’s compare pine straw versus other organic mulches first. It’s an inexpensive (sometimes free) option like compost, fallen leaves, grass clippings, aged sawdust, and straw, but it stays in place, resists compaction, and lasts quite a long time. However, these options (minus compost) tend to form water-resistant mats; pine mulch does not – unless you pile it on too thick.

Aesthetically, pine straw tends to look better than other options, especially in areas where pines grow.

Inorganic mulches

Now, if we compare pine straw and inorganic mulches, we’ll see that they are both long-lasting (although the latter lasts much longer) and won’t deplete nitrogen in the soil. However, that’s where their similarities end.

Because it’s made of leaves, pine straw has the same advantages (and some of the disadvantages) that organic mulch has against inorganic mulch. Pine straw nourishes the soil, is better for your plants, and is quite affordable, but it can house pests, might have weed seeds, and eventually breaks down. In terms of aesthetics, it all comes down to preference.

Pine straw also has a smell that some would call pleasant. Most inorganic mulch doesn’t have a smell – except for rubber mulch, which has the disadvantage of smelling quite pungent when it’s really hot out.

FAQs about pine straw vs. mulch

Is it ok to put pine straw around your house?

Please don’t put pine straw mulch against your house. The main reason is because of how easily it can catch fire. Putting a very flammable material near your home is a recipe for disaster; your house can easily go up in flames.

Another reason against putting pine straw against your house is how it can give termites and other pests access to your home. Pine straw doesn’t feed termites or foster the conditions they like as well as shredded mulch does, but it can still house pests and let them march on over to your house.

Sub pine straw for rocks or other types of inorganic mulch once you reach 1 to 2 feet away from your home.

How do you keep pine straw in garden beds?

To keep pine straw in your landscape beds, you should “tuck” them in. Lay down the pine straw mulch about a foot or so away from the border of your landscaping, and then rake the needles back into the landscape bed.

Tucking in pine straw helps keep it in place before it interlocks. As a bonus, the clean edge looks neater and more professional.

How deep should pine straw mulch be?

Pine straw should be laid down 3 inches deep and no deeper than 4. It’s a fine-textured mulch material, so it doesn’t need to be applied in a thick blanket. Learn more about proper mulch depth in our article here: How Deep Should Mulch Be?

When to hire a pro to mulch your landscape

Pine straw has a lot of benefits as a mulching material, but it does have drawbacks that might make you hesitant to make the switch. If you’re still unsure about what mulch is best for your landscape, maybe you should consider consulting a professional.
A local lawn care pro can give you some insight into what mulch they prefer and why. Plus, they can mulch your yard too. Don’t know where to find a pro? Lawn Love can connect you with a pro in your area who can help with all your lawn and garden needs – mulching included.

Main Photo Credit (created with Canva Pro):
Pine Straw (left): PxHere
Shredded Mulch (right): Dvortygirl / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Janine Caayao

Janine Caayao has always been fascinated with growing plants, from fruits and veggies to bonsai trees and orchids. Now, she’s interested in urban gardening with her family. She loves finding new tips and tricks to keep their plants thriving.