[NAFEX] pine needle mulch versus wood

Alan Haigh alandhaigh at gmail.com
Wed Oct 28 15:17:13 EDT 2009

Anecdotal evidence can be pretty convincing when it is repeated hundreds of
times over decades of experience with plenty of comparisons in the field,
but it is admittedly much more convincing to the observer than to the person
down the line hearing about it, and it should be.   Nevertheless this
discussion might be useful if someone is inspired to investigate further.
Meantime, I suggest running with the cheapest effective mulch you can find.

The quality of pine needles being hydrophobic is an interesting point.  I've
always assumed that this was a tactic of pines to keep competitors from
sprouting under the needles.  Under white pines the litter is so thick and
dry- right down to the later stages of decomposition- that not much has a
chance to germinate beneath the tree.

I believe that there are advantages and disadvantages to a mulch being
hydrophobic, and while during drought course wood chips (the kind that comes
out of a chipper, not a shredder) will require more water to reach the roots
of plants than pine needles, the water in that wood will wick into the soil
when the soil becomes dryer than the chips.  In other words, the chips act
as a reservoir, in my opinion.  During drought it may be advantageous to
push away the mulch before a quick thunderstorm, but a drenching rain that
soaks the chips and the soil beneath will extend the amount of available
water.  The intense worm activity under wood chips allows even several
inches of rain over a few hours to effectively drain into the soil.

OK, this is largely theoretical, but I have a nursery with hundreds of trees
and an entirely inadequate well to provide sufficient water to get me
through droughts.  I watch where the fine root hairs go and when they're
white, I know there's sufficient moisture.  There's no payback in my
researching this as I run with the cheapest available mulch- these days it's
mellowed stable waste (urine soaked soft wood shavings and manure) which I
get very nearby, loaded on my truck for free and sometimes mulch hay which I
have to pay for but is less labor intensive to use.  Still, I would love to
see some legitimate data as well- just not enough to do the work.
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