Are Pine Needles Bad for Compost?

Are Pine Needles Bad for Compost

Yard waste is one of the most reliable sources of brown materials for our compost. When it comes to large amounts of organic matter falling on our yard, leaf litter is often the best contributor. Some trees drop dry leaves that are perfect for the composting pile. Other organic materials, like pine needles, may not be so great for our soil right off the bat.

Pine trees are common in all climates across the world, from the desert of Las Vegas to the mountains of Baguio. Fresh pine needles drop continuously, and aged pine needles accumulate along the ground. Cleaning up after evergreen plants can be difficult if you don’t know what to do with all that organic matter. 

Should Pine Needles Go into the Compost?

With most leaves we clean up, the compost pile is the first destination we think of. Most leaves go nicely with green materials, and in a brief period of time, the composting process has made garden soil for indoor plants and garden plants alike. Pine needles are another beast entirely and should be treated properly to ensure nutritious compost and good-quality soil. 

Fresh pine needles have a pH of around 3.2, making them very acidic. This acidity can slow down the decomposition process, kill off good bacteria, and prevent a hot compost pile from being achieved. Unless it is almost entirely pine needle compost, you will not have acidic soil after a few months of the composting process, as the pH rises quickly once the pine needles die.

Large amounts of pine needles should never be added to a compost heap at once, with a good rule of thumb being no more than 10% of the organic material in a compost being made of pine straw mulch or pine needle mulch. Having a significant amount of the material in the compost be yard waste like grass clippings and other types of leaves can reduce the adverse effects of needles in compost. 

Pine needles can be a solid composting material when organic waste materials are scarce. It is fine to count pine needles as brown carbon-based material when calculating your N-to-C ratio as long as it only makes up 10% of it. Composting pine can help with the amendment of soil, and these benefits should be considered reason enough to include some dead pine needles in your compost annually.

How to Compost Pine Needles?

Pine Needles and Cone

Abundant pine trees in your area can be a blessing and a curse. A concentration of pine forests can make it appear that dead pine needles suffocate all other plant life. Usually, the acidity of pine needles is the main culprit cited as the killer of competition in pine forests. This is not the whole story, as there are several benefits of pine needle compost for your garden soil as long as effective composting is implemented. 

There are a couple of steps that you can take to make the needles in compost break down faster. Each step can be used in conjunction to make the best pine needle compost in the shortest amount of time. Working with nature and incorporating small amounts of pine needles into your compost and garden gradually can yield tremendous plant growth and a fluffy layer of soil. 

Leave as Mulch

When pine needles first fall to the ground, they have a low pH, but they rapidly lose acidity over time. If you allow all the pine needles that fall to lay fallow over the roots of their trees for the season, they will be drier and better suited for composting. if you do rake the needles off your lawn and pathways, you can pile them under your pine trees or acid-loving plants and leave them to break down. 

Running over pine needles with a lawn mower can help break them down, and eventually, the pile will become a layer of garden soil. Use a rake to level out the pine needles between seasons and collect as much as you need to add to your compost content annually.

Chop with Mower

After the pine needles are dry and closer to a neutral pH, you can chop them into small pieces by making multiple passes with a mower. With your last pass, attach a bag to collect all the pine needle pieces and drop it as mulch or add to a total of 10% of your compost heap. Mowing pine needles makes them easier to layer as compost or to suppress weeds in your lawn.

Use in Herbal Application

Fresh pine needles of some varieties of trees can have herbal and detoxification properties. Using needles for these applications can cause them to break down through soaking and other extraction processes. Once the herbal concoction has been completed, the used pine needles will be ready for composting. Either chop them up or layer them strategically for improved soil structure in compost. 

Hot Compost 

The hotter the compost, the faster waxy and fibrous materials like pine needles will break down. Add the right amount of green materials and additional brown materials aside from the pine needles to build the right ratio of soil microbe fuel. Rotate the pile to oxygenate it every few days and water regularly to keep the pile moist but not wet. Once the pile begins to cool, flip and repeat until the temp drops to ambient temperature and remains steady. 

Sift and Finish

Not all finished compost needs to be super fine; some garden soil with large organic material is beneficial to indoor plants and gardens. If you need seed-starting compost, you can sift the finished soil through a fine mesh screen. Toss anything still on the top of the screen back into the compost to allow it to continue to break down and innoculate any new compost material you’ve recently added.

Other Uses for Pine Needles

In some cases, there are way more pine needles than you could ever reasonably compost currently sitting on your property. Or you don’t have a compost bin but do get some pine needles on your lawn and want some creative uses for them. Either way, below are some awesome ways to use pine needles to improve your home, garden, and life! 

UseBenefitsHow to 
Pine Needle MulchSuppresses weeds and breaks down slowly.  Slightly Amends soil to help acid-loving plantsLay a 2 to 4-inch layer of pine needles on the lawn or near the roots of plants. Allow the mulch to break down and reapply as needed 
Lasagna GardeningLets you plant on hard-degraded invasive-weed-infested landPlace alternating layers of cardboard, pine needles, wood materials, compost, and other soil additives until 6 inches or more of organic material is available
KindlingQuickly starts outdoor fires or charcoal BBQs Place a bit under some wood or other fire-sustaining materials, then light with a safe fire source
Chemical-Free All-Purpose CleanerStrong pine-scented householder cleaner with no harmful chemicalsPlace fresh pine needles in a jar or container of vinegar. Soak for 1 or more weeks to obtain a strong pine aroma
Herbal TeaDetox and brain-stimulating benefitsPlace safe pine needles into boiling water and allow to steep for 15 minutes; drink while warm or allow to cool
BBQ FlavorAdds a rich smokey flavor to food cooked with pine needle smokeDrop pine needles on charcoal to let smoke flavor the food on the grill. Place pine needles in a smoker to add a more intense flavor to the meat
Detox Baths Helps the body to purify itself from build-ups of toxins in the lymphatic system Boil pine needles in water for 20 minutes and then add to bath water or foot bath. Alternatively, you can bathe with the needles directly placed in the tub
Air Freshener Use aromatics to induce a calm and clean atmosphere in the home or office setting Boil pine needles and other aromatics to fill the air with invigorating scents, pine infused water can also be added to diffusers and other aromatizers 

Pine Needle Mulch

Pine trees drop a lot of needles. These make excellent and durable mulch. Pine needle mulch is best used around plants that do not receive root-level foot traffic. Pine needles can become compacted easily, so are great for suppressing weed growth on footpaths. Pine needle mulch can be spread thinly to promote plant growth or layered thickly to protect the soil.

Pine Needle Mulch

Pine needle mulch can be applied fresh around plants that love acidic soil. Although the acidity over time decreases, reapplying them once or twice a year should be enough to appease any rhododendrons and blueberries growing around your property. After pine needles have been used as mulch can be tossed into the compost for extra yard waste utilization. 

Lasagna Gardening

This is an effective gardening technique for reclaimed and degraded land. When trying to convert a lawn to a garden or when combating hostile and invasive weeds, lasagna gardening is the way to go. Simply put, layers of organic materials are lasagna’d on top of each other to jump-start planting. 

In regenerative agriculture, bare earth is abhorred and avoided at all costs. Using pine needles and other highly available, naturally occurring organic matter as a cover layer can speed up soil building tremendously. Cardboard and newspaper are usually the bottom layers of the lasagna suffocating all existing vegetation. After that, more layers are placed to build new soil quickly.

Organic matter, manure, compost, pine needle mulch, and wood chips can all be placed to give transplanted trees and perennials a head start. After the main support plants are established, the biomass created from maintaining these plants will extend the area you can sheet mulch. Soon your soil will be several inches deep and able to sustain years of massive plant growth with minimal irrigation water. 

Kindling

Newspaper and other common kindling can have inks, dyes, and other chemicals that produce harmful vapors and unpleasant odors when lit. Less processed kindling, like pine needles, can be used instead of smokey substitutes. Starting a fire with pine needles is very fast and easy.

Dry pine needles have a waxy substance that easily ignites and burns for several seconds. This burst of flame is more than enough to light larger combustive material and get your grill or outdoor fire burning fast. The smoke from pine kindling has a sweet smell, and dry needles don’t throw many sparks while igniting. 

Chemical-Free All-Purpose Cleaner

Pine-sol is a famous cleaning brand used in homes worldwide. You can save yourself a trip to the grocery store and make your own awesome household cleaner. Placing pine needles in white vinegar and letting it soak for a week or longer is all that it takes to make a powerful fresh-scented cleaner. 

Once the pine needles have soaked, they can be strained out of the vinegar solution and rinsed, then placed in the compost. The spray can be used to kill disease-causing germs on counters and surfaces around your home. The pine scent covers up the often undesirable smell of white vinegar, leaving you with a fresh, clean home for far less money than the store-bought cleaners would have cost you. 

Herbal Tea 

Pine needle tea is very good for detoxifying the body and brain. Adding this tea to your health regimen can help with memory retention and mental alertness. It is easy to make and relatively safe as long as you use the correct needles. Avoid pine trees of the Lodgepole Pine, Monterey Pine, Ponderosa pine, Norfolk Pine (Australian Pine), Loblolly Pine, and Common Juniper varieties. 

To make herbal tea, place the needles in boiling water and let steep for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pine needles and let the tea cool. It is nice to sweeten it with honey and spice it up with cinnamon or other complementary flavors. Pine needles used for teas can be added to the compost or used as mulch around specific plants. 

BBQ Flavor

Pine needles also have an impact on the culinary world. The fresh piney scent of the needles awakens the appetite and imparts a sweet, woody scent to meat or food it’s smoked near. Placing pine needles directly on charcoal or in basting water can seriously increase the flavor of the meat on your grill and in your smokers.

Detox Baths

Adding water infused with pine needles or bags of pine needles directly to your bathtub can be a nice relaxing treat. The aroma of the pine needles will refresh your mind as the detoxifying effects of the needles cleanse your body of toxins and stress. Pine needles can be composted after use in the bath, so no organic material goes to waste. 

Air Freshener

If your home needs an odor change quickly, then a pine needle air freshener might be just the thing you’re looking for. Placing pine needles and other aromatics like cinnamon and lavender in boiling water can quickly create a new and desirable smell. If you allow the water to cool and the ingredients to steep, the leftover water can be strained and used in a diffuser for prolonged aroma-enhancing effects.