Pine needles line courses in Brunswick County

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

One of the many benefits to getting older is having adult children. Gene and I can share in our four daughters’ careers, families, achievements, joys and sorrows.

These are fellow human beings, miraculously emancipated from the nest and living on their own, yet they are tied to us in a lifelong bond of love and concern and (yes!) fun.

Our oldest daughter Karen is a landscape designer in Richmond, Va. A few weeks before Christmas, she called and asked me to attend the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Baltimore in January.

“I’d love to,” I said, thinking that it would be fun to spend a couple of days with her. I also realized that I might find some topics of interest to the readers of this column.

And so, last week there I was at the huge convention center in Baltimore surrounded by hundreds of booths with trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials, sod, patio blocks, bird cages, gardening gloves, greenhouses, pruning shears, pottery, signs, bedding plants and their containers and about a zillion things having to do with landscaping.

This was not a fancy garden show with elaborate displays of blooming plants and beautiful indoor walk-through gardens. This was a no-nonsense, place-your-order-with-the-wholesaler trade show. Exhibitors came from throughout the U.S., Maine to Florida, North Carolina to California and points in between.

As I walked through the convention center, an exhibit for pine needles caught my eye. It wasn’t about the famous “Pine Needles Golf Course” where the U.S. Women’s Open was played last summer. This was a business that harvested and sold long-leaf pine needles.

I talked with a guy named Doug Williams who operates Quality Pine Needles, Inc. in West End. He was also representing the North Carolina Pine Needle Producers Association. Soon, I was learning all about longleaf pine needles and why they are used on our golf courses and why we should use them in our own landscaping projects.

“First of all, pine needles are a natural product,” Doug said. “We lease the right to harvest pine needles from various landowners in the Pinehurst area. We trim away the underbrush and, right there, that helps the ecology by making the forest less susceptible to fires.

“Then we run machines that scrape up the natural pine needles under the trees. We do not have to kill a tree to produce pine needles or what some people call pine straw. It’s all there, just waiting for us to harvest it.”

Often, the government signs contracts with the companies that harvest pine needles to allow them access to large tracts of land near Fort Bragg and other installations.

Doug explained that during harvest, pine needles are gathered into large boxes and tied with twine to create bales.

“These needles are great for golf courses and in residential areas. Rain goes right through them to the roots of plants and trees. In the winter, the needles insulate the roots of trees and shrubs. Pine needles don’t wash away in storms and, most importantly, as they break down they add nutrients to the soil.”

“What about leaves?” I asked. You can’t rake leaves out of pine needles.

Doug explained that larger leaves can be blown off the top of pine needles, but it best to leave the smaller live oak leaves alone. Once an area is established with a covering of pine straw, you simply add a light dusting of needles every six months or so.

When using wood mulch in flower beds over a number of years, a “turtle back” occurs because of the buildup of mulch. This mounding is not good because water runs off the area and does not go down to the roots of the plants. According to Doug, this mounding does not occur with pine needles.

In addition, because of compaction and density, funguses often grow in wood mulch.

There is something really vile called the “Artillery Fungus” that grows quickly in wood mulch and shoots a sticky black spore mass up to 20 feet away.

According to a report by the College of Agriculture Sciences at Penn State, “The fruiting body (of the Artillery Fungus) points itself toward strong light sources such as sun-reflecting glass and light colored buildings and cars. As the body matures, it opens like a flower revealing the mass of spores in the middle. Five hours after opening, the inner cup inverts and violently ejects the spore mass with a 1/10,000 horsepower force, as far as 20 feet.”

Yuckeeee! That sounds like something from outer space.

“One consideration for both golf courses and homes is the expense of the labor needed to put down wood mulch,” Doug said.

“Hardwood mulch is particularly heavy and needs a wheelbarrow and shovels for installation. Pine straw is light and a small woman can easily pick up a bale, cut the string and scatter it around. Imagine what this means to golf courses where they literally have acres of bedding areas and more land under trees and along sides of fairways to cover. It’s becoming more popular year by year. We deliver it by the truckload.”

Weed control becomes easy with the use of pine straw, according to Doug. The layer of needles retards the growth of weeds, and the few that rear their ugly heads are easily controlled with a quick zap of weed killer.

In areas around homes, pine needles are best because regular mulch is made of ground up trees, packing crates and other discarded lumber.

“Wood mulch often contains insects, including termites. You don’t want to put it next to your home.”

Are there different kinds of pine straw?

“There are three different kinds of pine needles. Two varieties are short and fine. The long leaf pine needles cover well and last the longest. It costs more per bale but is cost efficient because of those factors.”

Doug picked up a handful of his pine straw and, indeed, the needles were at long and fat. They run from 7 to 18 inches long.

“I was trying to sell our product to a golf course in Florida but they wanted to use regular pine needles near the entry gate to the course. I challenged them to use their pine straw on one side and ours on the other. If ours wasn’t better, I would give him the whole truckload for free. They did the installation using both kinds and he called me when it was done to order more of our North Carolina long leaf pine needles. He’s a regular customer now.”

Doug was very enthusiastic, and as I listened to him, I realized that I was getting both and education and an excellent sales pitch.

The sales pitch was mitigated by the fact that last fall, we changed from hardwood mulch to pine straw in our own yard.

We were lured by the reasonable cost and ease of installation and the fact that most golf courses around us were using pine straw for large areas. What Doug said made perfect sense to me. This spring, you’ll see us in the yard, adding a light dusting of pine needles.

Golf Gab Groaner

Adam was having a terrible day on the golf course—slicing, hooking, chilly-dipping, losing balls in the water hazards and three-putting on many greens. His caddy was totally exasperated.

Finally, on the 15th hole, Adam was about 100 yards from the green. He turned to his caddy and asked, “What should I take for this one?”

“Beats me,” groaned the caddy. “Looks like a toss-up between a cyanide pill and the next train out of town.”