My strawberry bed is struggling a bit, its fruits marred by a rainy spell that spattered them with mud. Their bottoms show signs of rot. They need a mulch.
Mulch will do almost any crop a favor, but strawberries especially. In dry weather, it prevents soil moisture from evaporating. In wet, it keeps plants cleaner and stands in the way of soil fungi eager to explore stems, fruits and leaves. It can insulate crops that over-winter — as strawberries do — in frigid weather. By keeping soil temperatures more even, it protects plant roots from heaving up or turning mushy when the ground alternately thaws and freezes.
How many food crops are named for the material with which they are traditionally mulched? Strawberries are. I don’t have any straw, though. There’s some hay about, but it’s so spoiled by now that it and the strawberries would get together and have a rot party. So I’m going for pine needles. Nearby is a long row of pines, mulching themselves yearly as needles are shed. They won’t mind if I steal a wheelbarrowful or two.
The needles don’t break down quickly. As a result, they won’t contribute much long-term fertility to my berry bed, as straw or hay would. But their not breaking down sounds like a good thing on a day when sogginess foretells decomposition. Compost can happen somewhere else, I say. In the compost pile, for example.
A pine mulch is quite attractive. The graceful needles, which turn a ruddy brown after falling, lie flat, don’t blow in the wind, don’t wash away even on a slope. As a result, they’ re quite popular with landscapers and homeowners. They are sold in bales as “pine straw,” and I know not from whence they come or whether the harvest of them from pine groves is sustainable. I prefer to borrow some from a spot I know can spare the bit I need. I’m undeterred by the warnings I’ve read about the needles’ acidity. It’s not extreme, and strawberries have no quarrel with a slightly acid soil. Woods-dwellers in the wild, they prefer it, in fact. As for warnings about the needles’ flammability, I’ve made a mental note not to cover the yard with them if I ever move to brush fire country. And I’m rooting for my crop.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and authior of “The Garden Primer.”