Southern Long Leaf Pine Straw
My inquiry regards the use of Southern Long Leaf Pine Straw for shrubs and planting beds in the south central part of PA. Is there any background about the advantages of holding in place (not washing or blowing when on slopes), resistant to weeds, volunteer grasses, mold, mildew or other non desirables? I would appreciate any thought or information you may have.
Lancaster County Pennsylvania
Every mulch has advantages and disadvantages. For most people, the decision regarding what mulch to use is based on appearance, cost and availability, in that order. In the southeastern US, pine straw (naturally shed needles) is the mulch of choice. It is readily available, economical and aesthetically appealing to most people.
In the Midwest, hardwood bark (primarily oak) is most commonly used for the same reasons. It is also available in bulk, making it less expensive than bagged material for large mulch jobs. However, hardwood bark and ground oak wood mulch can draw nitrogen out of the soil, requiring nitrogen fertilizers to counteract this effect. Pine bark is attractive, but has become quite expensive. It may also move around with wind and water more than most mulches. Cedar and cypress are preferred by some based on appearance, but they are not readily available in all areas.
From the standpoint of plant health, the best mulch is one that simulates a forest floor. Decomposing leaf litter (sometimes called leaf mold) comes closest to this. The minerals in leaves are present in the same proportions as found in plant tissues. Bark and wood mulches tend to be high in calcium and potassium, which can get the underlying soil out of balance if applied too heavily. As leaves decompose, they recycle their minerals, keeping the soil in balance. Unfortunately, leaf mold is not easily obtained and it breaks down quickly, making it necessary to re-apply several times during the season to maintain good weed control. Pine straw is a good mulch from this standpoint.
So, while every mulch material has its pros and cons, almost any mulch is better than no mulch at all. Mulch conserves soil moisture, suppresses weeds, prevents soil erosion, adds organic matter to the soil and generally improves the root environment. Use whatever mulch is readily available that you can afford and looks appealing to you.