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Pine needles make excellent mulch

Pine needles make an attractive, highly sought-after mulch.
Pine needles make an attractive, highly sought-after mulch. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun photo)

Can we take the pine needles under our pine tree to mulch our shrubs? We tried to grow grass under the pine tree, but now we're trying to establish ground cover there.

Pine needles make an attractive, highly sought-after mulch. They have been mulching pine trees naturally for eons. Most folks choose to leave them under the pine tree to prevent weeds and, as needles decompose, feed the pines. Also, planting under a large pine tree is challenging. It competes fiercely for water, sun and nutrients. Excess needles can certainly be used elsewhere in your landscape. They can stay in place and help mulch your new groundcover plants, too.

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In a small park in Baltimore City, I see an unusual young tree with very large leaves. The leaves look similar to those of black oaks or sugar maples, but my tree book doesn't show any tree species with leaves that large (about 11 inches long). Any idea what it is?

Good question. Coincidentally, the great variation in leaf size was the question featured in our online Home and Garden Information Center newsletter in November. You can subscribe to the monthly newsletter for free at extension.umd.edu/hgic/subscribe-hgic-enewsletter. And, yes, the photo you attached to your question looks like black oak, as you suspected. When young oak trees grow in the shade, the leaves grow extra large in order to absorb as much sunlight as they possibly can.

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Plant of the week

Bald cypress

Taxodium distichum

Although bald cypress grows well in wet places, it also does nicely in well-drained, sunny locations with acidic soil. The woody protuberances that arise around a bald cypress, known as knees, are only formed in water or very moist soils, so they won't pop up in an average yard. This long-lived, pyramidal conifer sheds its needles in the fall, hence the name "bald." Easily growing up to 70 feet, the stately bald cypress should not be planted under a power line or in a townhouse garden. It transplants easily, deer do not like it, and it has no serious insect or disease problems.

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— Ginny Williams

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