Can you compost pine needles? Branches and Needles

  • By: composthq
  • Date: September 27, 2022
  • Time to read: 7 min.

Introduction

If you’re just breaking into the wonderful world of composting, you probably have all kinds of questions about what you can and can’t put into your compost bin.

Today, we’re going to look at can you compost pine needles? Branches and needles from the pine tree make a great addition to your compost.

You can add pine needles and the branches of pine trees to your compost, but be aware that they will take some time to break down, especially the branches. The needles are somewhat water-resistant and tough, and anything woody takes a long time to compost. It’s a good idea to spread out pine needles, rather than adding them all at once.

women with gloves on and pine needles in hand

What Are The Advantages Of Adding Pine Needles?

Pine needles will add valuable nutrients to your compost pile, and they also bring it more structure.

The needles hold their shape quite and don’t break down quickly, and this serves to aerate the compost, allowing oxygen to flow through it more effectively.

This is great for any compost bin, as more airflow equals more bacterial activity (of the right sort!) and this heats the compost pile up.

Compost bins that get compacted can become anaerobic, and this will smell awful because the wrong kind of bacteria have started to breed and are releasing methane and other greenhouse gasses.

Composting pine needles improves the structure of your compost pile and prevents it from compacting so easily. Pine branches will do the same, keeping the pile open and the air moving.

As they break down, they will – like all organic waste – release nutrients, enriching the compost and making it better for your plants.

They are a valuable source of nutrients and if you have a pine tree, there’s no reason to neglect the resources it offers.

close up of pine needles on a tree

What Are The Dangers Of Adding Pine Needles?

Some people don’t add pine needles to their compost bin because they are acidic, and indeed, pine needles are often used for making ericaceous compost (which has a low pH value).

However, you don’t really need to worry about this too much.

Although pine needles are somewhat acidic, their pH tends to neutralize quite quickly once they start to compost.

They won’t hold onto their acidity and they won’t make your compost pile particularly acidic, unless you add them in very large quantities.

Your compost should still end up neutral or alkaline, even if you include pine needles.

It is worth noting that the acidity of pine needles can slow down the growth of microorganisms in your compost, which is a bit of a problem, because you need the microorganisms for the compost heap to function.

If you inhibit their growth too much, your compost may slow down or stop.

However, this only tends to happen if you add a lot of pine needles; if you are including plenty of other organic matter, it shouldn’t be a problem.

The other issue with adding pine needles is that they do take a long time to break down, and while we listed this as an advantage, it is also a disadvantage.

If you add a lot of pine needles to your compost, you may find that everything else is ready, but the needles are still hanging around in the heap.

This isn’t too much of an issue in most cases, however. You can usually just add the needles to whatever you’re using the compost for, and they will continue to decompose slowly.

This may not work very well for seedlings and sensitive plants, but if you’re mulching around large trees or bushes, it will be fine.

impatient women pointing to her watch

Why Do Pine Needles Decompose Slowly?

You might be wondering what protects pine needles from decomposition and makes them hang around for such a long time. There are a couple of reasons.

The first is that the needles have a waxy sort of coating, and this protects them from fungi and bacteria. These are needed to start the decomposition process, but they struggle to get past the coating.

The coating also protects pine needles from being saturated, and as water is a key part of composting, this further slows down the process.

The needles don’t get soaked the way other organic waste does, because they repel the water.

Also, remember that the pH of pine needles can inhibit the microorganisms, which also slows down the composting process – both for the needles and for surrounding material.

It won’t stop the decomposition, but it will make it occur more slowly.

Branches from pine trees will also break down extremely slowly, but that’s because they are woody and tough.

Like any large, solid piece of organic waste that you add to your compost pile, pine branches can withstand the composting process for years.

They will only really begin to break down when the wood has started to rot and soften enough for worms and other organisms to eat it.

Depending on the size of the branches, this could take a very long time.

middle age women next to pine tree

How Should I Add Pine Needles?

If you’ve decided to include pine needles in your compost bin, don’t just tip a whole pile on top and hope for the best.

This will bring out all the worst aspects of pine needles and ignore all the advantages that they can offer.

It might seem like the easiest solution, even if it isn’t the best. Often, when you gather up pine needles, you’ll end up with a large quantity of them all at once.

You might be tempted to just dump these onto your compost heap.

However, even if it seems easy, it is not a good idea to add a whole pile of pine needles in one big lump. They will compress and because they have a waxy coating, they won’t break down quickly.

This results in a pile of stagnant material in your compost heap, which isn’t doing any good at all.

Secondly, because they inhibit the growth of microorganisms, they will break down even more slowly than other masses of one material; nothing much will grow or operate around them.

Their water-repelling properties will exacerbate this problem, and all in all, you will probably end up with a big pile of needles that does nothing but sit in your bin for years.

Instead, you need to mix the needles in to take advantage of the aeration benefits they offer.

You might want to keep a bucket or other bin of pine needles near your compost, and add a small quantity every time you include other waste.

This will keep the ratios balanced and spread the needles throughout the compost bin.

If that doesn’t work for you, instead consider stirring the needles through the compost, using a garden fork or stick.

You should be turning compost regularly anyway, so this may fit with your standard routine and ensure the pine needles get mixed in without adding any extra steps.

close up of pine needles on a tree

How Should I Add Pine Branches?

If you want to include pine branches in your compost bin, you can also do this, but you may need to do a bit more work.

Depending on how quickly you need the compost, you will probably want to break the branches down before adding them.

One option is to borrow or hire a garden chipper, which you can feed the branches into to break them down into very small pieces.

This is the best way to handle pine branches, as they will then soak up moisture, start to rot, and soften enough for your compost to break them down.

Alternatively, try chopping them into pieces yourself.

This isn’t the quickest solution, especially if you have a lot of branches to process, but it may be your only option for getting the branches small enough if you don’t have access to a chipper.

If you don’t want to do this extra work, you can just add the pine branches to the compost as they are – as long as you’re prepared for them to stay intact for a long time.

The best way to deal with this is to just keep throwing them back into your compost bin every time you empty it. They will eventually break down.

How Can I Make Pine Needles Break Down Faster?

If you’re feeling frustrated by how long pine needles take to disappear, try using ones that have already aged and turned brown.

Alternatively, use a shredder to dice the needles and cut them into small pieces; this will encourage faster rotting as it damages the waxy coating and makes it easier to mix them thoroughly.

close up of person mowing long grass

Some people do this by piling up their pine needles and running over them with a lawnmower to chop the pieces up effectively. The shredded needles can then be added to the compost heap.

Summary

You can certainly compost pine needles and pine branches, but be aware that they will take a long time to break down, and they can – in large quantities – slow down the overall composting process.

It is a good idea to shred them and mix them in thoroughly. Don’t overwhelm your heap with needles.

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