As ground covers go, there's a lot to like about pine straw. It's cheap and plentiful, spreads easily, has an attractive orange color when it's fresh and even deters termites.
Unfortunately, it doesn't stay fresh long and dries out fast. As it ages, pine straw gets less attractive - not to mention potentially dangerous.
The Triangle has seen several destructive fires that spread through dry pine straw in recent years, including one that destroyed six homes in North Raleigh's Highland Creek neighborhood in March. In response, Raleigh, Apex, Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Morrisville have passed ordinances banning pine straw from being used in the vicinity of multi-family buildings.
But pine-straw-fueled fire can take out a single-family home just as easily as an apartment building. So what else should one use for ground cover?
A lot of alternatives are available if you want a mulch ground cover. Mulch has three basic functions: to cool plants' roots, reduce water loss and create a weed barrier. Other pine variants, especially pine bark, serve those purposes just as well or better.
"Pine bark can come as nuggets, or shredded," says Chris Henderson, sales manager of Logan Trading Company in Raleigh. "There are mini-sized pine nuggets, or triple-shredded pine - which is also known as soil conditioner. It does a great job of softening up the hard red clay we have around here."
Henderson says that most homeowners opt for hardwood mulch, which outsells pine-bark mulch by about a 2-to-1 ratio at Logan. Cypress and cedar mulches are the most popular, and both have their pros and cons.
"Cypress mulch won't deteriorate, so you don't have to freshen it," he says. "And cedar deters insects, at least for a while - just like a cedar-lined closet. Both of those will become flammable as they age and dry out, but still not as flammable as pine straw."
But pine bark also has its proponents.
"We recommend pine bark just because it's easy, and it helps balance the pH of the soil since we have this acidic clay here," says Tyler Gramley, a nursery associate at Homewood Nursery in Raleigh. "Another reason we recommend pine bark versus hardwood is that cypress will lose its color as it ages. And you don't want mulch to be too fresh or it will pull nitrogen from the soil as it ages."
If fire is your major concern and your yard doesn't need mulch, there are also nonflammable ground covers. Gravel, pebbles, lava chips, brick chips and the like probably won't combust unless your property takes a direct hit from an artillery shell. But they also won't give the same coverage as organic mulches, and they're heavy.
They're also considerably more expensive. Logan sells pebble, gravel and marble chips for $4.99 per half-cubic-foot. By contrast, that same $4.99 will get you 3 cubic feet of hardwood or pine-bark mulch.
In terms of preventing fires, however, the best strategy is one of prevention, caution and common sense, no matter what you have on the ground.
"If you let pine straw go bone dry, yes, it can be dangerous," Henderson says. "And if you're careless with grills, torches, cigarette butts or citronella candles, it can catch fire. But it's not going to spontaneously combust, either. Just be smart. Extinguish everything the way you should, and it's fine. You can even water it to keep it from drying out so fast."
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