Picking out a perfect mulch is mostly a matter of preference, said a University of Georgia scientist.”As long as it acts like a mulch, what it is doesn’t matter,” said Mel Garber, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Good mulches, he said, can do four things: keep water near the plants’ roots, prevent runoff, keep down weeds and eventually improve the soil. Whether the mulch you use is pine straw, pine bark, shredded newspapers or composted yard trimming depends on what you like and what you can buy at a price you’re willing to pay, he said. And in the South, pine straw often wins on all counts. “We see people all the time who just rake it up and use it for mulch,” said Dave Moorhead, a UGA Extension Service forester with the D.B. Warnell School of Forest Resources. “But it’s also readily available in bales.” Georgians spend more than $25 million on pine straw every year, said Lynn Hooven, chief of forest management at the Georgia Forestry Commission. “That’s a good estimate of first sales,” he said. “If it’s resold through retailers, that’s not included. Pine straw is big business in Georgia.” (Photo courtesy the Georgia Forestry Commission.) (Photo courtesy the Georgia Forestry Commission.) No matter if you rake your own or buy bales, Moorhead said it’s best to use fresh, “clean” straw. “Baled pine straw should be bright reddish-brown and flexible,” he said. Garber said if it doesn’t bend without breaking, don’t buy it. Bales shouldn’t contain weeds, pine cones or other grasses, he said. Pine cones add bulk to the bale, but they’re not useful as mulch. Weeds and grasses can spread seeds into your flower beds that you’ll have to pull up or kill later. “The point is for the mulch to give a finished look to the beds. And weeds can negate any effort you’ve made,” he said. Pine straw, along with other plant matter, helps build the soil, too. Eventually. PINE STRAW grew into a $25 million business in less than 10 years, said UGA forestry scientists. But before baling, whether mechanically, like above, or by hand, workers clean the straw, removing sticks, twigs, briars and leaves. Almost three-quarters of the straw harvested in Georgia is from slash pine, but longleaf pines produce the longest, and most desirable straw. PINE NEEDLES vary in length by what type of tree grew them. Longleaf pine, at far left, grow longer, “premium” needles that you’ll pay more for. Slash and loblolly pine, center and right, are the most commonly grown pines in Georgia, producing almost 75 percent of the straw sold in the state. “Using pine straw as a mulch is essentially composting in place,” said Wayne McLaurin, a UGA extension horticulturist. “It will last about a year before it starts looking dingy,” he said. “But as it decomposes, it’s adding organic material to the soil right there around the flowers, shrubs, trees — whatever it’s around.” As the straw begins looking gray, Moorhead said, it’s easy to add another thin layer of fresh straw. The price you’ll pay for pine straw varies across the state. But expect to pay more for longleaf pine straw, which has longer needles that last longer in the landscape.