Trying to figure out what to do with pine forest landscaping
January 18, 2006 10:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to figure out what to do about landscaping in a pine forest location. The problem is the soil is sandy and nothing has grown there.

We have a cabin out on the edge of a pine forest. There is almost no undergrowth. The ground is pretty much carpeted with old needles, and the ground is pure sand. It seems what's happened is a cycle: the pine trees put down a carpet of needles which doesn't decompose much, and which has prevented underbrush/grass from growing and adding any organics to the soil, so it remains chronically sandy.

First and foremost, I'm going to have to rake up the old needles since they're tinderbox-dry and are fuel for a fire to consume our cabin. But if I rake it up, I'll just expose barren sand. I doubt anything will grow in it, and furthermore since it's on a slight slope I'm worrying about erosion problems.

1) Is there anything I can do with this sandy ground? Or should I start with a truckload of loamy dirt?

2) What might be some common gardening center type plants that will do really well in sandy soil? (hardiness zone 8, 40" of rain a year).

I'm not sure where I'm taking this question, but the pine needles have to go.
posted by chef_boyardee to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
I'm not a gardener, but I seem to recall something about how some trees drop leaves/needles that contain chemicals that actually change the chemical composition of the soil to retard growth of other plants and support growth of new trees. I think you'll need to do a soil sample to see what plants could be supported without remediation, and I think many counties offer that free of charge.
posted by frogan at 10:35 PM on January 18, 2006

Sounds like my front yard, except for the sand. The pine needles may go, but they will come back. So I'd supplement the soil, but also look for plants that thrive in acidic soils. Rhododendrons, azaleas, that sort of thing; also, Mahonia and lots of euphorbias can do well in those dry shady conditions. You could always add an irrigation system, but if this is a cabin and not your home, that may be tough.

If you know of any nearby areas where similar conditions prevail, but there are understory plants, check out what grows there and try it in your area.

Also, you could learn to love the pine needles, They're a nice mulch, as you've seen. You could put a few shade-lovers in containers here and there under the trees and keep them watered. Maybe some gnomes, something. :) If that doesn't appeal, here are some other plants that I know from personal experience will grow in dry, acidic conditions with very little care:

Spanish bluebells (a pretty early spring bulb)
Vinca major or minor (a groundcover)
Liriope (a grass, can be variegated)
Sweet Woodruff (groundcover with little fragrant white flowers)
Ferns (natives are best, of course!)
Bergenia (pink spring flowers, low-growing)

Good luck!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:42 PM on January 18, 2006

I strongly suspect the pine needles are not the problem. The problem is the combination of sand + lack of light because of the forest overstory (which I'm assuming you have). Plants need three things:


Often, if you have 2/3 you will get some plants naturallly. But here it sounds like you have neither water nor light. Possible solutions might include opening up a hole in the canopy or using the pit and mound technique (google it) to make the habitat friendlier for plants.

Dumping in topsoil may help to a certain extent but it will take a lot.
posted by unSane at 10:56 PM on January 18, 2006

You may do well with ferns, mosses, or with a garden where rocks make up a central part of the design. I don't like massive amounts of decorative rocks, unless we're practically talking about a formal Japanese garden, but large native rocks can be great for defining a pathway and framing those things that you can grow on such soil. Even amidst pine forests though, the soil quality can very greatly depending upon sun, shade, elevation, etc.

Where abouts do you live, btw? Sounds kind of like some of the soil we get along the Califnornia coastal regions. Location matters a helluva lot, obviously, since a plant that would be appropriate in one locale would fail miserably in another.

And yes, pines do tend to make it hard for other plants to grow around them, but there are usually some exceptions based on the location.

My advice would be to contact the local master gardeners for your county, as they usually have good advice that is very specific for your particular area. In California, there are not only master gardeners sites for all our counties, but also an excellent free series of video lectures that teach you the techniques that master gardeners use. It's no substitute for being able to ask them firsthand what to do about certain problems, but you may find that your local master gardeners routinely answer questions online, via phone, at local gardening centers, or even on local radio stations. Their goal is to help you and your local community in sharing information about a subject they love, so it's a definite win for all involved. Just google "master gardeners" and your state or county, and you're bound to find them.

Lastly, you'll probably want to find out about plants and possibly seeds that are native to your area, as they're the most likely to flourish. Do a search on native plants or native nurseries in your area, and you should find some ideas, and maybe some expert advice.
posted by insomnia_lj at 11:18 PM on January 18, 2006

Don't rake your pine needles into a pile until right after a heavy rain (or wet them down yourself if you can't wait and have the water available). Then, once they're in a pile, piss on it every day. Bury all your kitchen scraps in the pile too, and turn it over occasionally with a garden fork. Eventually it should start steaming. When it's cool again, dig the result into the soil along with a handful of lime (or preferably dolomite) per square foot. That mixture should grow just about anything you can get light to.
posted by flabdablet at 1:08 AM on January 19, 2006

Your profile doesn't list a location, but in my part of the country we have what's called the state extension service and county extension service. That's generally where the master gardener hangs out. I emailed them when we moved into our current house and they sent me an envelope loaded with information about what plants made sense for our area.
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:41 AM on January 19, 2006

Azaleas, azaleas, azaleas. Those suckers thrive in sandy, acidic soil like what you've described.

Also, if you're far enough south (no deep freezes), palmettos and yaupon holly will grow anywhere. Both are very successful in the sandy, piney upland forests of North Florida, and an added benefit of the holly is that the leaves, when dried, make an excellent, caffienated tea (more history here).
posted by saladin at 6:07 AM on January 19, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all for the great info! (I'll be sure to get some azaleas, too)
posted by chef_boyardee at 7:07 AM on January 19, 2006

You might try blueberry bushes. I've seen them growing happily in almost the exact environment you're describing. They're beautiful, though will need pruning if they like it there, as full-size bushes can get to be 15 feet high.
I probably don't need to tell you how nice it is to have fresh blueberrries all summer, but you'll have to outcompete the birds. If you want to eat them all yourself, this usually involves netting, which isn't too attractve. Or, plant a bunch and you'll have more than you can handle anyway.
I'd leave the needles in place--I don't know what the climate's like where you are (sounds like you're out west, right? What altitude?), but around here (southeastern Michigan) they'd be acting as mulch and helping to retain some moisture in the soil/sand below. Some people around here actually truck in pine needles to use as mulch in blueberry patches.
posted by pullayup at 9:26 AM on January 19, 2006

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