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In Defense of Pines

by Laurel Schiller and Dan Walton

Parties are difficult. To find common ground someone inevitably says, "They have a plant nursery." The conversation then goes to plants and stays there. Who loves palms or tropical blooms; the interminable lawn problems, natural/native are they jungles or not, and xeriscape - just something that lives and requires nothing. On and on talking and bonding over alcohol and green stuff.

Then someone confesses that they have a "black thumb" here in Florida. They had lovely gardens Up North but can't grow anything here in all this sand. Someone asks what to plant and everyone waits to hear the response. If we say "Plant Pines"the warm, glowing, fuzzy, green companionship thing ends. Pine haters say pines are messy, dirty, drop needles and cones on the roof and driveway, cover the car windows with pollen, a "must go". Pine lovers respond that they have soft, weeping branches, lovely long needles, and are so beautiful beneath summer storm clouds.

As Pine growers, we also defend them vigorously as an important part of the Real Florida. Pines thrive in our sands and have for eons of time. They grow well along the coast behind the open dunes in acidic sands, and equally well inland in areas where summer rains saturate the flatwoods above the subsurface hardpan.

For the first couple of years after their seeds germinate, they look like tufts of long grass. During this time they develop a strong, anchoring root system. Then, over the next ten years or so, they grow very quickly and spread their canopy. This characteristic evolved as a mechanism to allow them to survive the fires that had always occurred in this land of severe lightning strikes. Nursery-grown pines are already several years old and ready to "take off." They will thrive in acidic sands without fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation. If you plant three or more about 10 -15 feet apart in a random grouping you'll have shade in a few years. This is open shade under which flowering shrubs and ground covers thrive. Groupings of pines are also less likely to be hit by lightening than isolated large trees.

We are talking about the outer thirty feet of your property away from your roof or driveway. Out where you can allow the pine straw to naturally mulch the ground under your pine canopy. Don't even try to plant grass beneath the trees. Let the needles drop and provide natural mulch. In time you will also have mulch for other areas of your yard. Pine straw breaks down quickly providing humus that acidifies sandy soils. It looks woodsy.

Bald eagles, ospreys and great horned owls appreciate pines. They choose the largest and oldest trees with enormously stout branches in which to build very large nests far above the ground. Eagle's nests can be six foot by six foot, which may later be modified and reused by ospreys and great horned owls. Woodpeckers check out every loose opening in the pine bark looking for prey insects. The pileated woodpecker (Mr. Woody Woodpecker) is such a treat to watch as a pair flop about the yard whacking into older pine trunks and calling loudly to each other. Woodpeckers create nesting cavities in pines and dead pine snags. Many of our migratory birds travel through the pine canopy from the Caribbean to the Carolinas sheltering and feeding as they go. In short, Pines are definitely for the birds.

So why do pines sometimes look so yellow and succumb to pine-boring insects? They don't tolerate changes to the environment surrounding their roots. They don't tolerate mechanical equipment running over their root systems or having saw palmetto and other hardy understory plants ripped from amongst their roots. They also don't like changes in watering regimes, fertilizer or pesticides. They don't want to be planted into high pH fill soils, and they don't tolerate topsoil spread over their root systems so that sod can be installed under their drip line. They also don't tolerate having their canopy halved or worse yet being topped to provide clearance for powerlines. If you don't do the above, basically leave them alone, they will do very well.

When you buy a slash pine make sure it is the South Florida Slash Pine. It is hardier here than the North Florida variety even though it grows more slowly. Long Leaf Pines have larger pine cones, longer needles, and thrive on drier sites than Slash Pine. They are rarely planted now because they tend to be slower growing than Slash Pines, particularly in the "grass" stage. Although they are less readily available, Long Leaf Pines are handsome trees that were once abundant in this area, and you should consider them for your yard.

Each pine grows asymmetrically in an "individualistic" manner. Become a "pine watcher", and you will come to appreciate the beauty of this stately species. As well as beautiful, pines are environmentally important and ask only to be left alone. Plant Pines!

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