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There's money rotting under your pine trees!

If you were to think about how to make money from your trees, you would probably think first about selling the fruit (if they're that kind of trees) or wait until they are fully mature and sell the entire tree for the timber.

But there might be another option, if you happen to own an acre or two of pine trees.

No doubt you've noticed a thick and springy carpet of pine needles covering the ground around the trees. In recent years, those spiky pine needles have become popular with landscapers who tend to call the product "pine straw".

For both building contractors and landscapers there are several benefits to using pine straw instead of wood chips or bark nuggets. Pine straw is less likely to be washed away by rain, and when it breaks down it adds nutrients to the soil. An added benefit for builders is that they can lay pine straw on the construction site to prevent serious ground damage from the wheels and caterpillar tracks of their heavy equipment. Additionally, some farmers are testing the possibility of adding pine straw to cattle feed.

Be warned that harvesting pine straw can be fairly labor-intensive but the financial return could be quite rewarding, according to some reports. Dr. James Haywood of the USDA Forest Service in Pineville, LA, is quoted as saying that harvesting pine straw can provide more income than the timber itself. He calculates that an acre of pine trees annually can yield over $1,100.00 worth of pine straw.

Other estimates I've seen put the income both higher and lower than that, so let's take a look to get a rough idea of the potential. You could expect to get around 140 to 150 bales per acre, with each bale weighing 30 to 40 lbs. If you can sell each bale for $8.00 apiece, your gross return is about $1,120.00 per acre.

A pine tree needs to be about 8 years old before you're going to get a reasonable yield of pine straw, and the tree will be ready to cut for timber when it reaches its twenty fifth birthday. Theoretically, that gives you 17 years in which to harvest the straw. At $1,120.00 per acre, you could see more than $19,000.00 gross per acre over the 17-year life of that stand of pine trees. And that's money that is just rotting on the ground right now.

Of course, there's outgo as well as income. Because pine trees shed needles to provide nutrients for their continued growth, you'll need to replace the missing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium with a 28-8-8 fertilizer that will cost you around $28.00 per acre at today's prices. And if you have much more than a single acre, you're going to need some kind of baler. One resource I found on the Internet is at www.agriquip.com where they sell smaller Japanese imported pine straw balers that might fit more easily between your trees. But your biggest investments will probably be your time and your sweat.

If you're a landowner without any pine trees of your own, take a look at pine straw next time you're in the mood to do some landscaping. You'll enjoy all the benefits that make pine straw so attractive to contractors and professional landscapers, plus one more: it looks good!

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] or mail to: Steve Jones, "The Plant Man", P.O. Box 686, McMinnville, TN 37111. For resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org

QUESTION: "I have a mature Rose of Sharon bush that I want to cut back because it is somewhat oversized for the location and because it is very leggy. I read that this should be done in the spring so I was thinking of doing it now, but the leaves have come out and I'm not sure this is the right time. I want to cut it way back to 1/3 of its present height and let it regenerate itself. When should I prune and can I cut it back that severely?" - Larry Holmes.

ANSWER: Typically the best time would be in spring before the leaves put out. But I believe it would be alright to cut it back now and it should regenerate with no problems. Fertilize after you trim and let me know how it does.

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