Mulch or Pine Straw?

He say I know you, you know me
One thing I can tell you is you got to be free
Come together, right now, over me

Paul McCartney & John Lennon

Mulch or pine straw? If you maintain an outdoor world of manicured property, you’ve likely considered the use of one or the other. In conversation about bedding choices, preferences are as knee jerk as the American response to Coke or Pepsi.

I claim gratitude for variables. After all, the flowering of each personality’s preferred solution stems from their experiences of perceived beauty or the lack thereof. For me the variety is the spice of life.

Still my favorite is pine straw. For one reason, it is soft to the touch. Walking on top of it with bare feet gives me a twinkly charge. As a tot my daughter Mary Ann referred to it as – “Let’s get free footed.” I’m holding onto that distinction.

The color of pine straw is comfy to my psyche as it reveals memories rooted in a Mississippi childhood colored by rural-ness and countless days spent outdoors, as exotic as a trip to the islands.

A close friend debates that the ordered look of mulch is much more appealing. I ask her to explain even though I know how important symmetry is to her idea of beauty. Order is paramount. Case closed. My yard maintenance person agrees with her approach. She believes that the dark defined look produced by the annual bag opening of mulch to be a rite of passage for proper installation of the yard beautiful.

Richard Rohr once said, “God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them.” That sounds like the bigness that we expect in creation, and besides I trust my yard person to be wise in the plant whispering arena. With an open mind after the stuff was spread this past spring, I looked into mulch makeup post indoctrination of my beds. Known to be made of tree bark, wood chips, grass clippings and/or leaves and in some cases newspaper, manure, compost or rubber, instead the chunks of my mulch appear to be made of pretend wood.

The clunks are large and not suitable for even seasoned feet like mine. It camouflages the outdoor smell of sweet decay which I cherish from childhood and replaces it by something more clinical. And then there was the time we almost lost our beloved Scottish Terrier when she mistook pieces of it for dessert. (Peculiar creature to find mulch appetizing.)

So be it. Innovation. I certainly lean toward innovation, but will still hold out for pine straw with cold weather in my raised herb beds. Akin to the pine straw as an eclectic medium, herbs are not symmetrical looking in growth. They suit my sense of discordant harmony. I am glued to nature’s mysteries. Nothing more entertaining or suitable for inspiring a genesis than inexactness.

Just this summer, my delight in edible evergreen needles was stirred. Grandson Robert came running. His eyes gleamed with a quest for validation. “Gal, come see the turtles that I found.” He led me to two extra large box turtles in a state of trauma. They reminded me of the occasional gift my father brought home in his car from sales trips o’er the Natchez Trace. He would excitedly present them as souvenirs: names Otho 1, Otho 2 etc.

A light colored one had withdrawn into its shell; the other one, tobacco brown, was making a mad dash for the pine straw into which he disappeared within seconds. (Even turtles have preferences.)

Robert, a story teller in the making, pulled me to the site of discovery, raising a magnolia limb for his ole grandmother. We padded over deep layers of pine straw soft enough for a good night’s sleep. “Right here,” he said “and they were looking at each other.” Hard to imagine the same level of romance in the mulch.

Later that day, as the male cicadas sang with purpose and the American bullfrog, barking tree frog, gray tree frog, green tree frog chorus sang their hearts out; Robert and his brother Roy pulled down their dad’s tailgate for me to sit like royalty as they preformed a game which they proudly invented entitled rocket ball.

It appeared to be a second cousin to racket ball of which they knew nothing. Pink chalk for boundaries, small rackets borrowed from another game, and grassy areas for scoring are the details that linger in a competition too fast paced to recount beyond everyone seemed to win.

They played until it was too dark to see, a comforting rule installed at the beginning of time. At the last minute one suggested a change in racket size to which the other enthusiastically flexed to try on for size.

Suffice it to say with all proclivities honored, endless possibilities surfaced and a new game was born.

Pine Needle Sugar Cookies

I am a want to be forager. Sometimes I indulge myself and go for it as with this YouTube offering from Carole Douglas’s

1 1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup freshly ground pine needle powder, lightly packed (about five 6 inch pine branches)
1 teaspoon lightly packed lime zest from 2 limes
2 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 large egg, at room temperature
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice from 3 limes

For rolling the cookies:
2 teaspoon freshly ground pine needle powder
1/2 cup sugar

*First prepare the pine powder. Harvest about five 6 inch pine branches. Strip the needles off the branches and snip the needles into small pieces. Working in batches, place the needles into a coffee grinder and pulse until a fluffy fine powder is formed. The powder will last a week in an airtight container.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line your baking sheets with either parchment paper or silicone baking mats. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 1/2 cups of the sugar, 1/3 cup of the pine needle powder, and the lime zest. Rub everything together with your fingertips until the sugar has a sandy texture. Set aside to let the sugar infuse.

Meanwhile whisk together the flour, baking soda and baking powder in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Fit the stand mixer with the paddle attachment and add the butter and salt to the infused sugar. Mix on medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 2 minutes. Toss in the egg and lime juice and resume mixing on medium speed until well combined, about 2 more minutes. Gently add half of the flour mixture and mix on the lowest speed until just combined. Scrape down the bowl and add the rest of the flour mixture. Continue mixing on low speed just until the last trace of flour disappears.

In a wide shallow bowl, mix 1/2 cup of the sugar and 2 teaspoons of the pine needle powder. Scoop out tab-sized lumps of dough and roll them into balls, then roll each ball in the sugar. Place the balls on a baking sheet, leaving at least 2 inches between them since they will spread. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until pale gold around the edges with crackle forming on top. Cool the cookies on the pan until firm, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Cookies will last for about 5 days at room temperature if kept in an airtight containers. You can also freeze them for up to 2 months.