To:  All Skyland Property Owners:

s the needles turn and begin to cascade from their perches in the sky the reality that fall is upon us begins to set in. With that comes winter preparations. A record-setting winter led to a shortened but productive summer for pine trees in the area, characterized by a boost in needle production due to more moisture content in the soil. Now that the season is changing and the needles are beginning to brown and drop, homeowners are left to deal with the debris.

Pine needles are a natural component within the soil here in Tahoe, and provide organic matter to a naturally nutrient deprived landscape. The needles also provide natural erosion control, and slowly break down into the soil over time. They are, however, highly flammable, and need to be managed accordingly. The simplest way to do so is by raking and removing the needles from your property. This method is the most effective way to maintain defensible space, but the drawback is soil depletion. So how should homeowners manage their pine needles?

To better understand defensible space landscaping, grasping the concept of how fires move is essential. Fires travel in lines engulfing any material that stands in their path, but the majority of home ignitions during wildfires are not caused by this wave of fury.  In fact, flying embers account for up to 80% of homes lost to wildland fire. Embers can be lofted into the sky, and travel miles from the front of the fire; igniting the plants, debris, and homes they land on.

When managing pine needles for defensible space, the main objective is to remove any piles of needles that embers could land on and ignite. The more fuel (pine needles) present, the more susceptible a property is to wildfire. Pine needles ignite very easily, which can lead to the combustion of larger materials and home ignition. Current recommendations regarding fallen needles for structures on flat to gently sloping terrain are as follows:
The general saying regarding pine needle maintenance in the 5-30 foot zone from a home is to "rake in the spring and let them fall into the fall" meaning residents should rake up fallen needles in their yards once every spring, and to let needles accumulate the rest of the year until the next spring, and do it all over again. This helps reduce erosion, while maintaining defensible space.
Needles falling on roofs, decks, gutters, etc. need to be removed regularly throughout the year, as well as any needles on the ground falling within the 5 foot noncombustible zone of a home. Having the home clear of needles and debris in conjunction with a five foot noncombustible zone is the single most imperative practice to protecting a home in the event of wildfire. Please contact the Tahoe RCD if you have questions regarding defensible space or pine needle maintenance.
The following steps are meant to guide homeowners through the proper methods of maintaining defensible space through the needle drop.
1.    Remove all needles from roofs, gutters, decks, surroundings, etc.
2.    Remove all needles lying within 5 feet of your home
3.    Remove large piles of needles within 100 feet of your home
4.    Bag for removal or compost needles
After removal, needles can be disposed of at local refuses, or utilized in a compost and later reincorporated into the soil as an amendment. The following diagrams describe the different waste streams associated with pine needle removal. The first diagram overviews the process of bagging needles for removal and the second reviews the process of home composting pine needles. While needle removal via refuse is the easiest way to maintain defensible space, it can lead to soil depletion. A solution is to compost the needles in a home composting container, or purchase compost and reincorporate that material back into the soil as an amendment.
Bag Needles for Removal
When bagging needles for removal it's important that the bags contain pine needles only. A great deal of time and effort is spent decontaminating bags of needles, as a large amount of waste makes it into these bags. This waste has to be removed by hand before the needles can be composted, so remember to
keep all contaminants out of the bag. The picture below is of Cody Witt from Full Circle Soils & Compost in front of a large pile of pine needles that have been transported to his facility in Carson City. Full Circle is currently the sole recipient of pine needles that have been collected by South Tahoe Refuse. Without industrial 
composting complexes like Full Circle and diligent residents with home composts, pine needles end up in landfills. Any effort to reduce and keep waste out of bagged needles helps companies like Full Circle continue to compost needles and reduce waste streams.
All of the non-organic material in this image must be removed in order to compost the pine needles.
Compost Needles On-Site                                                                                    
From the diagrams you can see the efficiency associated with composting needles on-site then reincorporating them into the soil versus removing the needles and transporting to a composting facility or landfill. Far fewer steps are required, and transportation is eliminated from the process. Tilling composted needles back into the soil is a daunting task for many people, but it's really not as much work as it may seem. The general concept is to break up the existing soil and mix the soil amendment into it. This can be achieved with tillers as well as home gardening tools such as hoes and shovels. When adding compost as a soil amendment, it's recommended to apply one to three inches to the area you are trying to amend. Fall is a great time to add amendments to the soil in preparation for spring. Soils can be tilled in the fall, left "chunky" for aeration, and the winter snows will level out the ground by spring. Click here for more information on soil fertility and amendments. 
Gardeners Corner
Courtesy Sarah Bauwens
Home composting is a great way to close the loop on waste stream cycles, and utilize materials on-site. The process relies on naturally occurring microbial bacteria, fungi, and actinomycetes to break down organic matter into a form where the nutrients can be readily consumed by plants. Starting a home compost is a lot easier than most people think. Containers are available at most garden supply stores, and can even be constructed out of bins and garbage cans. There are a myriad of DIY home composting containers, and there isn't one right way to do things. The above image is an example of a home-made composting bin.
When home composting in Tahoe the most important factors to consider are sun exposure and rodent/bear proofing your container. Bears and rodents will be especially attracted to composts with large amounts of food waste, making bear-proof containers essential. Composts also rely upon heat, and may need direct sunlight during winter months. Having a diversity of materials is also instrumental in creating a successful and nutrient rich compost. Pine needles, plant matter, grass clippings, and food waste can all be utilized. Click here for a how to guide on composting with worms.



Skyland GID