Go Pine Cone Foraging Now, Be Rewarded With Happier Potted Plants

March  1, 2017

I love this time of year. Winter looks like it’s finally waning (in the South at least), and I start to get excited about spring—and gardening. Before starting my container garden after the last frost, there’s one thing I always do to make caring for it easier and more efficient.

Photo by Liz Johnson

Before our final winter yard-raking, I walk around and harvest some of the millions of spent pine cones that have fallen.

I’ve found that pine cones make the best bottom layer for potted plants: They help with drainage, allow us to use less soil, and make the finished pots lighter. Plus, they're free, and by the end of fall they've already half-composted themselves. A quintuple-threat!

I usually fill the planting container about a quarter of the way up with pine cones, add soil on top, and then I'm ready to plant! It’s enough pine cone to get the full drainage and reduced weight benefit, without compromising space for the roots.

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Not that the plants seem to mind: When I break everything down at the end of the season, I’ve seen root systems happily devour whole pine cones if needed. It’s almost like nature knows what it’s doing.

Photo by Liz Johnson

I also love using pine cones come fall and winter to decorate my home. Here are a few other ways I use nature to add style and coziness to my spaces.

If you don’t have pinecones in your yard, you could probably stumble across them (often quite literally) while dog-walking or spending time at a nearby park. I’ve also used broken-down sticks and twigs to similar effect.

Liz Johnson is the creative director at Braid Creative, and is currently based in Durham, NC.

Do you have any other gardening hacks to share before we all start planting? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sarah Swisher
    Sarah Swisher
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  • Picholine
stereotypical oldest child


Sarah S. May 6, 2019
Hello, odd question, but is it the same for spruce cones and is fresh okay? I have a black thumb, but I am trying to my hand again at keeping houseplants. It's spring here in Alaska and I'm wondering if spruce cones would work as they are soft and packed not hard and airy like pine cones, I'm also wondering if fresh is okay incase I can't find any/enough left on the ground from fall. Also worried about bugs and such transferring to my plants and killing them, any advice is much appreciated, thank you.
Chris G. March 5, 2017
Woops I forgot to mention this other possible issue with using pine cones in you pots:

Bleaching the cones would cure the other concerns I had about using cones in pots: the possible bugs, parasites, tree diseases and soil microbes that could be foreign to your yard and perhaps the acidity of the cones in relation to what you were planting in your pots!
(But then the cones would probably be a "base" or the opposite of an acid influence? I do not know how that would change over time with drying and water through the soil/cones and etc? (And might obviously have an effect on the plants!)
Chris G. March 5, 2017
I have a "few" comments about collecting Pine Cones, bird nests and etc.
It is true there are regulations about collecting of natural materials on Public Property! (local, state, Federal Parks, National Forests, Monuments & etc.) There are also lots of Ranger Stations in every State that you can contact and they can answer your questions, issue permits and etc. about collection of natural materials up to and including rocks!
On private property, asking a homeowner would suffice and I say this because there are millions of cone barring trees out there and in some cases if you ask, I'm betting that the home owner would be happy to have people remove their "windfall" cones as long as you don't trample there bushes, trespass, or litter! Another caution, most homeowners it has been by experience as a utility worker do not understand where the "public Right-of-Way begins and ends. (usually water meters, telephone poles, gas valves and etc. are in the public right of way, but if the homeowner maintains that right of way, they consider it their "owned" property!!!)
As to whether or not pine cones change the soil acidity or are bad for the specific plants, the easy answer would be to do a test, one pot with and one pot without pine cones and see how they fair?
(Rhododendrons and Azaleas, etc are acid loving as should be fine others your not sure of & if your favorite nursery or landscaper does not know then as I said a test would be in order and of course it's always amazing what you can find on the internet to help you, including county extension agents/offices. )
Liz J. March 6, 2017
All great points, Chris.

Re: acidity, another thing I do is simply use plants that I'm seeing in close quarters with pines already (azaleas and rhododendrons both run rampant in my native North Carolina, for example). A less scientific way to make sure any acidic influence (I still think it's negligible, though) doesn't hurt what you're planting.

Thanks for chiming in!
Rachel March 5, 2017
I like the idea of pine cones as useful additions to the bottom of your pots. Much less heavy than gravel. My one question would be do you find the pots to have any issues with being too heavy/tipping more easily?

People are way too upset about putting pine cones in pots ("shame on you" "promoting environmental negligence" ... wow, really? That's some pretty serious compostshaming... Where did the nest collecting comment come from? no nests were harmed in the writing of this article, heck they weren't even mentioned) there are better things out there to expend some righteous fury on than putting pine cones in your potting mix. I, for one, will definitely be trying it.
Rebecca March 5, 2017
Thank you for your words! That's a "thumbs up" - I couldn't have said it better. Compostshaming gets a sad face. I, too, will try pine cones and potting soil. Good idea.
Liz J. March 6, 2017
Thank you both! Yeah, obviously I second the "What's up with the compost-shaming?!" bit. For example, I live in North Carolina, where pine cones are so prevalent they're even a nuisance in some areas. We use pine needles instead of mulch in all our public spaces, etc. - so this tip would be welcome in places like that.

(And I have no idea where the bird's nest thing came from! I think once people get riled up about something they perceive as offensive, it's hard to talk them down?)

Anyway. I'm glad you liked my SIMPLE TIP ABOUT PINE CONES. ; )
Rhonda35 March 14, 2017
The link in the article takes the reader to another article where feathers, nests, driftwood, rocks, etc. are gathered and used for home decor. I am not against using any of those items if properly/legally foraged - just chiming in so you know where people are getting the "nest thing" from! :-)
C March 5, 2017
We have so many pine cones on our property. This is a great idea for their use. Thanks for tip!
Some people commenting on how fired up people get about pot tips ; would be understood if you planted in VERY large pots that had to be moved inside during winter. It's still a great tip, sharing good tips is part of this site. Thanks!!!
Picholine March 3, 2017
Very clever. I have many on my property. I will try but will the soil turn too acidic for some plants?
Liz J. March 3, 2017
I don't think that dried (as in, not green, not still alive) pine cones (or needles!, for that matter) will affect the soil's acidity much or at all. And I haven't experienced that so far. Hope that helps!
Picholine March 3, 2017
Thank you !
Kaylee March 2, 2017
LOL at folks getting so fired up about houseplant tips. So long as you don't over water your plants, you shouldn't get root rot. Also, it is obvious from the article that you have tried this a few times without massive and utter failure. Neat idea!
Liz J. March 3, 2017
Ohmygod, THANK YOU.
Gail B. March 2, 2017
You might want to know that it is illegal to collect bird feathers or nests. This is a federal law and also state law in most states.
Rhonda35 March 14, 2017
The federal law does not apply to ALL birds, although it is an extensive list.
K March 1, 2017
I put then on TOP of the soil of my houseplants. Keeps kitty paws out of that tempting soft dirt.
Liz J. March 1, 2017
Also a great idea!
mela March 5, 2017
K and Liz, I'm wondering about scattering pinecones over a larger garden space to keep out the neighbourhood cats. Slugs wouldn't likely be attracted either, as they are by some covers. Have either of you ever tried it?
Martie March 1, 2017
In some states it is ILLEGAL to take pine cones from public land as they reseed the area after fires. You could be ticketed by police and rangers. Shame on you for promoting environmental negligence.
Liz J. March 1, 2017
I'm not advocating that people should break that law where it's in place. I'm also assuming that people know to defer to local laws rather than home and design articles. Though! May your comment serve as a reminder for people to check with local laws first. Thank you.
Matt March 1, 2017
This is probably the worst thing you can do for plants. Adding rocks and pinecones to add "drainage" just raises the water table in the pots and leads to root rot and soggy bottoms in your pots. Its better and easier to tape a piece of string to the inside of the pot and have it extend 6 inches or so out the bottom hole of the pot. The string uses adhesion and cohesion to wick moisture from the soil and keep the soil draining properly.

Shame on Food52 for promoting incorrect information.
Liz J. March 1, 2017
That's also a great approach. I've found the soil still accumulates around the pinecones (albeit in a "lighter" way than without pinecones) keeping the water table about the same. But! I think anyone reading this is into gardening enough that they're probably reading other articles and sources of information too, and making the best decision for them & their plants. Hopefully they will take your comment into consideration as well. Thanks.
mela March 5, 2017
Thanks for the great idea Liz. It used to be conventional wisdom to put pebbles or broken crockery into the bottom of plant pots for drainage. It's how I 'always' did it - could my mother be wrong? - and the potted plants thrived indoors and out.
As of this minute I'm definitely going to use your idea of putting pine cones in the outdoor pots. (I also compost them but they compost very very slowly. )
theresa C. March 5, 2017
Using pebbles, rocks or broken crockery to improve drainage is STILL highly recommended by "experts" and it doe not raise water table in the pot as water drains quickly thru them especially with large pots. I will now lay some pine cones on top of these hard matters before adding soil. It makes great sense to me. Thanks for the tip, Liz.
Sean R. March 5, 2017
Matt, you're 100% right. The myth of drainage materials in potted plants is definitely worth bringing up. However, I see no reason to use such strong language against Food52. They're not a gardening site and certainly not the first to perpetuate this common myth.

I recommend this wonderful resource from Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, author of The Informed Gardener [see "The Myth of Drainage Material in Container Plantings"]: https://puyallup.wsu.edu/lcs/

Liz, kudos on your graceful responses to some of these comments. (FOOD52: PLEASE MODERATE YOUR COMMENTS SECTIONS.)
mela March 5, 2017
Thanks Sean for the link to the Chalker-Scott site. It looks fabulous - just going through the woodchip and coffee-ground mulch sections has given answers I haven't found online - and I've looked.
Thanks also for your support of the author, and this site. There are many things to love about it and the absence of rude comments is one.
AntoniaJames March 1, 2017
What a great idea! I've never been convinced that the gravel I put in the bottom of my herb pots does that much good. Thank you so much for sharing this clever tip. ;o)