Recycle Your Halloween Pumpkin

Wait!  Before tossing out your Jack-O-Lantern to carve room for Christmas, consider giving it a second life. Pumpkins, one of the oldest known crops in the western hemisphere, have been cultivated for thousands of years. Today, the US alone produces nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins a year. Unfortunately, most end up in a landfill after the holidays. Now that’s scary! Especially when there are multiple ways to make wonderful use of our beloved Cucurbita. 

Here are a few of our favorites…

Eat It 

Pumpkins are a fruit and, like all fruit, packed with nutrients. If your uncarved pumpkin is still firm and ripe, consider eating it. One half cup of pumpkin provides all the vitamin A required in a day and one cup has more potassium than a banana. It’s also a fantastic source of fiber.   

Puree it 

Skip the can and puree your own pumpkin. Then try one of these amazing recipes from the Food Network. 

Roast the seeds   

Pumpkin seeds are especially delicious roasted, not to mention nutritious and FUN to eat. After washing and drying, toss in olive oil, add some salt and your favorite seasoning, spread on a baking sheet, and bake at 300°F for 30–40 minutes (or until brown and crunchy).  Check out some more easy recipes here.

Donate it 

We’re not the only ones who love pumpkin. Some municipal zoos collect uncarved pumpkins for elephants and other animals. Check with the Houston Zoo to see if they’re accepting donations. Pig farms often accept both carved and uncarved pumpkins, like this farm in Liberty County. 

Get Crafty 

Before your pumpkin transforms into a slimy monster, consider one of these great DIY projects.   

Decorate for Thanksgiving  

Uncarved pumpkins have a surprising shelf life. They should keep until Thanksgiving on a shady porch.

Feed some butterflies 

Share pumpkin with butterflies by placing pieces on a shallow dish.  Learn how to make a feeder for fruit-loving butterflies here.  

Make a bird feeder   

Learn how by watching this quick video from the National Audubon Society.

Compost it 

When sent to the landfill pumpkins add to the 30.3 million tons of annual food waste in the US.  Food waste produces methane gas, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Compost your pumpkin instead to capture its nutrients and enrich your potted plants or raised garden beds.  

If you have a backyard compost bin, cut the pumpkin into small pieces and add to the bin with other green material.  If you don’t have a bin, simply shovel out a shallow depression in the ground, lay the pumpkin pieces in and cover with leaves. Nature will do the rest of the work and in a few weeks you’ll have compost that can either be left in place or scooped out and applied to your garden or lawn.   

Learn all about backyard composting on Saturday, November 6, 2021, by attending The Woodlands Township’s free backyard composting class at 8203 Millennium Forest Dr., from 10 am to 11:00 am. High quality C.E. Shepherd compost bins will be for sale for $50 each.

For superior pest control, look to the “web”

Often spotted in late summer, a fully grown orb weaver can be a startling discovery. They seem to appear overnight, spinning expansive webs across paths and between plants. Despite their sometimes-intimidating appearance, spiders deserve a place in your garden if you can get past the “creepy” factor. 

99.9% of all spiders are no threat to you 

Unlike the giant arachnids you may have seen in B-grade horror films, it’s humans who are large enough to be a spider’s worst nightmare. Like with snakes, almost all spiders are benign and a small few are venomous. Learn how to recognize those two species in Texas; the other 900 are worthy of welcoming to your garden.  

Your best friend against pests 

Spiders consume a massive quantity of garden pests, including aphids, mites, leafhoppers, stink bugs, earwigs, armyworms, leaf miners, spider mites, flies and mosquitoes. Their insect feasting removes more pests than even our feathered friends.  

While orb weavers are rather stationary, trapping prey in webs, many others chase down their meals instead. Known as cursorial species, jumping spiders, wolf spiders, and crab spiders are especially important to gardeners because they move around the garden in search of prey. A healthy spider presence is an excellent way to keep insect pests at bay without the need for traps or pesticides. 

Give spiders a space 

Orb weavers like tall plants – sunflowers, cornstalks, tall grasses, shrubs, even tomato cages on which to attach their webs. Seeing webs in your garden beds means that these natural predators will be ready to munch on pests trying to munch on your plants. Running spiders prefer mulch, ground covers, and other damp places to hide.  

Sheltered areas of undisturbed leaves and small twigs are also important overwintering sites. Spiders live only one to two seasons. Most die in fall leaving papery, brown egg cases nestled in protected nooks until spring, when teeny tiny spiderlings emerge. They often spin a silken thread that carries them on the wind like a balloon to a new garden home. 

Spiders are more friend than foe. If you see a web, leave it be if possible – or use the long stabilizing silks to move it to a better location. If you’re raking mulch and a spider scurries out, resist the urge to squash it. They are an essential part of controlling insects that would happily feed on your plants.  

Keeping spiders outside

Spiders inside the house can be easily transported outside. If you care to keep them out…

  1. Seal cracks around doors and windows where insects may get in.
  2. Trim back any shrubs and trees that touch the house; ideally leave a 2-foot gap between plants and your siding.
  3. Give everything a good vacuum – get above door frames, in corners, and behind furniture. A good spring cleaning will eliminate spider egg sacs and all the insects that spiders love to eat.

Keep in mind that, inside or out, most pesticides aren’t effective on spiders. These products rely on the insect crawling over the chemical to penetrate their outer shell while spiders keep their bodies aloft while they walk.

Discover More 

If you want to learn more about the importance of spiders and other beneficial insects, check out these resources: 

ONLINE 

BOOKS 

  • Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy 
  • Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control by Jessica Walliser 
  • Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology by Eric Grissell 
  • Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically, by Jessica Walliser 

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Native Plant Spotlight: American Beautyberry

Fall is here and you know what that means… beautyberry bushes burgeoning with deep purple berries. You’ll find the gorgeous natives growing wild throughout The Woodlands but have you considered adding this perennial shrub to your garden? 

Read on to find out how wonderful this native plant really is. 

Food for Everyone 

Beautyberry is a veritable feast for native wildlife. Butterflies feed off its nectar from April to July. The magenta berries, which begin to show in early fall and can last through the winter, help sustain more than 40 species of songbirds. Armadillo, foxes, opossum, raccoon, squirrels and deer also enjoy the berries. You may even see deer nibbling on the leaves. Good thing this plant is so resilient and can handle being a year-round buffet. 

It’s not just wildlife that enjoys the non-toxic berries and leaves. Raw berries are edible, but don’t have much sweetness to them. In fact, it’s flavor can be described as mildly medicinal when eaten off the stalk. However, they make a fantastic jelly – its arguably the best way to enjoy them. If you’re feeling adventurous, recipes for wine, tea and sauces are available online. Just remember to leave some berries behind for hungry birds and mammals this winter. 

Warning: Limit your consumption of beautyberry when first trying as some people have reported upset stomach afterwards. 

Growing Success 

This fast-growing perennial does well in either part shade or full sun. They spread naturally along forest edges where the amount of sunlight varies. More sunlight will boost berry production but also increases the shrub’s need for water.  

While tolerant of somewhat dry conditions, beautyberry prefers a moist soil. If you’re growing at home in a sunny location, make sure it receives around 1” of water a week.  A layer of mulch around the base of the shrub will help retain soil moisture, especially through the summer months. Skip the fertilizer unless you have very nutrient-poor soil. If so, a shovelful or two of compost in the spring will do just fine. Be careful not to over-fertilize or you’re likely to decrease berry production. 

In the right conditions, American beautyberry can reach a height of 6 to 8 feet and be just as wide. It earns its beauty moniker multiple times a year, festooned with delicate lavender and pink flowers in early summer and show stopping berries throughout the fall and winter.  

2 compounds in the leaves: callicarpenal and intermedeol – have been shown to repel mosquitoes and biting bugs when the leaves are crushed. 

Remember to register your pollinator garden 

A registered garden provides the basic needs of pollinators, including food, shelter and water in a chemical-free zone. Don’t worry if you think your garden might not qualify. The garden registration form helps you put the necessary components in place, whether you’re starting from scratch or making a few additions to an established garden. You’ll find easy-to-follow guidelines, such as offering nectar-producing (flowering) plants for each season, leaving some patches of bare ground for burrowing insects, supplying a water source (bird baths work great) and providing host plants so insects can lay eggs. Native plant lists are included to help with any shopping.  

Registrations received from June 1, 2021 through December 1, 2021 count towards the 2021 Plant for Pollinators Village Challenge. Each registration earns a point for your village association. Program sponsors, The Woodlands GREEN and Project PolliNation, will donate funds to the three village associations with the most points for their scholarship program. 

Bad guys are stealing water from our forests, right before our eyes!

Water thieves are afoot. They sneak in from foreign lands while our heads are turned, multiply their numbers to create trouble-making gangs, and refuse to leave. Who are these villains? Invasive plants – out of place, out of control, and gobbling up resources, including our most precious one, water.

By definition, an invasive species is “a species that is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” (U.S. Department of the Interior, Federal Invasive Species Advisory Committee) Invasives lack the natural controls that exist in their own native habitat. As a result, they’re usually fast-growing and rapid reproducers. These bad guys alter the forest in a variety of ways including sucking up A LOT of water.

Because of their heavy water consumption and their prevalence, many are concerned that might actually dry out our forests. Is the problem really that bad? According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, “invasive species are altering large portions of the earth’s terrestrial surface and are considered one of the ‘most important drivers of change in ecosystems.'” Although billions of dollars are being spent to battle invasives in the U.S., the report also predicted rapidly increasing negative effects in the future such as loss of soil health as these water thieves drain up to 250% more moisture than our native vegetation.

Before and after photos showing the invasive vine removal efforts of volunteers.

That battle against invasives is fought locally as The Woodlands Township crews and contractors spend about 200 days a year on vine and invasives removal and control. And for the past three years, volunteer invasives removal task force has joined the fray, with much success. During 2020 alone, nearly 100 volunteers spent 1020 hours removing three dump-truck loads of invasive vines, shrubs, and trees from along our pathways. Their participation freed up the Township’s contractors to work on larger areas of infestation.

Some of the worst crimes of bad guy invasives?

  • Disrupting ecosystem interactions and functions

  • Displacing native species and destroying habitat

  • Using 50% to more than 250% more water than natives

Let’s turn the tables and gang up on these water thieves invading our forest! To start, each of us can examine our own landscapes and kick out the bad guys, replacing them with natives that better serve us. Then help restore the health of forest soils by volunteering to remove invasives from our pathways and green spaces. If you’re ready to join the Task Force, sign up HERE.

For more information, contact Environmental Services at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-2058.


Learn more about invasives from these past articles:

Our forest needs our help. 3 ways you can lend a hand.

Thanks to the environmentally minded planners, natural areas are seemingly ubiquitous in The Woodlands with nearly 8,000 of The Woodlands’ 28,000 acres preserved as open space. Take pride – this fact sets us apart from most common communities in North America. However, our forest areas represent just a portion of the native forest expanse (what existed here pre-development). This presents a challenge as our forests do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to cleaning the air and water, capturing and storing carbon, and providing wildlife habitat.

Cue our residential landscapes to the rescue! They offer tremendous potential for supplementing those critical forest services, provided we’re mindful in how we tend them. Some basic considerations regarding what we put into our landscape and what we allow to flow off it carry a lot of weight.

Read on to find out how easy it is to turn your landscape into a resource for the environment and all of us who depend on it.

Encourage soil health

In healthy soil fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates work constantly at breaking down nutrients, making them available for uptake by trees, grasses, and shrubs. There are many critical functions of healthy soil and this is one of the biggest.

When we apply chemicals to our landscape we sever these microscopic relationships, stemming the production of soil nutrients. Organic lawn care methods, as opposed to chemical methods, support these relationships, promoting healthier soil which is the foundation of all healthy ecosystems.

Composted organic material – leaves, grass clippings, etc. – is chock-full of beneficial soil microbes. When you leave cut grass and leaves on your lawn or apply a layer of compost to it, you’re automatically introducing soil microbes which get right to work producing nutrients and building healthy soil! Composting is an easy yet powerful way to ramp up your landscape’s ecosystem value AND it’s a lot cheaper than chemical applications.

Give your lawn what it really wants

Warm season native grasses such as St. Augustine, which comprises most lawns in The Woodlands, depends on fungal soil networks to supply their nutrients. Compost, not chemicals, helps build those networks. The more roots interact with their fungal friends, the stronger they get, which then allows more energy to funnel to the leaves resulting in, you guessed it, that lush, green look we all love.

A healthy lawn needs, and wants, far less water. If you “set and forget” your sprinkler system you’re apt to overwater and harm the microbes. Use a moisture meter to avoid overwatering (they’re available at any home and garden store for a few bucks). Or make things even easier for yourself and subscribe to the weekly water recommendation email from Woodlands Water Agency – let the experts tell you when and when not to water. Installing a rain sensor on your irrigation system is another easy way to avoid overwatering by automatically shutting off your system during a rain event. Did you know you can install a rain sensor yourself in about 15 minutes?

Healthy lawns to the rescue! They add oxygen to our air, capture carbon in the soil and nourish plants and trees. You’ll be the envy of the neighborhood, to boot.

The most important thing of all

Multiply your impact – spread the word! When you make smarter choices in your landscape you become a model for environmental sustainability. Share your knowledge with others and encourage them to do the same.

If you’d like to learn more and take your impact to the next level, attend the online Smarter Choices Seminar on October 2, 2021 from 9 a.m. to noon. We’ll look at simple, practical steps for developing your landscape’s ecosystem value plus you’ll get an update on the new “smart” water meters Woodlands Water Agency installed across the community this past year. Learn how to track your water use and reduce waste right from your phone – remarkable!

This is a free presentation, sponsored by Woodlands Water Agency, The Woodlands GREEN, Chevron Phillips, HEB, and Alspaugh’s Ace Hardware.

Registration is required to receive the link to the Zoom presentation. Register using the button below.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov