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:

How To Help Migrating Birds This Fall

Thousands of birds migrate through The Woodlands every fall. The reason – food. As days grow shorter, birds begin to head south in search of abundant food and warmer temperatures. Lucky for us, The Woodlands happens to lie right along the path that many species take on their journey south. Our warm climate and dense vegetation provides an ideal rest stop for swifts, swallows, hummingbirds, hawks, flycatchers, warblers and more. Our parks, yards and preserves are heavy with greenery, berries and flowers throughout the fall, but are they providing the food these migrating birds need?

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

…and the berries, insects, seeds and nuts. The most sought after avian delicacies varies with the season. Research shows that all birds, migrating and resident species, require different nutrition in winter than in warmer months. Summer is breeding season for most species and protein to produce healthy eggs and chicks is in high demand. Protein means insects and lots of them. Consider that a single pair of chickadees must find 6,000-9,000 caterpillars to raise their young!

More than 80% of all bird species rely on insects for part or all of their diet. The native Hackberry (Celtis laevigata) attracts insects for hungry birds, who also enjoy its fruit all summer long.

As breeding season ends, birds shift their diet from protein to fat to help them survive cold nighttime temperatures. Fat intake is extra critical for migrators in preparation for the grueling flight ahead. Produce from Woodlands natives such as American beautyberry, wax myrtle, coral honeysuckle, native dogwoods and viburnums, and yaupon holly are prized. Right now, most of these species are in the early stages of their fall and winter fruit and nut production.

Our native plants (and insects) have co-evolved with birds over the centuries, meaning birds depend on the specific nutrition these species provide. So, not just any seed, nut or berry will do. Consider the popular non-native plant, nandina (heavenly bamboo). It produces a bevy of bright red berries – quite attractive to our eye as well as the bird’s. Unfortunately, nandina berries, like most non-native berries, are sorely lacking in fat and other nutrients. Much like feeding french fries to a marathoner, these imitation foods leave birds depleted, unable to complete their migration route or make it through a cold night.

Just like you and me, birds need the right food. Here’s how to help.

Fall in Love with Natives

Migrating birds face several threats to their continued survival: the greatest being loss of habitat. We often think of habitat loss as a paved over forest. Yet, despite the green appearance, our lawns and landscapes have the same impact if they’re devoid of native plants. Much like a parking lot, they become a food desert for birds and other wildlife.

The simplest yet most impactful action you can take to support our migrating birds this fall is to add native plants to your landscape. Remove non-native or invasive plants to ensure you’re providing only nutrient rich food, not french fries.

Not sure where to begin? use the reference guide below and consider joining our free, online Invasives Species Workshop from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, August 14, 2021, to learn how to identify invasive plants in our community. Register online here to receive more information.

Backyard Feeders

For those who go one step further in helping our feathered friends with backyard feeders, consider that not all seed mixes are the same. Cheap mixes are full of milo, wheat, red millet, and various grains that birds can’t make use of. Most all of these “low cost” seed mixes contain little protein and almost no fat. The same holds for black oil sunflower seed. Cheaper seeds are often those which didn’t fully mature and lack protein and fat. Spend a little more on a quality seed and you’ll be rewarded with more frequent and healthier visitors.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov