You Can Grow Your Own Food!

So many of us love the idea of growing our own food but lack of space, sun, and let’s face it, time get in the way. If you’re in that crowd, don’t despair, there is an answer – edible landscaping!

Many vegetables and herbs are as beautiful as they are delicious. This makes them perfect candidates for sprucing up your landscapes as well as your dinner. A wide variety of edible plants offer splendid texture and color for most any landscape. And you can position them just about anywhere that receives six or more hours of sun a day.

Consider existing landscape beds. Chives, parsley, prostrate rosemary and smaller varieties of artemesia are excellent border plants. Basil is a beautiful and delicious accent plant. African Blue Basil grows to maturity as a tall plant with stunning purple bloom spikes that attract many species of bees. Sweet basil planted with Purple Ruffles basil offers interesting textures as well as bright green and purple color in the garden.

African Blue Basil
Sweet and Purple Basil

Herbs provide interesting textures and colors in the garden or strategically placed containers. Spend time outdoors to identify where your landscape receives at least six hours of sun. Start small by planting one or two containers in the sunniest spot in your landscape. Vegetables and herbs can be tucked into an ornamental planting bed. Just remember to consider the mature size of the vegetable to provide adequate space for it to grow. Large containers are perfect for growing many vegetables and herbs. Make certain that the container has a drainage hole. Purchase good quality potting mix to fill vegetable or herb containers. Place the container in its final location before filling with soil.

One in three households in the U.S. is growing food and children involved in growing vegetables are more willing to eat them.

Zucchini

In our southeast Texas climate, now is the perfect time to begin growing warm season vegetables. Just follow these easy steps and you’ll be well on your way:

  • Make a list of your family’s favorite vegetables and/or herbs
  • Decide which plants you want to grow
  • Purchase starts to create an instant garden
  • Buy general purpose organic fertilizer and compost
  • Identify the nearest water source (hose bib) for a garden hose or plan to hand water
  • Dig only where each plant will be planted
  • Add a small amount of fertilizer and the plant to the planting hole
  • Gently replace the soil around the roots and stem of the plant
  • Cover with an inch or so of good quality compost
  • Water thoroughly
Asian Eggplant

Ultimately, let your palate be your guide. If you plant what you love to eat you’ll be more likely to harvest and prepare the fruits of your labor. Common warm season vegetables include beans, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and okra. Some warm season herbs are basil, dill, mint, oregano, rosemary and thyme. Local groceries, hardware stores and home supply stores have vegetable and herbs ready to add to your landscape. Set aside an hour or two and begin to grow your own food.

Growing tomatoes in a sunny container

For more information, check out these helpful gardening guides from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

Cherry tomatoes

Try this delicious recipe using tomatoes grown in your own landscape!

Create a delightful family project by harvesting, cleaning, and preparing the chemical free vegetables and herbs you have grown. Let children make suggestions about what they would like to eat. Involve your family in meal planning and cooking. Sharing edibles from your own landscape is a very rewarding experience. List your favorite vegetables and start now!

Forest Foraging: Mushrooms

Spring mushrooms? Yes, they’re out there and they’re beautiful, but let’s talk before you consider eating one.

Rain is good for spring mushrooms, so expect to find a good variety starting now and continuing well into the fall. Mushrooms are just so interesting! Intriguing, really. Most people either find them fascinating or fear-inspiring. Let’s try to stir up some of that fascination…

Mushrooms are indicators that the fungal network within the soil is in place and functioning. That is great for the health of soil organisms and the vegetation that relies on the work they do. Nobody breaks down nutrients for plants as well as fungi do! When soil moisture and temperatures are right, you may find the fruiting bodies of the fungi popping up aboveground – mushrooms! Think of them as you would an apple: they spread new fungal growth by releasing spores, just as an apple spawns new apple trees when the fruit drops and seeds are spread.

So, yes, mushrooms are good. But that doesn’t mean good to eat in all cases. Always consult someone you are 100% certain can correctly identify what you find, please! Many animals use mushrooms for food, so don’t let that fool you into thinking humans can safely eat them. Even the best human-edible mushrooms may not be well tolerated by everyone. The golden rules are “don’t assume you are correct in your identification,” and even if you eat a mushroom you feel certain about be sure to keep an uncooked sample for the ER, just in case of an adverse reaction.

Here are two fascinating examples of mushrooms commonly considered “edible” you may find in our forests. We’ll talk again soon about more possible edible mushrooms, but meantime, get out there to see some of these amazing organisms!

Here is a crazy little mushroom commonly called an Inky Cap. It’s in a family of fungi called Coprinus. It is generally considered edible when very fresh and young, but that means within the first few hours of its appearance. It quickly begins breaking down, as shown in the photo, and drips its spore mass onto the ground to be washed away, spreading the fungus to new homes. Fair warning: if eaten within a few days of ingesting an alcoholic drink, or if you enjoy a drink within a few days after eating it, the result is violent vomiting!

It would be hard to mistake this beautiful mushroom for anything else if it always looked just like the one in this photo. Nature tends not to work that way though. So this is a great image of Lactarius indigo, the blue milky mushroom. This summer through fall fruiting body is blue all over: the cap, gills, stem and the blue milky substance that exudes when it is cut or broken. It is a good edible and, amazingly, stays blue when cooked! Be aware, in some soils the color can mislead.


Want to look up mushrooms in online field guides? Try Michael Kuo’s Mushroom Expert or Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen’s Foraging Texas.

Reminders:

  • Always cook mushrooms to aid digestion and unlock their nutrients.
  • Never trust your identification unless you have LOTS of experience and are 100% certain you know they’re edible.
  • While field guides are wonderful, don’t depend on photos alone to positively identify a mushroom. Many books have look-alike species. Colors and conditions vary. Be wary!
  • Take photos, but don’t touch mushrooms in the wild. The truly poisonous ones can literally kill you if you ingest even a small amount. Hands off is always the safest plan.

These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Bees and butterflies – the beauty queens of bugs – have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  These less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies. More than 80% of all flowering plants in the world require the service of pollinators, along with more than 1,200 commercial crops. Without pollinators, we lose 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion of the US economy.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated? 

Let’s take a look at some of these unsung garden heroes.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar. They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time. The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control. Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do in Your Yard to Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.

 10. Look but do not touch.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

You’re rethinking your landscape to favor bird food and habitat?

Wow, that’s awesome!

Doug Tallamy, author of  Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, wrote in a  2016 article in Bird Watcher’s Digest, “Some plants are far better at producing insect bird food than others. For example, oaks support 557 species of caterpillars (bird food) in the mid-Atlantic states alone, whereas non-native Zelkova trees from Asia support no caterpillars at all.

“Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can only eat specific plants; if those plants are absent from our landscapes, so will be the bird food they produce. Unfortunately, this is the case in our yards and managed landscapes when we remove native plant communities that are good at making insect bird food and replace them with vast lawns and ornamental plants from other parts of the world that produce few insects in North America. This oversight must end if we want birds in our future.” 

Are you telling me you’re removing some turfgrass to make way for native plants that actually attract insects? That’s really smart of you! In case a neighbor asks you why your lawn is getting smaller, tell them a lot of research is being done on why birds are in decline, and urban landscapes are proving to have great potential to help, see the article below.

Oh, and you can also mention that people who already feed birds are the most likely to transform turf to native plants that birds need. And, by the way, many younger homeowners are getting savvy to gardening for birds, too. So, you are definitely part of the in-crowd when it comes to forgoing the “old school” vast expanse of lawn for bird and wildlife-friendly plants.

Look back at this previous article and learn more about the critical ways native plants support local bird populations.


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Twelve native trees to plant now

Which lovable, albeit grumpy, Dr. Seuss character is known for saying “I speak for the trees”?  If you guessed The Lorax, you’re right! And I’m guessing you share his love for trees, for their beauty and their tremendous environmental value.  Our woody friends reduce cooling costs, increase property values, improve air quality, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality. 

And native trees offer even more. They’re more pest and disease resistant, can handle our weather extremes, and are essential to the survival of thousands of species of local wildlife and beneficial insects. 

Selecting a native tree  

Consider the following when selecting the right native tree for you: 

  • How large will the tree be when fully grown? 
  • How much sun does the planting site receive each day? 
  • How much water does the tree need? 
  • Do you want a tree that produces flowers, fruits, nuts or fall colors? 

We’ve made it easier to select the right tree for you by including key details for each of our twelve native trees highlighted below.  Let’s start with those that need the most growing space. 

We’ve compiled information on the following five large varieties. These canopy trees, which comprise the upper layer of the forest, typically reach heights of 40-90 feet at full maturity.  Scroll through the images to learn which tree is right for you. 

Need to go smaller? Consider one of these seven understory trees which range in height from 8 to 20 feet at maturity and are generally more shade tolerant. 

Each of these native seedlings benefit local wildlife. Flowering varieties provide nectar for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Berry producing trees offer small mammals and birds a source of food. All are critical hosts for beneficial insects. 

Interested in adding some of these trees to your yard or a nearby greenspace? Come celebrate the 46th annual Arbor Day Tree Giveaway on Saturday, January 29, 2022, from 9 a.m. to noon at Rob Fleming Park for free native seedlings. The twelve varieties listed above are available, while supplies last. 

You can also bring your tree planting and care questions to our Ask An Expert booth, have your photo taken with The Lorax and Puffy the Pinecone, and visit with experts to learn how to create habitat in your landscape for birds and pollinators. 


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov