The great pumpkin

It’s an iconic symbol of the season. Porches, lamp posts, benches and steps are decorated with pumpkins—they are so ubiquitous that today 80% of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are available in the month of October alone.

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The jack-o-lantern

For Halloween, these orange orbs are often carved with ghoulish faces illuminated with candles to the delight of children and adults alike. Originally known as jack-o-lanterns, we have the Irish to thank for this tradition that has folded into the fabric of our holiday. But the original jack-o-lantern wasn’t carved of pumpkin—pumpkins didn’t exist in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips. On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish placed an ember in them to ward off evil spirits. The lore behind this tradition is the Irishman, Stingy Jack, who bargained with the devil and was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way.

There are other ways to use pumpkins as festive decoration. Use them as planters and set your Thanksgiving table apart.

History of the pumpkin in the Americas

There is more to the history of pumpkins to appreciate. One of the oldest known food crops in the western hemisphere, pumpkins are native to parts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Pumpkins are known to have been cultivated since about 3500 BCE. Some archaeological evidence shows that ancient Aztecs used pumpkin seeds as a quick energy snack. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkins over a fire and also dried pumpkin, weaving the strips into mats. Throughout South and Central America pumpkin pulp has long been used as a treatment for burns.

When European colonists arrived in the New World, they relied heavily on pumpkin as a food source. Colonists prepared pumpkin by cutting off the top of the fruit, removing the seeds and pulp and replacing them with a mixture of milk, spices and honey. This food was the origin of the pumpkin pie enjoyed today.

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Growing pumpkins

Cultivating pumpkins in the southeast Texas home garden is possible, although challenging. Pumpkins are heat-loving plants with seed germination dependent upon warm soil. In Montgomery County, late March to early April is the optimum planting time. Pumpkins require a day time temperature of 85-95 degrees with a night time temperature range of 60-70 degrees.

When preparing the garden for pumpkin growing, apply a generous amount of high quality compost to provide the nutrition requirements of these heavy feeders. Select a location with well-drained soil and few weeds, and select a pumpkin variety that’s small or dwarf since the large-fruited varieties require a space at least 18 feet in width and length for the vigorous vines. Smaller pumpkin varieties can be successfully grown in a space with plants two feet apart and rows 6 feet apart. If space is limited, you can even grow them in a pot.

Since pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit family, it’s susceptible to the same pests and diseases which plague squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits. Insect pests include:  squash bugs, squash vine borer, cucumber beetles and aphids. Plant diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spot, black rot, gummy stem blight, mosaic virus and bacterial wilt. Our local, frequently damp climate provides perfect conditions for these diseases. Removing plant debris and careful tool cleaning and sanitation will help prevent disease. For high quality fruit with a long life, harvesting at maturity is crucial. A pumpkin is mature when the entire shell has developed uniform hardness.

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Cooking with pumpkins

A versatile fruit for culinary endeavors, pumpkin lends itself to preparations ranging from soups to pies and breads. No wonder the pumpkin has found its way onto the Thanksgiving table. For inspiration in the kitchen, see these pumpkin recipes  from Fine Cooking.

Nutritionally, pumpkin is a powerful food which is low in calories and fat but high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein and iron. One cup of cooked pumpkin contains only 49 calories. Since every part of the pumpkin is edible, experiment with preparing not only the pulp but also the seeds, flowers, leaves and stems. Check out these guidelines for processing pumpkins.

Add beauty and manage rain with a rain garden

Rain gardens are simple landscaping features used to slow, collect, infiltrate and filter storm water. They offer a great way to turn a landscape “problem” into a real benefit. Rain gardens are planted areas—best added to a low lying area that collects rain water—that include deep-rooted native plants and grasses that are designed to thrive in wet soil, soak up excess rain water, and withstand intermittent dry periods.

There are aesthetic benefits to rain gardens as well, transforming a bare, wet area into a green, blooming habitat that provides food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Amphibians such as frogs and toads will be attracted to this naturally wet area.

The problem

Increased stormwater runoff is the real problem. Add soil erosion to that and the result is vulnerability to flooding. Rain gardens help prevent both, helping to conserve water and soil.

Water Cycle

Consider the water cycle shown above and then add human development to the picture. Humans create stormwater runoff when natural areas are developed, replacing them with a sea of impervious surfaces fragmenting our green spaces.  Within a developed residential area, pollutants such as fertilizers, herbicides, pet waste, and oil are washed from lawns, streets, and parking lots into local streams and drainage systems.

Polluted runoff is the number one water
quality issue in the United States. 

How rain gardens help

While a single rain garden may seem inconsequential, it has great value, and several in a neighborhood collectively can produce substantial benefits. They slow the water down and let it collect in the garden’s depression, settling soil, silt and organic material that are washed by the water from higher ground. Water slowly filters back into the soil where it is needed most.  The deep rooted plants and grasses in the rain garden hold of the soil, keeping it in place. Rain gardens can also be designed to divert run off from sewer systems.

Plants within the rain garden increase the infiltration of water, giving the natural process that removes pollutants time to do its work. Naturally purified water then recharges the groundwater system. The end result is that by adding a rain garden to the landscape is a strategy that makes a difference.  Flooding is reduced.  Pollutants are filtered from the water. Runoff is diverted from streets and storm sewers.

Concern that a rain garden might serve as a breeding area for mosquitoes is not valid when they are sited correctly. Following a rain, ponding should last no longer than approximately 72 hours. This is a much shorter time frame than the 7 to 14 days required for most species of mosquitoes to develop and hatch from eggs laid in standing water.

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Rain garden basics

Choose a site. Locate your garden in a low lying area of your landscape that tends to collect rain water at least 10 feet from your foundation. Choose a sunny or partially sunny spot. Also consider how it can be incorporated into your existing landscape replacing an area of traditional turf grass where the lawn slopes toward the street. An area that would catch roof run off or water from a down spout is perfect. If the rain garden is located on a slope, create a berm on the low side to retail water and soil.

Compared to a patch of lawn, a rain garden allows 30% more water to soak in the ground.

Test drainage. Test the location’s drainage before you create the bed. Dig a hole 8 to 12 inches deep and fill the hole with water. The water should soak in within 48 to 72 hours. Soils heavy in clay will drain much more slowly than soils heavier in loam, silt or sand. Amend sites heavy in clay with organic compost to improve the soil and help drainage. If the site doesn’t drain within 72 hours, choose another site.

Start digging. Rain gardens can be any size, but a typical residential rain garden ranges from 100 to 300 square feet. The depth of the garden can range between four and eight inches. Anything too deep might pond water too long and if too shallow, it will require greater surface area to effectively manage water.

Add plants. Choose a variety of native forbs and grasses, planting those with higher water tolerance in the middle of the garden. Include plants of varying heights and bloom times to maximize the garden’s depth, texture and color. Plant in groups of three to seven plants of a single species.  Go for diversity. In natural areas, a diversity of plant types not only adds beauty, but also creates thick underground root network that keeps the entire plant community in balance.

The chart below includes plants for our area suitable for a rain garden. Planting zones are indicated as:

Margin: the high edge around the rain garden that is the driest zone
Median: the area between the margin and center
Center: the middle of the garden that is deeper and will stay wet longest

Rain garden plant listHelp it flourish. Rain gardens can be maintained with little effort after plants are established. Weeding and some watering during dry periods will be needed the first two years.

Attend the upcoming rain garden class

Join Patrick Dickinson, Texas A&M Water University horticulturist on Saturday, October 27, 2018 from 9:00 a.m. to noon as he presents Gardening 102:  Rain Gardens.

Register here.

Resources

Refer to Harris County AgriLife Extension gardening fact sheet, Rain Gardens, for more details about planning a rain garden and for a full plant list.

Check out WaterSmart, a presentation by Chris LaChance of Texas AgriLife Extension, for good information and nice photos of various rain gardens.

This how-to manual on Rain Gardens by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources may have plant lists that aren’t suitable for this area, but it’s a good guide to creating a rain garden no matter where you live.

Make the most of your landscape

Woodlands Landscaping Solutions has been a featured community event hosted by Environmental Services for more than 20 years, and this year’s event boasts a new location, guest speakers, live music, and new exhibitors.

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Connect with some of the best local experts at over 30 booths, where they will share current landscaping and gardening know-how that has been proven for this region. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will be on hand to assist with:

  • Lawn, tree and plant selection and care
  • Vegetable and herb gardening in The Woodlands
  • The benefits of amending your soil with compost
  • Drip irrigation and rain-water harvesting
  • Common bees, butterflies, and insects in the garden
  • Plant propagation
  • Garden tool repair and maintenance
  • Plant problem diagnosis—bring a cutting of your problem plant!

Meet representatives from Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, North American Butterfly Association, and Texas Master Naturalists, and other organizations.

See a presentation—or two—by our guest speakers Mark Morgenstern from Morning Star Prairie Plants who will speak on the value of native plants in home landscapes, and Tom LeRoy who will address caring for lawns and issues related to them.

Enjoy live music by Andy McCarthy.

Shop the marketplace for plants, backyard birding supplies, gardening tools, and garden-themed gifts.

Planning fall landscaping projects and spring gardens is easier with help from great resources–and you can find them at Woodlands Landscaping Solutions. Don’t miss it! This is a free event.

For information, visit the website’s Event Details page.

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Growing your own builds strong bodies and minds

The health benefits of vegetables are many, not the least of which is that they are important sources of nutrients, including potassium, dietary fiber, folate (folic acid), vitamin A, and vitamin C. Take the health benefits a step further and grow your own. When you grow your own veggies organically, the nutritional payoff is even higher (not to mention you ensure that no chemicals are being ingested with your zucchini).

Organic fruits and vegetables deliver between
20 and 40 percent higher antioxidant activity, according to a 2014 study published in British Journal of Nutrition.

And don’t forget another important health benefit to growing your own: Working an hour in the garden tending your harvest provides exercise benefits equal to a 30-minute jog.

Soul food

Did you know growing your own is also good for your soul?  “What?” you ask? Well, yes. A 2016 meta-analysis has shown a link between gardening and increased mental health. Getting your hands in the dirt brings you in contact with mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium found in soil that may stimulate the production of serotonin—one of our “feel good” hormones. Gardening also opens your mind to nature:  bird song and insect sounds; colors and textures of plants; cloud patterns; changes in weather; soft breezes. All this good stuff has been found to:

  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce depression and lower anxiety
  • Increase focus and mindfulness
  • Inspire a sense of awe
  • Create a sense of hope and purpose

Get started on your own vegetable garden

daniel-cunningham-sq-3Learn more about growing your own vegetables this weekend.  Join Daniel Cunningham, Texas A&M Water University horticulturist as he shares his knowledge in our Fall Vegetable Gardening Class on Saturday, August 25, 2018.  Daniel will offer strategies for overcoming the challenges of vegetable gardening in our humid and hot southeast Texas climate.  Learn when to plant and which vegetables grow best in the fall gardening season.  Find out how to reduce your water footprint.  Gather information on ways to conserve and protect our natural resources.

Learn more about growing your own vegetables in Saturday’s class.

Bring your gardening questions and plant problems.  Montgomery County Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer your questions with proven information.

Grow Your Own Vegetables is a free class; however, space is limited and registration is required.

Grow Your Own Vegetables Class
Saturday, August 25, 2018
9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center
16135 I-45 South, The Woodlands, TX 77385

For more information about this class and to register, visit the Event Details page on the website.

Plant for Pollinators and Water Savings at Free Workshop this Sat!

 

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Plant with a Purpose!

Join us for this free workshop and learn how to create habitat in your landscape while saving water at the same time.

We’ll delve into:

  • Importance of keeping invasive species at bay – 8:15 a.m.
  • Wonders of pollinators and how to attract them – 9:45 a.m.
  • Many benefits of native plants including water conservation – 10:45 a.m.
  • Best methods for seed collecting and propagation of the plants you love – 12:45 a.m.

Attend one or more FREE sessions – click here to save your spot.

Experts from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Texas Master Naturalists will lead each session.

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DETAILS:

  • Saturday, June 23 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    • Join us for all or part of the program
    • Lunch provided
  • HARC Building, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
  • Free but registration is required – click here to save your spot 

 

Thank you to our sponsors:

Houston Advanced Research Center, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas Master Naturalists, Woodlands Joint Powers Agency

 

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Nature Exploration Walks are good for you!

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Getting outside is a good thing. Learning about local nature is great! This fall, the Environmental Services Department is offering a new series of Nature Exploration Walks at The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park. Residents are invited to come out for a leisurely walk along the nearby trails with a trained naturalist to learn more about the most common wildlife in our area.

Did you know?  “There is a rapidly growing body of studies which show that people are healthier when they spend time in nature. Connecting with the natural world – whether it is in your backyard, out on the lake, or exploring a forest – has been shown to improve a wide range of mental and physical conditions. Conditions such as dementia, asthma, depression, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, diabetes, and many others respond to time in nature. Physicians are rapidly learning about the benefits and have begun prescribing nature to their patients as a component of treatment and wellness.”  Daniel Porter, Medical Director, Lone Star Family Health Center.

Join in for the health of it!  Bring the family and discover what nature has to offer! The walks are FREE, but registration is required.  Click on the links to learn more and register today!

  1. September 16, from 9 to 11 a.m.: Who Lives in the Woods?
  2. October 14, from 9 to 11 a.m.: Wings and Things: Tree Dwellers
  3. November 4, from 6 to 8 p.m.: Wet-footed Friends: Frogs and Toads 

Discover nature at your backdoor with a full schedule of lectures and outdoor experiences, please visit Gardening and Nature Classes and Events offered by the Environmental Services Department.

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Create an Asset with Freeze-damaged Plant Material

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Recent freezing temperatures resulted in damage to the more tender landscape plants in our area. Before removing and placing this damaged plant material curbside for green waste pickup, consider how this plant material can become an asset to your landscape.  Composting this material will create a rich organic soil amendment which benefits both container and landscape plants. Continue reading