Is your water running?

A: Is your water running?

B: Yes.

A: Then you better go catch it!

Just like this bad joke, wasting water is nothing to laugh at. It’s a precious commodity we rely on every day in every way.

So, how do you avoid wasting water in and around your home? Do you regularly check for leaks and repair them? Or maybe you use a timer on your  garden sprinkler. Do you use a soak and cycle method when you water your lawn, avoiding runoff into the street? Like most of your neighbors, are you turning off your automated sprinkler system during the winter to help your grass get stronger and healthier?

The average American uses about 100 gallons of water per person every day.  In The Woodlands, residents currently use about 88 gallons per person each day. That’s great news, however we can do more.

Consider the following:

  • Up to 11,000 gallons a year per household is wasted due to leaks.
  • Running your faucet for five minutes uses the same amount of energy required to light a 60-watt bulb for 14 hours.
  • Shaving with the water running is like pouring a 24-oz bottle of water down the drain – 32 times! And a running toilet wastes A LOT more – almost 800 bottles every day!

So ask yourself: where is your water running?  Maybe it’s time to look more closely at  your household water use. Start by calculating your water usage  here. Enter your family’s water use information then view the report to help you identify where you can save some water and even lower your water bill.

Water conservation is a universal concern and many cities have introduced specific actions to ensure we all do our part. Residents of The Woodlands follow a “Defined Irrigation Schedule” which outlines the two days per week each of us may use our automated sprinkler system. However, you can do more by turning your system off completely from mid-October through mid-April. Not only will you save water and money, your yard will be much healthier for it! St. Augustine, the most common turf grass in this area, is a warm weather grass that needs a few months of dormancy each winter to let the green blades go brown while the roots grow deeper and stronger. The result: each spring your lawn will have new growth that is better able to resist insects and disease.

Each year The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department asks families to pledge turning off their irrigation systems as part of the annual Water Wise Village Challenge. Your pledge will help your Village earn cash for its scholarship fund.  The competition renews each year, so be sure to renew your pledge as well. Watch for an Environmental Services booth at upcoming community events to sign your family’s pledge, or go online.

Take the pledge for your household

For more resources on water conservation, check out thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment or call the Environmental Services Department at 281-210-3800.

Mark your calendars!

The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department has a packed schedule this fall with something for everyone. Always wanted to grow your own vegetables or interested in what it takes to compost in your own backyard? Curious about the fascinating world of bugs, bats and birds? If you have been looking to learn more about reducing your water usage, adding native plants to your yard, or you’re ready to recycle the odds and ends around the house, then read on.

Invasive Species Task Force Volunteer Training
Saturday, August 10, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Learn how non-native plants are impacting our local ecosystem and what actions you can take to keep them at bay. Dr. Hans Landel from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center will provide training on the identification and removal of invasive plants and the critical functions of native vegetation. Trained volunteers will be able to join the ongoing effort to tackle invasives in our area.

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


Fall Organic Vegetable Gardening Class
Saturday, August 24, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Beginning and veteran gardeners alike will gain valuable information at this free, three-hour seminar. Learn about the latest gardening trends, soil preparation, planting techniques and the best plant varieties for the area. Join Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Agents Emeritus (retired) Tom LeRoy and Bill Adams as they share their many years of vegetable gardening experience and expertise. Books authored by both Tom and Bill will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer your gardening questions.

Free class. Registration required. Register here.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Our Neighborhood Bats
Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series, led by Diana Foss from Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Diana will discuss habitats, behaviors and threats to bats living in urban areas. Come learn the benefits bats provide to The Woodlands and where you can observe bats year-round in the Houston area.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


22nd Annual Woodlands Landscaping Solutions
Saturday, September 28, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park

This event is FREE!

Don’t miss this year’s event at its new location—the Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park. Learn from area gardening and landscaping experts at over 30 booths. Shop the marketplace. Pick up FREE plants at the Montgomery County Master Gardener’s pass-along plant booth.  Take a composting class. Guest speaker Lauren Simpson will present, “Gardening for Pollinators” and Tom LeRoy will present on “Lawn Care”. Enjoy live music by Andy McCarthy, kids’ activities and food vendors. See you there!

Visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment for more information.


Smarter Choices Seminar: Healthy Landscapes = Healthy Waterways
Saturday, October 5, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Learn how simple steps can result in greener lawns and healthier waterways. Practical methods for maintaining your lawn and landscape, as well as alternatives to chemical use will be offered. 

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here


Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series: Vampires, Zombies and Body Snatchers
Thursday, October 10, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lecture series led by Megan McNairn from The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department. Megan will dive into the creepy crawly world of bugs where monsters come to life and ghoulish creatures go bump in the night.  

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Pollinator Gardening
Saturday, October 26, 2019 from 9 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Lauren Simpson, area pollinator gardening expert, will share her experience of creating her own suburban pollinator garden. Lauren will offer practical gardening tips, pollinator information and simple home garden design strategies. Pollinator gardening resources and research-based gardening information will be available. Montgomery County Master Gardeners will answer your gardening questions.

Class is free. Registration required. To register, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class. No registration required.


Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting Workshop
Saturday, November 2, 2019 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The Woodlands Emergency Training Center (16135 IH-45 South)

Save water, time and money.  Hands-on training teaches you everything you need to know to set up a rainwater harvesting barrel in your yard and to convert automated sprinkler systems to water-efficient drip systems. Additional rainwater harvesting options, such as rain gardens, will be discussed.  Sign up for this water-saving workshop today!

Free workshop. Registration required. Register here.


3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmers Market
Saturday, November 9, 2019 from 8 a.m. to noon
The Woodlands Farmers Market at Grogan’s Mill (7 Switchbud Place)

Celebrate America Recycles Day and explore the 3R Bazaar at The Woodlands Farmer’s Market at Grogan’s Mill Explore the 3R Bazaar and discover opportunities to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Shop from local artists featuring repurposed materials or create your own upcycled masterpiece.  Enjoy live music, kids’ activities and bring the following items to be recycled:

  • Batteries: Alkaline, AA, AAA, C, D, and 9V
  • Textiles: Overly worn clothing, shoes, linens and other unusable textiles
  • Oral care products: Toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss containers
  • Eyeglasses: Plastic and metal frames and cases
  • Document Shredding: $5 or 5 canned food donations to benefit Interfaith of The Woodlands Food Pantry

Free event. No registration required.


Walk in the Woods Nature Lectures Series: An Introduction to Birds of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.
Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) 8801 Gosling Road

Join this FREE lectures series led by Alisa Kline from Buffalo Bayou Park. Explore the vital role that birds play in our community’s ecosystem. Alisa offers tools and techniques for observing birds and behaviors and the benefits of documenting observations through iNaturalist.

Free lecture. Registration required. Register here.


Backyard Composting Class
Saturday, December 7, 2019 from 10 to 11 a.m.
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

Learn how simple and easy it is to turn kitchen waste, yard trimmings and leaves into rich, handmade compost. Try out the variety of composting tools and equipment. Find out how compost benefits plants, gardens and lawns.
Our outdoor composting class is taught by certified, experienced Montgomery County Master Gardeners. Composting resources, problem-solving, trouble-shooting and tips are provided at each class. High-quality collapsible compost bins are available for purchase at a reduced price.

Free class.  No registration required.


For more information on these events, visit www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment or call 281-210-3800.

Air BeeNBee

Are you looking to purchase new property with a small footprint but a big return on investment? Nervous that you might not find the right renters or worried about the upkeep on another home?

What if you could build the house for pennies, be guaranteed several long-term renters and get your return on investment almost immediately?

Then it’s time to build a bee house!

Meet The Renters

Native Solitary Bees, also known as pollen bees, account for approximately 90% of bee species native to Texas. Because these bees are not honey producers and don’t have the ‘job’ of protecting and providing for a hive, they are not aggressive and are fine around children and pets. Most solitary bees will only sting when provoked (i.e. smashed or squished) and are safe to observe in the garden.

The most common bees to take up residency are mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and sweat bees. A couple hundred of these friendly neighbors can pollinate as many flowers as a thousand honeybees!

In Spring and Summer, females will select a cavity or ‘room’ in your bee house and fill it with food, lay eggs, seal the room shut and then move on to her next nest. She won’t revisit or defend the nest. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the stored food, winter inside the nest and then emerge in the spring to start the cycle all over again, providing you an endless stream of renters and pollinators!

Hard Hats Required: Construction Zone

Bee houses can be any shape or size, though the size of a birdhouse, roughly 8” x 12” is common for most urban landscapes.  Make sure the depth of the bee house is at least 6 to 8 inches to allow plenty of room for bees to nest.

When building a frame, make sure that the back is closed and the front is open.  A roof will help keep rain out and should extend 2 inches over the front of the house. 

When choosing wood, be sure to avoid pressure-treated wood as the chemicals used will deter bees.  If you want to up the curb appeal of your bee house and add a coat of paint, be aware that the paint and sealant will deter bees for a few weeks until the smell wears away.

For the “rooms” of the house, provide a variety of sizes for bees to choose from.  There are many materials that can provide dark tunnels perfect for nesting:  bamboo, hollow reeds, cardboard tubes, small logs or tree branches.  Whatever material you choose, make sure they are all cut to fit the depth of your bee house.  If drilling holes, be sure to provide a range of sizes from 1/8” to ½” in diameter and use sandpaper to smooth any rough edges caused by the drill.

Several companies now offer premanufactured nesting tubes or blocks to insert into your frame.  These tubes allow for pieces to be removed if any damage, rot or disease occurs.  If interested in harvesting and storing bee cocoons, these removable options are great.  To learn more about harvesting solitary bees, check out this video by Bee Built below.

After collecting your materials, fill the frame with the various sized rooms and add in some bits of nature (pine cones, branches, foliage) to make the bees feel at home.  If concerned about birds or other predators, cover the front of the house with chicken wire

Room With A View

Find an area in your yard that is near where the bees will forage for food. A radius of 300 feet is ideal. Place the house on the South side of a building, fence post or tree that gets morning sun and afternoon shade.   The higher the better: place the house a minimum of 3 feet from the ground. 

Avoid hanging your house from a pole or hook; it will swing too much to be considered a safe home by bees.  Best to have the back of the house flush with a sturdy object. Once your house has residents, DO NOT MOVE!   If you must relocate, wait until November when most of the tubes will be filled with eggs waiting to hatch and emerge in the spring.

Upkeep

Bee houses require  little maintenance; however check periodically that the house remains dry and no mold or mildew is occurring.   Look for signs of pollen mites, chalkbrood, and parasitic wasps.  All are threats to your bee house. 

Harvesting cocoons each winter will decrease the chance for larvae to become a victim to pests or disease.  If not harvesting, consider replacing tubes every few years to reduce potential disease or infestations that are harmful to your bees.

To provide a long term housing option, remember to NOT spray insecticides on or around the bee house.

The best way to keep up with your bee house is to become familiar with who your neighbors are.  Identifying the types of bees and addressing their needs and common concerns will be very helpful in providing the best home for these pollinators.  Check out the free iNaturalist app for help in identifying and documenting the activity in your yard.

Once your bee house is buzzing with renters, sit back and enjoy your new neighbors!

Giant Coneflower: Taking your garden to new heights

Rudbeckia maxima

Piercing the sky like a lighthouse in a sea of plants and shrubs, the giant coneflower attracts eleven different species of butterflies, native bees, and beautiful birds to your garden.  Guided by a beacon of yellow petals, hover flies and minute pirate bugs are drawn to this plant, as many pollinators are, and will feed on common garden pests such as thrips, aphids and whiteflies.   The giant coneflower is a plant that stands tall in any garden and is worth searching for at local fall plant sales, native plant nurseries, or online plant retailers. 

Where to find it

The giant coneflower is native to a small geographic area incorporating parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.  This herbaceous perennial can be found growing naturally in open woodlands, prairies, pastures and along roadsides and railroad tracks.

In 1816, near the Red River, in then Oklahoma Territory, the giant coneflower was first identified by the English botanist and plant explorer Thomas Nuttall.

Easy care and adaptable

The best part: giant coneflower is low maintenance. It thrives in clay or sandy soil and tolerates dry to medium soil moisture, drought conditions, heat and even short term flooding.  Sounds like Houston weather to me!  This golden giant has no serious disease problems and is resistant to pests, an impressive combo any gardener will love.

Begin planting in early fall to allow the basal clump time to establish itself during the cooler months, and allow adequate spacing to accommodate the 3-4 foot spread of the mature plants.   Giant coneflower thrives in full sun but tolerates part shade.   Throughout the first year, only the beautiful blue green leaves will be visible.  In warm climates like ours the leaves are evergreen, adding to the plant’s winter interest.  At maturity, these attractive cabbage-shaped leaves may be 15” to 18” in length, earning this plant the common name: cabbage coneflower.

The second season is when this plant really becomes a showstopper.   Tall stalks reach 6-8 feet in height and 3 inch wide flowers with drooping yellow petals and tall, dark brown cones make a strong statement in the garden. Use the stunning flowers in fresh or dried floral arrangements but be sure to leave some on the stalk as food for gold finches, chickadees and other backyard birds. 

The J.C. Raulston Arboretum located at North Carolina State University has provided an online collection of photographs of this beautiful plant.   Check out these gorgeous pictures HERE and get ready for some fall garden inspiration.

Giant coneflower is a uniquely beautiful and towering plant that will enhance not only the visual appeal of your garden, but will  reward you with visits from  a variety of pollinators this fall.


Beat the heat with Bluebells

 

Native Plant Focus: Texas Bluebell

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. Russellianum

Copy of Texas Bluebell

Try to think of one thing that wildflowers and ice cream have in common.  Not so easy, is it?

Texas’ native wildflowers need the summer heat to survive just as many of us depend on a scoop of cold, delicious ice cream to get us through a summer afternoon.  But there’s only one wildflower that has influenced a nation of ice cream lovers more than any other.  An enchanting specimen that at one time was so abundant across the Texas prairie that a large creamery located near Brenham decided to adopt its name in 1930.  This native beauty is the Texas Bluebell.

Where to find it

Ranging southward from Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota to new Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, the Texas Bluebell (known also as Showy Prairie Gentian or Prairie Gentian), is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Texas wildflowers.   Sadly, in Texas, the plant’s range has decreased dramatically over the past century.  The upright, showy blue to purple bell-shaped flowers are so attractive in cut flower arrangements that admirers have over-picked it, drastically reducing the number left in nature to produce seed capsules.  Today, locating Texas Bluebells in the wild requires a focused effort.  In our local area, some of the isolated prairies within Sam Houston National Forest provide limited viewing opportunities.

Easy care & adaptable

With blue blooms emitting a natural iridescence and a velvety texture, the two-inch bell-shaped flowers stand upright on deep blue-green stems and leaves covered with a waxy bloom.  Texas Bluebells thrive in moist sandy or sandy loam soils and are most likely to be found along the edges of creeks, streams, or drainage areas.  This perennial plant develops a long taproot to access the required moisture from deep within the soil.  While it prefers full sun, the Texas bluebell will grow in part shade.  During periods of rain, the beautiful blue blossoms will close and will re-open when the sun emerges.  The plant is heat tolerant and continues to produce blooms during the summer when other wildflowers are past their prime.

In the home landscape, Texas Bluebells are perfect for the edges of water or rain gardens, in ornamental beds, borders or cutting gardens.  They’re easy to maintain and have no known serious insect or disease problems.  If you’re incorporating Texas Bluebells, consider beginning with young rosettes; starting from seed can be challenging. 

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Attract pollinators

As a native plant, the Texas Bluebell offers a number of benefits for the environment.  Birds are attracted by its tiny black seeds while hummingbirds, butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar and pollen.  Since bees are attracted to blue flowers, the major pollinator for this plant is the metallic green sweat bee, whose long tongue is able to reach the nectar deep within the large flower.  Metallic green sweat bees are one of the most prolific native bees in local yards and gardens.

Providing habitat for native bees is an important role for homeowners.  The University of Texas offers some excellent tips for improving native bee habitat.

Growing native Texas Bluebells and creating enhanced native bee habitat in your own landscape will support restoration of this stunningly beautiful blue flower.  Bluebells will begin their bloom cycle in June and continue blooming throughout the heat of the Texas summer.  Visit a local native plant retailer now to establish these rewarding plants in your own garden. 

of bright lisanthus flowers on white background

Approximately 80 years ago, the Japanese imported Texas bluebell seeds, as the flower is considered by the Japanese people to be extremely beautiful. Commonly called ‘lisianthus”, the Japanese hybrids vary in color to include white, pink, lavender and yellow.

Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

mxc-blog-monarch-g

Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

MonarchMap-NatureServe-10.20
Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

chrysalis
Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

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Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

Spiderwort is stunning color for shade

Native Plant Focus: Spiderwort

Tradescantia virginiana

 

Spiderwort (1)

An easy to grow clump-forming perennial, spiderwort is a Texas native which thrives in nearly any growing conditions—including shade. This plant’s deep blue to violet purple flowers with their contrasting yellow stamens bloom continuously for several months beginning in March in southeast Texas. Although each blossom lasts only about one half day, the numerous buds contained in each flower cluster provide new flowers each day. Spiderwort is a member of the iris family with long narrow bright green leaves that offset the unusual, slightly fragrant blue flowers.

Spiderwort’s scientific name, Tradescantia virginiana, is in honor of John Tradescant who served as the gardener to King Charles I of England. The plant’s common name, Spiderwort, has its origin in the angular arrangement of the leaves which suggest the shape of a squatting spider.

Easy care & adaptable

This highly adaptable plant will thrive in nearly any conditions although it prefers slightly moist soil in an area of dappled shade. When planted in drier areas, the plant adapts. Included in spiderwort’s many assets are its ability to grow in any soil as well as in light conditions ranging from shade to full sun.  In addition, Spiderwort has no known disease or pest issues.

Attract pollinators

In the home landscape, Spiderwort is a beautiful addition to a native plant garden, pollinator garden, shade garden or natural area. Spiderwort also adapts to containers. Many types of bees are attracted to the deep blue color of the spiderwort blossoms.  Bumble bees are the plant’s major pollinator although honeybees, small carpenter bees and halictine bees also provide pollination. Butterflies enjoy the nectar of this plant while syrphid flies feed on the pollen.

spiderwort-1347209

The distinctive and beautiful flower of Spiderwort adds color to shady spots in the landscape through spring and into summer.

Missouri Plants has some wonderful close-up photographs of this wide-ranging native.

For those interested in foraging, both spiderwort leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are useful in salads, soups or teas while the flowers can also be used in salads or can be candied.

Where to find it

Obtaining spiderwort is easy since many on-line retailers offer both the seeds and the plants. Spring is a perfect time for shipping these plants before the Texas heat arrives. April is an ideal planting time for either Spiderwort transplants or seeds. Since Spiderwort grows quickly, planting it now will provide for pollinators in only a few short weeks.

 

More Texas Wildflowers

To learn about more native Texas wildflowers, join Anita Tiller from Mercer Arboretum on April 4 at HARC. Anita will lead an exploration of HARC’s grounds, which is bursting with spring color and will explain many of the sustainable landscape practices HARC has put in place. The walk is followed by an indoor presentation on wildflowers native to our region. Space is limited register here – walk-ups welcome as space permits.

ES_3.28_WITW Wildflowers

Is there a better irrigation plan for your landscape?

Drip irrigation has some real advantages over traditional automatic sprinkler systems when it comes to saving water and money:

Irrigation Comparison Table 1

Learn how to install drip as part of your own sprinkler system at the Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting Workshop Saturday, April 6.

Local drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting specialists will provide both classroom and hands-on instruction. You’ll learn how to convert an existing sprinkler head to drip as well as how to install drip irrigation from an outdoor hose bib. With drip irrigation in place, you’ll be “efficiently” prepared for summer watering.

Our wet weather means that rain barrels are another great water conserving tool. At the workshop you will see how easy it is to capture rainwater  in your backyard, and will be able to purchase a rain barrel at a discounted price through one of our workshop sponsors, The Woodlands G.R.E.E.N.

Space for this popular seminar is very limited and registration is required. For more information or to register, see the calendar page.

DI + RWH Workshop

The Woodlands Emergency Training Center, located at 16135 IH-45 South, Conroe, 77385 – about one mile north of Hwy 242 on the northbound feeder road of I-45.

The FREE event has filled quickly in the past, so register early. Visit The Woodlands Township calendar for details and registration information, or call 281-210-3800.

Save the date!

Saturday, March 23

Pre-registration is open

GreenUp Logo. Globe only

Join neighbors, family, and friends at Earth Day GreenUp on March 23, 2019. Volunteer to beautify our community by picking up litter on pathways, waterways, and greenbelts. After your hard work, celebrate at Northshore Park with free pizza, face painting, live music, and an event t-shirt. Together, residents keep The Woodlands beautiful and protect natural areas for wildlife by helping in this community stewardship project.

GreenUp invites everyone to take ownership of our environment. Recruit or join a group of your peers – you may find that you’ll meet neighbors and create new friends while enjoying the outdoors. Disposable gloves, bags and maps will be provided during check-in at a designated park in each Village.  Remember to bring a reusable bottle and your favorite work gloves to minimize waste. Ensure equipment for your team by pre-registering by March 11th. See the box below for registration information.

GreenUP Celebrations

The GreenUP celebration is fun for all and begins at 11 a.m. at Northshore Park.

After the cleanup, the entire community is invited to celebrate in the spirit of Earth Day with food, fun and live music for all ages at Northshore Park, 2505 Lake Woodlands Drive. Local organizations will present fun activities and information on how you can make everyday Earth Day. Learn and play games that will teach you that “green starts with me.”

Volunteers will receive a commemorative T-shirt and be treated to pizza. Beverages will be available, but remember to bring your own water bottle. Food tickets will be on sale to the general public.

Key Information

Pre-register: Through Monday, March 11 at  www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/greenup

Check-in:  Saturday, March 23, 8 to 10 a.m. at a location near you.
Walk-ups welcome. Check-in locations:

  • Alden Bridge: Alden Bridge Park
  • Cochran’s Crossing: Shadowbend Park
  • College Park: Harper’s Landing Park
  • Creekside Park: Rob Fleming Aquatic Center
  • Grogan’s Mill: Sawmill Park
  • Indian Springs: Falconwing Park
  • Panther Creek: Ridgewood Park
  • Sterling Ridge: Cranebrook Park

GreenUp:  8:30 to 11 a.m.

Celebrate: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Northshore Park

More Info:  Call Environmental Services at 281-210-3800

 

Remodeling? Plan for water efficiency

A home remodeling project is a perfect time to consider how to maximize your home’s water efficiency. Bathrooms are where most of our water is used, accounting for more than 50% of all indoor water use.

When it comes to water use, the American mindset is shifting from one less mindful and therefore wasteful, to one more aware that water is a valuable resource to conserve.  We are fortunate to have easy access to some of the safest water in the world and it may be that very ease that results in our taking water for granted. Just how much water do we use? On average, an American family uses more than 300 gallons of water per day at home.

Here’s how it breaks down:

Water Pie Chart

In a 2014 Government Accountability Report, it’s noted that 40 out of 50 state water managers expect water shortages under average conditions in some portions of their states over the next decade. So it just makes sense to replace old or inefficient appliances and hardware with new, more efficient products.

That’s where WaterSense comes in. WaterSense is a partnership program sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). WaterSense labeled products meet EPA’s specification for water efficiency and performance, and are backed by independent, third-party certification.

WaterSense label

The WaterSense label on a product certifies that it is 20 percent more water efficient than average products in that category. There are WaterSense Products in many categories, including:

  • Faucets
  • Showerheads
  • Toilets
  • Irrigation controllers
  • Irrigation sprinklers

Stop by the Environmental Services office and receive a free faucet aerator or a replacement showerhead while supplies last. Both meet high water efficiency standards.

Environmental Services Department
8203 Millennium Forest Drive

 

Fix a leak

You don’t have to take on a remodeling project to conserve water. That annoying dripping faucet is more than annoying; five to 10 percent of U.S. homes have easy-to-fix leaks that drip away 90 gallons of water a day.

EPA’s annual Fix a Leak Week is March 18 through 24. You can learn more about how to locate leaks on the EPA  Fix a Leak Week webpage.

Leaks Graphic

Demonstration home

Check out the WaterSense demonstration home at Water University at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Dallas. To be WaterSense certified, homes must meet standard criteria in three areas: indoor water use, including plumbing, plumbing fixtures and fittings, and appliances; outdoor water use, including landscape design and any installed irrigation systems (which are optional); and homeowner education.

 

In celebration of trees

It’s undeniable. There seems to be a universal human response to the majesty of trees. Trees do us a lot of good and not all their benefits are visible by the eye. These benefits are often grouped by their social, environmental, and economic qualities.

(Be sure to see the upcoming Township events that pay tribute to trees listed below.)

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Social benefits

One might say that trees help make us happier. They provide a sense of place and when we are in their presence, we feel serene and peaceful. Trees’ calming effects extend to the workplace, where trees can reduce worker stress. It’s also been cited that trees can decrease recovery time after surgery or illness and reduce crime in urban communities. A large, mature tree imparts a sense of majesty, strength, and even awe. This and their capacity for a long life may be why they are so often planted as living memorials to those we love and have lost.

The oldest verified flowering tree is a 2,293 year-old Sri Maha Bodhi Sacred Fig. It is also the oldest human-planted tree, known to be planted in 288 BC at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

People are drawn to shaded parks, pathways, and sidewalks, which in turn encourages social interaction and enhances a sense of community.

Environmental benefits

Trees improve the environment by moderating our climate from sun, wind, and rain. Sun is absorbed or deflected by leaves and the larger the tree, the greater its cooling effect. In urban environments, trees moderate the heating effect caused by pavement and buildings. Compact foliage and dense tree plantings provide an effective windbreak. Rain and stormwater runoff is not only slowed by trees, but is reduced by the water trees take up by their roots and store.

Improved air quality is another great benefit—leaves filter the air we breathe by removing particulates and pollutants (such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead) and replace them with oxygen. They absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Trees are natural air conditioners that can lower temperatures 6 to 8 degrees by evaporating water through their leaves. Their roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion, and improve water quality by filtering rainwater.

Trees can block and absorb sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40%.

Finally, trees provide important food and shelter for urban wildlife, including birds, pollinators, and small animals.

Economic benefits

Although determining a “value” of a tree can be very difficult, trees increase in value as they grow. The value of trees is also evident in home sales: homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5% to 15% more than homes without trees. When trees are planted strategically to shade a home, air conditioning costs are lower. And when they form a windbreak they can reduce heating costs in winter.

Native trees

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The native Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana, has a spectacular spring display that is a feast for the eyes and pollinators as well.

There is a wealth of native trees to use for landscapes in our area. The benefits of native trees are many and can include colorful spring blooms, fall color, or food and nectar for wildlife. Natives are well-adapted to our weather conditions and soil, and once established, require no supplemental water (except for times of extreme drought).

View and print the list of Trees Suitable for The Woodlands. This list is far from exhaustive, but meant to provide a good sampling of those that can be found at local nurseries and provide special benefits.

Upcoming events

Mark your calendar for these events that each in their own way, celebrate trees.

Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup
The Howard Hughes Corporation® is excited to host the Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup on Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hughes Landing®. This year, more than 44,000 tree seedlings will be handed out, representing nine varieties including Bald Cypress, Laurel Oak, Live Oak, Loblolly Pine, Overcup Oak, River Birch, Sawtooth Oak, Silky Dogwood and Water Oak.

2019 Community Tree Planting
The community will come together to keep the woods in The Woodlands at the fifth annual Village Tree Planting event Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 8 a.m. to noon at Spindle Tree Ponds Park in the Village of Sterling Ridge. Volunteers of all ages are called upon to help reforest our community. Register now!

Creating Habitat in the Garden and Community
Saturday, February 2, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Woodlands Emergency Training Center. This free seminar will address how wildlife has been impacted by growth and why home and community habitats matter. Learn how to create habitat for butterflies, bees and birds and help them thrive. Register now!

Helpful resources

Visit the International Society of Arboriculture for loads of great information about trees. View and print their useful guides for planting and caring for trees:

New Tree Planting

Proper Mulching Techniques

Pruning Mature Trees

Insect and Disease Problems

Irrigation can’t replace rain

You’ve seen it. The luminous post-shower greenness of a lawn; the sudden growth spurt of a plant that didn’t seem to be doing much at all; or the effervescence of new blooms on an otherwise sleepy plant. Why are these effects so evident after a good rain and absent with irrigation?

What’s the magic of rain? It’s all about what it has that tap water doesn’t,  and what it doesn’t have that tap water does.  And this all boils down to chemistry.

Rain water is free of minerals

good elements

Rainwater lacks the minerals usually found in irrigation water. In The Woodlands, the water that flows through an outside spigot is the same as what flows from the kitchen faucet—that is, treated water suitable for consumption. This is of course, what you want for water use in the home, but your landscape can actually suffer for it when used in excess.

Chlorine and fluoride are the first plant-offending additives in treated water. Chlorine is a necessary disinfectant and fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay.  But nearly all plants are susceptible to chlorine toxicity and many are subject to fluoride toxicity as well—especially common house plants.

Another chemical component to tap water is sodium, which can help remedy the pipe-corroding effects of calcium and magnesium, also present. When a white sediment is present on the outside of containers or on the leaves of plants, it’s evidence of calcium and magnesium. Sodium, like chlorine, is toxic to plants.

Rainwater has the right stuff

good elements

Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Rain highly saturated in oxygen goes right to the roots that take up this vital element. Nitrogen is what makes your lawn and plants seem to glow green after a good rain. Air is 78% nitrogen and this element in its nitrate and ammonium forms comes down in rain and is immediately absorbed by plants through their roots and leaves.

Carbon dioxide is also delivered to plants with rain. When carbon dioxide combines with other minerals in the air, it gives rainwater an acidic pH. Acidic rainwater (and we’re not talking about “acid rain” which has excessive pollutants mostly an issue in the Northeast) helps the soil release essential micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, copper, and iron that are vital to plant growth.

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Something can be said about the physical properties of rain too.

Rain penetrates the soil better than irrigation. Raindrops fall at about 20 mph while irrigation droplets fall at about 5 mph. And rain falls uniformly. Both properties help water reach plants’ roots. And they do something else: they help leach salts away from the root zone of a plant where they may have accumulated over time through irrigation. This cleansing effect can have a pronounced effect on new plant growth.

The cleansing effect of rain extends to the entire surface of a plant as well. We can see how foliage glows after a rain washes away mineral deposits, dust and pollutants from leaves. This is a boon to photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is much more efficient when light reaches a plant’s leaves unobstructed by grit and grime.

Harvest it

The benefits of rain water over tap water used for irrigation might even motivate a person to harvest rainwater. So often, rainwater harvesting is presented only as a method for conserving water. Yet it’s more than that. By storing up rain water, you’re also creating a supply of high quality water that your plants crave.

A Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting class will be offered free by the Township later this spring.

OE and tropical milkweed

The relative virtues and problems associated with tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, continue to be a hot topic within the monarch conservation community, but the disparity between the two is becoming more and more clear. Scientific research suggests that its problems, namely its link to the spread of the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) disease, far out-weigh its virtues. In fact, it’s those very virtues—availability, adaptability, and long bloom season—that multiply its negative effects relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species.

What is OE?

OE is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies that host on milkweed. Its life cycle starts as a microscopic spore that breaks open when ingested by a caterpillar. Within the caterpillar, it grows and multiplies. Because a parasite depends on its host for its own life, OE rarely kills the caterpillar.

scales and spores

OE spores are only visible under a microscope.

But the disease affects the development of the adult butterfly while pupating, and adults emerge weak and often with crippled wings. While many monarchs may carry OE as spores attached to its wings and thorax, the size of the spore-carrying population and the heavy level of spores within that population in the Gulf Coast region—especially Texas and Florida—is cause for alarm. Visit Project Monarch Health for more about OE.

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An adult butterfly with OE has no chance of survival when wings are malformed.

Recent studies corroborate earlier studies and tighten the link between tropical milkweed and an increase of OE. Gardening to help conserve monarchs requires an understanding of the risks associated with tropical milkweed as well as the steps to take to minimize its ill effects.

The introduction of tropical milkweed in the U.S.

Monarch enthusiasts with the best intentions were thrilled when local nurseries began to offer tropical milkweed for sale and embraced the Mexican native with gusto. It didn’t take long to discover that aside from being very easy to grow, monarch butterflies love this variety of milkweed. It seemed that a solution was in hand to help restore milkweed habitat for the Eastern migratory monarch population. As a result, tropical milkweed has been well established in parts the southern states—especially southeast Texas and southern Florida.

Then research began to emerge that showed an increase in monarch disease caused by OE was linked to tropical milkweed grown in the southern states.

What the research shows is particularly troubling for the monarch migration that passes through Texas gardens to feed and breed.

The effects of tropical milkweed

Research by Karen Oberhauser, Dara Satterfield, and others has and continues to demonstrate that OE in monarchs increases where tropical milkweed flourishes. (See links to studies at the end of this blog.)

What’s been determined is that the proliferation of tropical milkweed (in the southeastern parts of Texas and south Florida in particular), coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production does two things:

It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle. Tropical milkweed encourages them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark. Possibly more important is the effect of milder winters. Given a non-stop supply of milkweed, interference with normal migratory behavior produces populations of monarchs that overwinter in Texas and Florida instead of completing their migration to the oyamel fir tree forests of central Mexico.

Monarchs who stay in the southern states for the winter are five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than migrating butterflies.

It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating OE protozoan pathogen. If mild winters don’t produce a freeze, infected milkweed continues to thrive, not dying back like native milkweed species. This means infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations.

Migrant butterflies at sites with overwintering residents were 13 times more likely to have infections compared to migrant populations that don’t come in contact with residents.

Adult monarchs migrating from Mexico in the spring that visit infected plants pick up hundreds of OE spores and carry them to other plants—increasing the number of infected plants and as a result butterflies, exponentially.

What to do?

If there’s any good news in this it could be that originally, most of the tropical milkweed planted was done so in gardens. By definition, gardens are tended. Gardeners should consider taking one of two actions.

Replace tropical milkweed with native species. While native varieties are more challenging to start, the effort would help minimize the spread of OE. Try these native species:

  • Asclepias incarnate, Swamp milkweed
  • Asclepias perennis, Aquatic milkweed
  • Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed
  • Asclepias verticillata, Whorled Milkweed
  • Asclepias viridi, Green milkweed

Or, be diligent about cutting it back every winter. Cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each October.

If you have tropical milkweed in your garden and didn’t cut it back in October, do it now.

Milkweed for habitats

Milkweed used for non-gardening purposes poses a more clear guideline. Dara Satterfield  recommends, “that habitat restoration for monarchs focus on native species of milkweed, which are synchronized with the monarch’s natural migratory cycle and do not enable the year-round breeding that can lead to high parasitism rates.”

The spring migration approaches

Tracking the spring monarch migration starts on February 14. Visit Journey North to learn how you can enter your own monarch sightings and track the migration real time.

Delve in and learn more about tropical milkweed and its effect on the health of monarchs with these recent studies:

Patterns of parasitism in monarch butterflies during the breeding season in eastern North America, Ecological Entomology, 2018

Migratory monarchs that encounter resident monarchs how life-history differences and higher rates of parasite infection, Ecology Letters, 2018

Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America, Ecological Society of America, 2011

Loss of migratory behaviour increases infection risk for a butterfly host, The Royal Society Publishing, 2015

Learn more about native milkweed species at these resources:

Native Plant Society of Texas

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

PDF of Identification of Milkweed in Texas, by Texas Parks & Wildlife

Resolution for a greener year

This New Year, while fine-tuning your list of personal resolutions, how about including a few goals to help the environment? Changing habits can take effort. One theory of behavior change is the Fogg Behavior Model (FBM). This model posits that motivation, ability, and triggers are the three key factors for any behavior change—the higher the motivation, the greater the ability to perform the new behavior and the presence of a trigger drive how well one can make a change.

BFM.svg

The Fogg Behavior Model. The different levels of ability and motivation define whether triggers for behavior change will succeed or fail.

Here are ten “triggers” for resolutions that can make for a healthier earth.

Who’s in?

Use reusable shopping bags. Plastic bags are the second most prevalent form of litter, with over 4 billion bags getting carried by wind, clogging storm drains and littering our forests, rivers, and oceans every year. According to Plastic Oceans, eight million tons of plastic end up in our waters each year harming marine life. Carry a tote or two and forgo the plastic bag.

Turn off the water while you brush. It can save up to 200 gallons of water a month. That’s good for your water bill and the environment. Learn more ways you can conserve water in your home at Sustainability.ncsu.edu.

Reduce your lawn. Lawns are water hogs that also are often chemically dependent. Cut back on turf grass and plant natives instead. This single step helps conserve water, reduces polluted water runoff, and enriches biodiversity.

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Compost kitchen waste. Organic waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By composting wasted food and other organics, methane emissions are significantly reduced. So refrain from dumping those nitrogen-rich coffee grounds or calcium-loaded egg shells and other organic kitchen waste. Enrich the soil instead. Learn more about the environmental benefits to composting at EPA.gov.

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Ditch paper towels. They may be easier, but in one year alone, Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels. That’s about 45 pounds per person. If everyone used just one paper towel less, 570 million pounds of paper waste would be eliminated per year. In case that’s not enough motivation to make a change, it goes without saying that paper towels simply can’t rival the charm of a vintage tea towel.

Eliminate phantom power usage. When household devices are left plugged in they still use energy—even those chargers with no phone or tablet attached. The draw may be small, but collectively and over time it adds up. Unplug. Or, use a smart power strip that reduces your power usage by shutting down power to products that go into standby mode. Doing so may save you some cash. Statistics vary, but experts say standby power consumption ranges from 5 to 10 percent of total household energy consumption on average.

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Cook from scratch. In a busy household, this may be challenging but the benefits are manifold. Processed foods come with loads of packaging that ends up in landfills yet deliver little nutritional value. Cut down on waste and improve health with some good old home cooking.

Bring your own water bottle. Not only do all the plastic water bottles we use require 17 million barrels of oil to be produced, in 86% of the time they end up in landfills. You’ve seen some of the neat reusable water bottles on the market—consider buying one and using filtered tap water instead. A Bottled Water Report by the World Wildlife Fund points out that there are more standards in regulating tap water in the U.S. and Europe than in the bottled water industry.

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Walk, bike, use public transportation. Bikes have been hailed as the most efficient transportation ever invented. Why not bike for those short trips? While helping to reduce emissions and saving on gas, you’ll be helping yourself stay fit at the same time.

Cut back on meat. This may challenge carnivores, but consider this: industrially farmed corn and soybean that feeds livestock is a major source of greenhouse gasses and air and water pollution. What’s more is that it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of meat. Yet, only 25 gallons of water are required to grow 1 pound of wheat. You can save more water by not eating a pound of meat than you can by not showering for six months!

When you crave that steak, only buy meat from grass-fed livestock. Eating less meat can have health benefits too. Check out more information about the benefits of reducing meat in your diet by The Mayo Clinic.

Get to know soil

May we never refer to it as dirt again…

There are a couple ways to look at soil: one is as a static, inert growing medium and the other is as a dynamic, living environment of its own that affects the environment above ground. It is the latter context that scientists use mostly today. Understanding soil basics first facilitates better understanding of this much grander context.

World Soil Day is December 5, 2018

What is soil?

Unweathered geological material, mineral, or organic matter is the original source of soil, referred to as its “parent” material. Over time, and with the effects of climate and biological activity, the parent material breaks down to make up about half of the total mass of soil. The other half is made up of varying proportions of air and water. The specific qualities of a given soil—along with climate and surface features (slope or rock, for example)—determine what thrives in it.

It can take up to 200 years to produce
1 cm of soil.

According to the National Resources Conservation Service, there are over 1300 different soil types in Texas, and they vary widely throughout the state.

Capture

The General Soil Map of Texas  shown above, is the go-to for an overview of soil types. The Woodlands, for the most part, sits in area 51, which is a small portion of the Western Coastal Plain and Flatwoods region. This area covers about 16.1 million acres, dissected by many streams. It has many kinds of upland soils, which tend to be deep, light-colored, acid sands and loams over loamy and clayey subsoils that support pine-hardwood vegetation characterized by the ubiquitous loblolly pine.

Breaking it down

By simple observation, many clues can be gleaned about a particular soil’s properties.

Color. A soil’s color helps determine how much organic material it has, the various minerals present, and its ability to drain. The darker the soil, the more organic material it has. Darkness can also indicate slower drainage. Conversely, lighter soil is an indication that it’s lower in organic content and more highly leached.

Color can also give clues to the soil’s mineral content. Iron minerals are by far the greatest contributor to soil color variation, creating yellow, red, grey, black or brown hues.

Texture. Soil texture is important because it determines how well (or not) water drains through it and if it creates pockets of air. Texture is defined by the relative mix of three components:

  • sand, being coarse;
  • silt, being fine; and
  • clay, being finest.

The degree of coarseness or fineness provides clues to soil’s productivity. The coarser the soil:

  • the faster it drains;
  • the less water and more air it holds;
  • the faster it warms; and
  • the more easily it can be worked or penetrated by roots.

Depth. More can be learned from the soil’s “horizons.” Horizons are simply layers of differing composition. If there are key things to note about horizons, it’s that the A horizon, or surface, is the most fertile and has the best structure of all the other horizons., making it vital for plant life. Its depth can vary between just 2 inches to more than 12 inches thick. The B horizon, or subsoil, dictates how well water drains. Its depth too, varies between 2 and 12 inches. A subsoil of mostly clay will impair drainage and root growth. And these issues only increase the more shallow the surface soil is above it.

Soil Horizons

If there’s good news for the gardener who has less-than-ideal conditions in surface soil and subsoil horizons, it’s that improvements can be made by adding organic material, especially compost.

The value of loam

The relative proportion of sand, silt and clay gives soil what is referred to as its class. If there is a “perfect” soil class, it would be what’s called loam. Generally, loam is made up of equal parts sand, silt, and clay.

The best soil texture for growing plants is
what is called “loam.”

Loam = (<52% sand) + (28-50% silt) + ( 7-27% clay)

Loam soils are best for plant growth because the different-sized particles leave spaces in the soil for air and water to flow and roots to penetrate. The roots then can feed on the minerals in the suspended water. It retains enough water to keep the soil moist, but its texture is porous, allowing water to flow through slowly enough for the plants to access it, but fast enough to keep soil from getting waterlogged.

Tiny air pockets in soil are critical to support the animals that live in the soil, like worms and many types of bacteria. And one of the ways that plants get air is by absorbing it through their roots. Without air at a plant’s roots it would suffocate.

Deep sands do not hold moisture well and are often infertile. Clay holds moisture better than sands and may be more fertile, but they tend to swell when they get wet, which may limit the movement of water and roots. Clay cracks when they dry and the clods become very hard and difficult to penetrate.

Soil is alive

The key to understating soil’s properties is that they can determine the life it holds. Soil is a dynamic, interconnected, living thing—there’s a whole universe of life underneath our feet. It’s a web of energy conversions that fuels and makes possible life above ground. How big and diverse that universe is, is an easy measurement of how healthy the soil is.

As a living thing, soil quality is referred to as its “health.” The healthier the soil, the more it can:

  • Sustain plant and animal productivity and biodiversity;
  • Maintain or improve air and water quality; and
  • Support human health and habitation.

Healthy soil teams with life and supports its own food web as shown in the chart and illustration below, both from Soil Biology Primer, by Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Soil organisms

The Soil Food Web

Billions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that live within soil are the foundation of an elegant symbiotic ecosystem.  Healthy soil makes possible clean air and water, bountiful crops and forests, productive grazing land, diverse wildlife and beautiful landscapes.

Keep soil alive with organic material

Organic material in soil not only greatly improves its structural qualities it also helps create the right conditions for the life it supports. By helping maintain favorable temperature and moisture in the soil, earthworms, insects, bacteria, fungi and other organisms thrive. These in turn, break down the organic material into nutrients that make plant life flourish.

Up to half our household waste could be composted to nurture the soil.

Tips for maintaining healthy soil:

  • Disturb it less
  • Minimize compaction
  • Diversify soil biota with plant diversity
  • Keep roots growing in it year-round
  • Keep it covered
  • Compost, compost, compost

To learn more about soil, check out these great resources:

Healthy Soils Are… PDF series of fact sheets

Soil Biology Primer, by Soil and Water Conservation Society