For superior pest control, look to the “web”

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

99.9% of all spiders are no threat to you 

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

Your best friend against pests 

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

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

Give spiders a space 

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

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

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

Keeping spiders outside

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

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

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

Discover More 

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

ONLINE 

BOOKS 

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

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It’s the Year of the Sunflower: 2021

Year of the Sunflower

Easy to grow, healthy to eat and uplifting to see, sunflowers enhance our life. After the challenges of 2020, The National Garden Bureau has named 2021 “The Year of the Sunflower.” It’s almost impossible not to smile, relax and think of sunny days when you’re in their presence.

In fact, sunflowers earned their common name because their faces follow the sun from east to west each day.

These engaging flowers are so easy to start from seed that transplants aren’t needed. Purchase a packet of seeds, select a spot with full sun (6-8 hours daily) and plant directly in the ground about an inch deep and a foot apart (the flowers grow tall and narrow). New plants need regular watering for a couple of weeks, but since sunflowers are drought tolerant, you can back off the watering as they grow.

Good news! It’s not too late in the gardening season to add sunflowers to your landscape. Depending on the variety you’ll have bloom by July or August (50-90 days).

Check out this amazing time lapse video that captures the life cycle of one sunflower.

Selecting Sunflowers

Here in southeast Texas, our native sunflowers attract a host of pollinating insects, birds, and small mammals. Many native bees favor sunflower pollen for its protein and feed it to their developing larvae. Pro Tip: before purchasing sunflower seeds, check the information on the packet to be certain the variety is open-pollinated. These flowers will produce abundant pollen while hybrid sunflowers have little to none. Two easy-to-find native varieties are Maximmilian and the annual sunflower (Helianthus annus).

Birds make great use of the seeds high oil content for energy production and body maintenance. Let the plants stand through the winter for an ideal bird feeder! Your garden will be filled with finches, pine siskins, chickadees and nuthatches. Dried sunflower stalks and leaves provide cover and food for many small mammals.

Of course, birds aren’t the only ones who love a good sunflower seed. Try one of these varieties if you’re interested in harvesting them for your dinner table: Mammoth Greystripe, Black Russian, Lemon Queen or Great White Seeded. Grow-your-own sunflowers are a fun and tasty way to add nutrients and antioxidants to your diet. The National Sunflower Association is a great source for nutritious sunflower recipes.

Celebrate “The Year of the Sunflower” and give your landscape a happy focal point this summer. The benefits abound for you and the environment!


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Friend or Foe? Managing Garden Insects

Nature provides a free workforce that keeps pests under control. Beneficial insects include predators and parasitoids that prey on insect pests such as aphids, scale, mealybugs and caterpillars. Many chemical insecticides used to control pests will kill these garden friends as well. Learning to recognize beneficial insects in all their life stages helps you know when sprays should be avoided, and pest control left to these voracious predators.

Beneficial Insects – Here’s your workforce! 

Turn over a new leaf and identify some of the natural enemies worth conserving in your yard with this video from the University of Georgia. Learn the signs and symptoms of insect damage and get up close with the praying mantids, tiger beetles, syrphid flies, and parasitoid wasps hunting them. We can all pick out lady beetles, but do you know what their larvae look like? These black and orange alligator-like juveniles are aphid-eating machines, each one consuming upwards of 300 as it develops. 

In a nutshell 

  • Insects are the most diverse creatures in the world – you may have over 1,000 different ones in your yard this very moment! 
  • Even if it were possible, it certainly wouldn’t be desirable to eliminate all insects – they’re a critical link in the food chain, essential for most birds, amphibians, and garden “friends.” 
  • Predatory insects tend to be larger and quicker than plant-eating pests, with strong piercing or biting mouthparts.  
  • Predators are generally found singly or in small numbers (<10) on a plant, whereas pests group in much larger numbers. 
  • Many insects are useful partners, some are minor players, and fewer than 3% pose a potential problem; knowing which are which and how they live is the key to effectively managing them. 
  • Conserving insect predators by reducing or eliminating pesticides lets nature’s pest control do the work for you. 

Discover more beneficial insects, spiders, and other mini-creatures in your garden with this picture-heavy resource. We cover some plants that will draw them into the yard – check out how to mix up your blooms in Pest Prevention by Design.

There’s an app for that! 

Join us Friday, June 4, 2021, as Texas Nature Tracker Biologist Craig Hensley walks us through how easy it is to click a pic and get a suggestion with the iNaturalist app. Register here to receive the link.  

 

Kids Corner 

Share these 10 Interesting Insects with your budding entomologists. Watch a monarch emerge from a chrysalis, follow worker bees in their quest for pollen, and learn how a cricket chirps and grasshoppers sing. 

These Good Bug/Bad Bug Activity pages from AgriLife Extension help children learn about the benefits of insects and gain an appreciation for what insects do for the world in which we live. View the picture gallery here


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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Pest Prevention By Design

Come on a design journey with us to craft your landscape into an inviting sanctuary – one that fits your goals and doesn’t take all weekend to maintain. This is Part Two of a series to make your space your favorite place in The Woodlands. 

Are pests part of your garden design?  

No? Make sure you aren’t rolling out the welcome mat by following these 4 tenants to prevent problems right at the source. Good design sets the stage to sit back and let nature do most of the work!  

1] Birds the word 

Pest management CAN be beautiful, melodious, even therapeutic! Get these insect-eaters on board and they will reward you with natural pest control at every level: robins rooting through ground cover, wrens in the underbrush, and woodpeckers up in the canopy. Bluebirds especially are insect-eating powerhouses worth welcoming with pocket prairies to forage in close to the safety of denser canopy, which can also be a source of their favored berries.  

Designing to draw in these avian allies starts with providing a many-layered structure: roots at the foundation, followed by groundcover, perennials, shrubs, vines, understory trees, and canopy trees. In The Woodlands you likely have tall native trees. What other layers are missing or need beefing up? What plants can you add that provide multiple functions – filling a missing level while also providing seeds, fruits, or shade?  

Birds thrive in these multi-faceted environments. By bringing in more layers you not only diversity habitat for wildlife, you increase the beneficial interactions between plants and animals, luring in natural insect predators, large and small. 

2Mix it up! 

Flowers vary in shape, composition, and seasonality of bloom. Take advantage of their diversity. Have a mix of blooms and ensure they overlap so that something is always blooming. This will help you invite the diversity of insects that you DO want. We call these the three P’s: pollinators, predators, and parasitoids. All benefit from layered perennial beds that have a variety of textures, sizes, and colors so there is always “room at the buffet.” 

Let’s focus on predators. In many cases the juveniles are the pest-eating machines, while the adults feed on nectar. So, encouraging a momma ladybeetle to stop for a sip of yarrow nectar and lay eggs is like inviting in a commander for a small army of aphid destroyers. Their small mouthparts need small flowers with short nectaries. Think dill, parsley, cilantro, coreopsis and alyssum to name a few. If you’re concerned about which bug is which, stay tuned. We’ll delve into how to tell good bugs from bad in three more installments. Just know that if you plant it, they will come. 

3Make plants feel at home 

It might seem obvious, but plants thrive in the same conditions they originated from. Are you planting something native to a hot, dry area, or a hot, wet area? Fortunately, you don’t have to check passports; it doesn’t take much digging to get at the light and moisture needs of your chosen plants. Check out the list of resources at the end for some reputable sources. 

To be successful, group your plants based on water needs as well as sun. If not, you’re likely to overwater some while underwatering others, causing stress for all. Consider trees in this equation, too. Planting water-needy perennials at the base of a drought-tolerant tree is a recipe for problems later on. Do yourself a favor and get thirsty plants conveniently close to the hose, or better yet a downspout, depression, or perpetually wet area. If your planting area sits outside the reaches of your irrigation system and hefting watering cans all summer doesn’t sound fun, go with drought-tolerant varieties.  

Now, let’s be honest about sun. We’ve all done it – tried to force fit a sun-lover into part shade. Avoid this temptation and save yourself the disappointment. Just as with water, mismatched sun conditions will cause the plant to stress, making it a prime target for a secondary disease and pest invasions. 

And sometimes you just need to throw in the “trowel”. If you’re faced with a recurring pest or disease, don’t fight it, make a change. As famed “Lazy Gardener” Brenda Beust Smith puts it, “if a plant has an insect or disease problem, don’t treat! Replace that plant with one that doesn’t have insect or disease problems in your area!”

4] Build natural antibiotics 

Now that your plants are in their preferred spot, feed them! Where does a plant take up most nutrients? The soil. Specifically, through the interdependent relationship between roots, soil microbes, and fungi that pull nutrients in from a much wider area than plant roots can reach on their own. So, loading the soil with a diverse and abundant mix of organisms directly promotes plant health. What’s rocket fuel for these organisms? Organic matter! And the best way to add that? Compost, more compost, living mulches, and natural mulches. Conversely, avoid any “-cides” (herbicides, fungicides, etc.) that by their definition kill life. Did you know that antibiotics used today come from soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria? Good soil life and the practices that promote it inoculates plants from soil-borne diseases through the natural ecology of the earth beneath our feet.  

Whether you start at the treetops and work down or build on the soil and work up, these four design elements are essential to a healthy structure, one where natural predators thrive and pests are managed by nature and not you! 

Next, we’ll meet some of the beneficial insects we encourage to patrol our gardens, how to tell them apart from the pests they are stalking, and what small changes we can make to roll out the red carpet for these garden superstars.  

Until then, hear the story of momma hoverfly from Paul Zimmerman for a sneak peak of where we’re headed…

If you missed Part One checkout these 5 Design Elements Your Yard Might be Missing 

Resources to find plant sun and water needs: 

Native Plants

Cultivars and some natives

Or search for the plant on the wholesaler’s database, such as Monrovia.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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5 Design Elements Your Yard Might Be Missing

Welcome! Come on a design journey with us to turn your landscape into an inviting sanctuary that fits your goals and doesn’t take all weekend to maintain. This is Part One of a series to make your space your favorite place in The Woodlands. Let’s get started. 

Great design pairs what you want to do in your yard within the constraints of the space you are dealing with, without it feeling forced or out of place. Here are 5 design elements that help everything flow and really deliver the wow-factor.

Purposeful Paths

Are you looking to infuse some character or intriguing elements into your landscape? Would you like it to seem larger? How about improving flow and tying separate spaces together? Consider installing a path.  

Purposeful paths can provide an important foundation for your landscape design. As you consider their potential role, ask yourself: What areas get the most use? Could underused areas be transformed into a destination, boosting their appeal? And note where you have to maintain access to easements, that big green box in the back corner or other rights of way for utilities – these routes could be incorporated into pathways. Think about how people could wander through the space. Meandering paths that reveal new views help make use of the full depth and width of your lot – making it seem larger.

Installing paths is fun, but they can also be disruptive. Make life easier by tackling them before you start building and planting your beds. Bonus points for paths that allow water to percolate through. This helps to manage rainfall and provides tree roots with better access to moisture. Think decomposed granite, pavers, woodchips, or an artful mosaic.  

Rooms with a View 

Which window do you look out from the most? Is it an inspiring sight? For many, it’s the kitchen sink or a favorite reading chair. How could you enhance the experience by bringing the outside in? Note any sightlines that need screening, and opportunities to borrow a view from farther vistas. A beautiful glazed pot, stunning statue, or dramatic pop of color could make doing the dishes that much more pleasant.

Places to Plant the Rain 

Rainwater is a mineral-rich drench for the landscape. Harness this abundant, free resource by directing downspouts to plantings that rely on a good soaking to set deep roots and lush growth.  Our area is gifted with 50 inches of rain a year, but often we are too eager to direct it off our properties, allowing soils to quickly dry out. During the next cloudburst, get out in the yard with muckboots and an umbrella for a practical education about stormwater on your site. Do you have an area that stays wet for more than 3 days? This could become a rain garden. Where is water eroding the soil? This is an opportunity to slow down the flow with some well-placed rocks or a slight change in slope. Don’t let this valuable resource run away; encourage it to spread out and sink into the ground.  

Better yet, save some water for the sunny days ahead with a rain barrel.  Easy to install, Ivy rain barrels qualify for a rebate from Woodlands Water and proceeds support The Woodlands GREEN scholarship program. Order online and pick up at Environmental Services. Stay tuned for an entire post devoted to harvesting and managing rainwater; until then get inspired by Brad Lancaster.  

Grow Up! 

There are so many creative ways to use vertical space in the garden – vines on trellises immediately come to mind. But a quick search will reveal all kinds of possibilities: wall planters, obelisks, re-purposed pallets, yard art, plant towers, plant pockets, nested gutters, the list goes on. Growing up and even over has the benefit of creating a sense of enclosure around outdoor spaces that leads to a big “reveal” on the other side. This interplay of intimacy and openness adds a little drama to a space instead of seeing everything at once.

Solar Reality Check 

Finally, it’s time to take an honest look at the sun in your yard. We’ve all been there – brought home a beautiful, sun-loving plant at the nursery and watched it struggle in the place we want to put it. Or lamented ferns frying in some unexpected late-afternoon sun.  

Note the way the light moves over the landscape throughout the season as trees leaf out and the sun’s angle changes. Pictures or video can be great references for when the shadows are long but the memory is short. The plants you have may already give some indication of sun and shade. Having problems growing grass under the trees? Our St. Augustine struggles if given less than 6 hours of direct sun, leading to bare patches which invite weeds. Save yourself the heartache and use a shade-loving ground cover for lush, low-maintenance alternative. 

Other sun-lovers are vegetable gardens and most fruit trees. If one of these is a priority, then you may find yourself planting a lemon in the front yard, or putting veggies in pots on the deck to get these plants the light they need. Being realistic about the amount of sun each area gets will help steer you towards a successful plant pallet for that space. 

You still have plenty of options for shadier spots. Veggie gardeners will want to focus on crops grown for their roots and shoots over fruits, which take much more time in the sun to develop and ripen. If flowers and shrubs are more to your liking, there are plenty o great options that thrive under the tall canopy of the Pineywoods. Check out the table below for some surefire options.

Perhaps you’d like to bring more shade into your landscape. Trees and umbrellas are standard go-to’s for creating a hot summer oasis. But have you considered some well-placed vines and trellises (grow up!), pergolas with slatted roofs or sling canopies? Shade sails can also be hung as the heat ramps up and are easily adjusted as sun angles change throughout the season. Retractable awnings are a larger investment but they’ll shelter you from the rain, too.  

Check out Alexandra from The Middle-Sized Garden as she tackles a difficult shady corner of her yard. Even though she gardens in the UK, the way she comes to her decision is a wonderful exercise in assessing design options.  

Design is an iterative, incremental process. Start with what you want, what you have, and identify your major constraints. Often it is through design challenges that we find our most creative successes. 

Up next… 

Stay tuned for Part Two where we get into some of the “right ways” to garden in the context of where we live – the humid south – to help you make the best choices for a successful, easy oasis.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov


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