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.

Healthier lawns, cleaner streams

One thoughtful action can help promote both: Think before you fertilize. All too often, lawns are fertilized too heavily, at the wrong time, or when they don’t need it at all—thanks to the formidable marketing efforts by fertilizer companies. Instead of automatically reaching for your spreader, consider what your lawn really needs and the consequences of over-fertilization.

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Know what your lawn needs

Timing. The time to fertilize a lawn is when it’s growing more roots than blades; and to know when that is, know the type of grass in the lawn. Grass can be categorized in two ways: warm-season or cool-season. These terms refer to the weather in which the grass has adapted to grow. Turf grasses most common in our area, St. Augustine, Zoysia and Bermuda, are all warm-season grasses and start their growth in spring, making that the best time for fertilization.

Fall is when these grasses go dormant making fertilizers moot. Fertilizing at the wrong time can actually be harmful. Feeding your warm-season turf nitrogen in fall can force new top growth making the lawn susceptible to frost, shock and disease. What’s more is that this takes away energy from root growth, leading to weak, thin lawns.

No matter what, always follow a fertilizer’s instructions exactly when it comes to application.

Test it. Having said all this, don’t assume you need to fertilize every spring. The only way to know what nutrients your soil is lacking is to have your soil tested. Instructions for how to take a soil sample and the form for sending it to Texas A&M for analysis can be found with this link: Soil Test Form.

Go organic. If you find your soil needs supplemental nutrients for turf grass, consider using organic instead of synthetic fertilizers. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, organic fertilizers don’t create high levels of salts which kill beneficial soil organisms—the key to good soil health. And organic fertilizers work slowly, wasting nothing. They also improve soil texture making it easier for air to get to the roots and helping the soil retain water longer.

Organic forms of fertilizers include:

  • Alfalfa meal
  • Bat guano
  • Fish emulsion
  • Cotton seed meal
  • Seaweed
  • Manure
  • Compost

Refer to Best Organic Fertilizers for a full list of organic fertilizers and what they specifically offer.

How does this affect the quality of streams?

When quick-release synthetic fertilizers are over used, the chemicals are washed from our lawns in a downpour. The polluted run-off is channeled into the nearest waterway via storm drains, untreated and unfiltered. This water in turn contaminates our creeks, rivers and groundwater. High concentrations of nitrogen in water can also lead to an algae overgrowth, threatening the health of aquatic life.

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Currently, over 80% of waterways in Texas are listed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as “impaired,” creating poor habitat for aquatic organisms such as fish and turtles. High bacteria levels are another culprit and may lead to restrictions on water-contact recreation, such as  swimming and wading, fishing, and kayaking.

Other ways to help keep our water clean:

  • Pick up pet waste—it’s the number one source of bacteria in our waterways.
  • Maintain cars so they don’t leak oil and other chemicals onto driveways.
  • Compost, compost, compost.
  • Never flush unwanted or out-of-date medicines down the toilet or drain.
  • Minimize areas of turf grass and pavement while increasing areas of native plants
  • Install a rain garden

For more information about lawn care, download Guide to Yard Care, by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

To learn more about water conservation in The Woodlands, visit The Woodlands Township’s Water Conservation webpage.

Water Conservation Yard Sign 3

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.

texas rain garden

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.

Grow a native American vegetable and treat your landscape and palate alike

Helianthus tuberosus

Cultivated for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, our country’s only native vegetable is also a Texas native sunflower. The “jerusalem artichoke” or “sunchoke” is the enlarged underground stem of helianthus tuberosus, a type of sunflower in the aster family with edible tuberous roots. While commonly regarded as native vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers all originated either in Central or South America.

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Today, we take the food on our plate for granted, but the History of Vegetables  is a fascinating study.

The common name “Jerusalem artichoke” is likely a corruption of the Italian girasole (turning toward the sun) which is a trait shared by all sunflowers. In more recent years, the edible tubers of helianthus tuberosus have become known as “sunchokes”.

Sunchokes have a delicious, sweet nutty taste.  As an extra bonus, these tubers are nutritious and an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber.

The original distribution of this native Texas sunflower is unclear because the plant was transported to many different geographic locations for cultivation by Native Americans.  Today, helianthus tuberosus can be found along the edges of wooded areas, in former fields and along roadsides.

Helianthus tuberosus

This showy sunflower is also sometimes grown simply for its bright yellow blooms and tall, fast growing stems. Broad, thick leaves and rough hairy stems add to the visual attractiveness of this native plant.

Blooming in late summer and early fall, helianthus tuberosus requires full sun to part shade. A tough and versatile plant, this sunflower will grow in moist or dry soil and tolerates drought, heat and frigid temperatures. Because of these qualities, it’s very easy to grow. Helianthus tuberosus is extremely useful in the garden where it can quickly become a temporary summer screen, a stunning background for a native plant border or the sunny edge of a natural wooded area.

Nectar source for butterflies

This particular sunflower is beneficial for both insects and wildlife. The large yellow flowers offer nectar for butterflies, pollen for bees while also supporting many predatory and parasitoid wasps, flies and beetles. In fall, the seed heads attract birds while the large plants offer cover for small wildlife.

Beekeepers have noted that helianthus tuberosus  is an excellent honey plant resulting in a clear amber product when harvested.

Very little is known about pests or diseases which damage this plant. It appears to be quite resistant, which contributes to its easy to grow nature. In the southeast Texas climate, the optimum planting time is early spring with the main harvest in fall. Since helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant, once started in the garden, it’ll return each spring from tubers left in the soil.

Growing helianthus tuberosus in your garden or landscape offers new opportunities for applying culinary skills as well as providing beauty, food for pollinators and cover for wildlife.

The edible tubers or sunchokes can be harvested beginning within two or three weeks after the flowers fade. Harvesting can continue after the first freeze damages the stems and leaves of the plant. Each plant will produce approximately 2-5 pounds of sunchokes. When left in the ground after the first frost, the tubers become sweeter and crispier. To preserve the freshness, store sunchokes in a zip top plastic bag in the refrigerator. This strategy preserves the tuber’s natural moisture.

While sunchokes are frequently used in cooking as a potato substitute, unlike potatoes, they can be used raw and add a nutritious crunch to salads. Sunchokes are also an excellent vegetable for pickling.

If you like to get even more creative in the kitchen, try Pan-Roasted Sunchokes and Artichoke Hearts with Lemon-Herb Butter.

Looks and sounds delish.

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For more information on the nutritional value of various foods, check out this nutrition guide, by the USDA.

 

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.

Map of location.

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.

Add Height and Habitat with Oxeye Sunflower

Native Plant Focus: Oxeye Sunflower

Heliopsis helianthoides

Oxeye Sunflower (1)

[By Ann Hall, Environmental Education Specialist, enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov]

With showy yellow daisy-like flowers attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, beneficial wasps, flies and native bees, the oxeye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) blooms all summer and into fall.  Since this plant is not a true sunflower, it is known by several common names including ‘false sunflower’, ‘oxeye daisy’ and ‘smooth oxeye’.   This upright clump-forming Texas native perennial is very effective when used in a garden border, native plant garden, or as an addition to a pollinator garden.

Oxeye sunflower is easy to grow and maintain

It thrives in full sun but will tolerate part shade.  The low watering requirement and tolerance to all soil types make it a perfect plant for our hot Texas climate.  At maturity, oxeye sunflower will reach a height of 3-6 feet and spreads into 2-4 foot clumps.  Dead head (remove spent flowers) to keep this long-blooming perennial covered with blooms.  No known pests or diseases affect this extremely resistant plant.

Ground Bee on Oxeye Sunflower

Nature is enhanced by the oxeye sunflower since it is pollinated by a specific ground-nesting bee.  Birds use the seeds as a winter food source while the plant’s stems provide cover for beneficial insects.  Starting the oxeye sunflower from seed is easily accomplished in the cooler fall and winter months.  Although it is possible to divide the mature clumps, this strategy is less successful than growing from seed.

Seeds of oxeye sunflower are readily available from online retailers who focus on seeds of Texas native plants. Watch for local plants sales offering starts of oxeye sunflower or check local native plant retailers.  Enjoy not only the summer to fall color this plant provides, but also the hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other fascinating pollinators it will attract to your garden.

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.

HARC Building (1)

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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Attract Hummingbirds All Summer with Texas Red Yucca

Native Plant Focus:  Texas Red Yucca

Hesperaloe parviflora

More effective at attracting hummingbirds than a feeder, the Texas Red Yucca is also a nectar source for butterflies and native bees.  Actually a member of the Century Plant family, the Texas Red Yucca thrives in our hot Texas summer although it is cold tolerant enough to survive freezing temperatures.

With low watering requirements after establishment, this striking perennial evergreen shrub produces dramatic 3-4 foot spikes of pink to coral to red tubular flowers.   These beautiful flower spikes provide focal interest in landscape beds, large containers, rock gardens or as a single specimen plant.  Each bloom produces a seed capsule which dries to offer winter interest in the landscape.  The evergreen leaves turn a deep shade of purple in cold weather, further enhancing the garden.

Thriving in full sun to part shade and needing only natural rainfall, this plant is adaptable to any soil. Maintenance is minimal – removing the dried flower spike before spring begins is optional.  Planting this succulent in your landscape or a large container will provide beautiful blooms from May through October.  Texas Red Yucca is readily available in most local retail outlets offering bedding plants as well as those specializing in Texas natives.  Enjoy this easy to grow plant along with the hummingbirds and insect pollinators it will draw into your garden.

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