Every Yard is an Ecosystem

How well is yours functioning?

Back in November, Andy, a resident of The Woodlands Township, told me he’d made a conscious effort to reduce water consumption in his yard some time ago. He was adding more and more natives to save on water usage and to create habitat at the same time. I wondered how successful he had been, so I inquired about the status of his burgeoning ecosystem. Here’s the update:

  1. Andy has only a small area of turf grass, specifically Zoysia. This is a grass species that doesn’t tolerate a lot of shade, but is otherwise a good choice for our weather. It tends to stay lower growing and needs far less water than the traditional St. Augustine.
  2. Although a few non-native plants and shrubs remain in Andy’s yard, lots of native vegetation has been added. To support pollinators, native flowering plants were added in bunches so bees and butterflies can easily find them, and host plants were mixed in so that caterpillars (future butterflies) have a food source. Andy’s observed a significant increase in pollinators and birds this last year.
  3. Andy converted much of his sprinkler system to drip irrigation, assuring his plants and grasses don’t get over watered. And he can easily avoid watering areas that consist solely of native plants – they don’t need it.
  4. Andy subscribes to Weekly Watering Recommendation emails from Woodlands Water (formerly Woodlands Joint Powers Agency – WJPA) to tell him just how much, if any, water his lawn needs each week. When he does water his lawn he does it in three-minute cycles with breaks in between. This allows the water to soak into the soil, avoiding run-off.
  5. Andy told me he avoids chemicals in his landscape, except on occasion when the nut-sedges try to take over his Zoysia. Otherwise, he’s careful to avoid anything that could be harmful to the pollinators and birds that visit. Twice-a-year applications of mulch to his beds help maintain the moisture level, reducing the need for watering while also deterring weeds. He noted that he sees few insect pests thanks to the many beneficial insects that now live in his gardens.
Andy’s template for native plants in his yard

Andy reduced his water consumption by 11,000 gallons a year by implementing these changes. And, he hasn’t stopped there. He’s been finding ways to avoid water waste inside the home, as well. By installing simple low-flow faucet aerators, fixing leaky toilets, reducing shower time and minimizing waste water in the kitchen, his two-person household  now uses less than 60 gallons-a-day, on average. Compare that to the national average of 180 gallons a day!

Considering trying some of Andy’s ideas and transforming your yard into an ecosystem? Here are some things to know:

Benefits of Native Grasses

Our native grasses provide great “texture” in a habitat for birds and butterflies. Providing grasses in multiple heights and native varieties creates resting places, nesting places, and shelter from predators.  More than a simple food source, grasses provide a safe space for wildlife.

The Zoysia grass in Andy’s yard receives controlled amounts of water by hand. Overwatering is avoided encouraging the roots to grow deeper in to the soil in search of nutrients. As a result, the grass is greener and more resistant to disease.Native grasses not only require less water but support healthier waterways, too.  As rainwater runs across your yard, the grass filters out debris on its way to the storm drain.  Keep in mind that any chemicals used in your yard will also wash into the storm drain. Use compost and mulch instead of fertilizers and weed killers to reduce chemical runoff.

Andy’s yard looks healthy year round, even in Winter!

Reducing Chemical Use

Pollinators and other beneficial insects don’t do well in landscapes where chemicals are present. Research shows that many of the commonly used chemicals persist longer than originally believed. More than 90% of pollen samples from bee hives in this study were contaminated with multiple pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified a number of effective alternatives to pesticides and herbicides. Check here for a list of resources.

Tools and Resources

The Woodlands Township has a variety of water saving and native plant resources to help you transform your yard, just like Andy. Now is the time to plant trees, before the warmth of spring and new blooms appear. The best time to integrate native plants into your yard is during the spring and fall.

Simple tools, like a rain gauge, are great for ensuring your grass is getting the right amount of water. Stop by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department’s office (8203 Millennium Forest Drive) to pick one up for FREE. We’re open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Don’t forget that The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department has a full schedule of FREE programs and classes this spring that can help you transform your yard into your very own flourishing ecosystem. From drip irrigation and invasive plant removal to pest management and organic vegetable gardening, if you are inspired by Andy’s story to change your yard, let us help!

Native plants in Andy’s yard offer food, shelter and nesting materials for a variety of wildlife

Thanks to Andy for letting me tell his story! If you would like to comment, or wish to contact Teri MacArthur, the Water Conservation Specialist for the Township, with your story, email to: tmacarthur@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov or call 281-210-3928.


Register here for the upcoming, FREE workshop on Drip Irrigation

Milkweed for Monarchs

On the move

It’s peak migration season in Texas.  Millions of monarchs have made their way along the Eastern United States, funneling into Texas, on the way to their winter site in central Mexico.  This migratory generation will be making stops all across the Houston area in search of food and shelter over the next few weeks.  Guided by an internal compass, monarchs are on a mission to reach their small mountain side retreat by early November.

In early October, monarchs made national news as they rode a cold front through Oklahoma City in numbers large enough to be captured by the National Weather Service Doppler radar.

Good news!

Researchers tracking the monarch population in Mexico recorded a 144% increase in numbers during the 2018-2019 wintering season. Many reports this year are already boasting record numbers, as well. Encouraging news, as monarchs have seen an overwhelming decline in the past two decades. Most information is recorded through citizen science efforts like Monarch Watch. Increased efforts to protect and restore habitats have played a large role in the population growth and offer simple ways for everyone to help.

Data collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve of the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas in Mexico.

For more information on the fall migration, be sure to read The Environmental Services Blog: ‘A Wonderous Journey’.

How to help

Cut back tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed is a popular choice for many gardeners. With a long bloom season, adaptability to our region and availability in nurseries around town, it is an easy-to-maintain, monarch-friendly plant. This Mexican native can be a much-needed resource for monarchs to lay their eggs. However, there are also concerns with this plant.

Given the ability to grow year-round, tropical milkweed may interfere with the monarch migration causing more butterflies to linger later in the season when they should be on the way to their wintering sites. If butterflies delay travel plans for too long, they will run into temperatures too cold for them to survive. In addition to delaying monarchs late in the season, tropical milkweed may increase the risk of infecting monarchs with the OE protozoan pathogen. OE, ophryocystis elektroscirrha, is a protozoan parasite that is ingested by caterpillars.  The disease affects the development of a caterpillar during its transformation into an adult butterfly.  When adults emerge, they are often too weak to fly.  A mild winter without a freeze, results in tropical milkweed that is unlikely to die back. This allows infected plants to continue to grow and be available year-round for caterpillars to ingest; continuing the spread the OE parasite. The best thing for a strong migration and disease-free plants is to cut back your tropical milkweed and watch healthy monarchs continue south.

Cut back tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches off the ground each October

Plant for spring. Plant natives.

If you don’t have milkweed in your garden, tropical or native, now is the time to plant for spring. Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will lay eggs on and the only food source for their caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars can eat an entire plant in one day so be sure to plant at least 4-5 milkweed plants to provide adequate food next spring and summer. The Native Plant Society of Texas has a great article on native milkweed varieties for reference.

Not sure where to find native milkweed?  The Woodlands Township has milkweed seedlings to give away this fall.  In partnership with Nature’s Way Resources and the Heartwood Chapter of Master Naturalists, more than 13,000 milkweed seedlings were propagated over the summer.  Many residents, churches, schools and community organizations have already picked up milkweed to plant in gardens across the community.  If you are interested in receiving free milkweed, you are in luck.  4” pots of orange, common and green milkweed are still available at Nature’s Way Resources. These seedlings need to be planted by mid-November so be sure to pick some up before it’s too late!

In addition to planting milkweed, native nectar-rich plants are a much-needed food source for adult monarchs. Monarchs will travel North, through Texas from March to May looking for nutrients along the way. Planting in the fall allows native plants to establish a strong root system over winter, creating a more drought tolerant and robust plant for monarchs and other pollinators to visit the following year. 

Whatever plants you decide to add to your garden, be aware that insecticides and herbicides can be harmful to monarchs.  Plants can absorb chemicals providing leaves and nectar that is toxic to pollinators. Help protect monarchs and other pollinators by avoiding the use of chemicals in and around your garden.

For more information on Plant for Pollinators and the Milkweed for Monarchs programs, email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Home Pollinator Gardening Class

If you weren’t able to join us for a Pollinator Garden Class at Woodlands Landscaping Solutions last month, don’t worry! Lauren Simpson, area pollinator gardening expert, is coming back this month and is offering a deep dive into how she transformed her own yard into a beautiful space for pollinators. 

Lauren is passionate about educating on pollinators, their conservation and the urban wildscapes that support them. Her own pollinator garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, a Monarch Waystation, and a Certified Butterfly Garden. Lauren has observed 48 species of butterfly, 20 species of syrphid fly and around 30 species each of bees and wasps within her home garden. 

Through the success of her garden, Lauren helped create the St. Julian’s Crossing – wildlife habitat, and has received much recognition around the Houston area for her efforts in pollinator conservation. For more information and to see Lauren’s home garden, check out the St. Julian’s Crossing Facebook page.

Register online here. Registration is required. For a complete list of upcoming Environmental Services programs, check out our calendar of events here.

Know Better. Grow Better.

The 22nd Annual Woodlands Landscaping Solutions is a featured community event hosted by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department. This year’s event boasts a new location, guest speakers, live music and a variety of exhibitors.

Join us and connect with experts in current landscaping and gardening methods, proven for this region. Topics covered include:

  • Lawn and garden care
  • Native plants
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Backyard composting
  • Drip irrigation
  • Identifying common garden insects
  • Attracting bees and butterflies to your yard
  • Collecting and storing rainwater
  • Growing plants from seeds or cuttings

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

What’s more, at Woodlands Landscaping Solutions attendees will find these great services:

  • Presentations on Home Pollinator Gardening with Lauren Simpson and Lawn Care with Tom Leroy
  • Montgomery County Master Gardeners available to answer your questions and diagnose specific problems in your garden
  • Free perennials, annuals and vouchers for native milkweed
  • For sale – native plants, rain barrels, compost and compost bins

And much more!

Enjoy live music by Andy McCarthy.  Bring the family and enjoy the garden friendly kid’s activity, grab a bite to eat from local food vendors, and 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. When you know better, you can grow better!

Don’t miss it! Everyone is welcome to attend this FREE event!

Map of location.

For information, call The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department at 281-210-3800 or visit here for more event details

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.