3 easy ways to help monarchs this fall

How far could you travel without your GPS before getting lost?  For most of us, a long road trip is impossible without satellite assist. Monarchs have managed for millennia to navigate their way across the continent, drawn by an unseen force to migrate en masse. Each fall, nearly 500,000 monarch butterflies fly south to their wintering grounds in Mexico, completing the longest repeat migration in the insect world. Monarchs from the eastern United States make this long and dangerous journey, traveling  from as far away as southern Canada, down through Texas, settling in mountains northwest of Mexico City – all without a map!

Unfortunately, eastern monarchs are in trouble; their population has plummeted nearly 90% over the last few decades and they need your help. Here are three easy ways you can make a difference: 

1 – Cut back tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed is a popular choice for many gardeners. This Mexican native adapts well to our region as it is easy to grow with a long bloom season. However, despite its role as an effective host plant for monarchs, this variety comes with concerns. 

Given its ability to grow year-round, tropical milkweed interferes with monarch migration by inviting butterflies to linger instead of continuing on to their southern wintering grounds. If butterflies delay travel plans for too long they run into temperatures too cold to survive.  

Biologists also believe tropical milkweed proliferates the spread of the ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) pathogen. OE is a protozoan parasite that monarchs carry and spread to their host plants. It’s then ingested when caterpillars feed on the leaves. According to the Xerces Society, high OE levels in adult monarchs have been linked to lower migration success in the eastern monarch population, as well as reductions in body mass, lifespan, mating success, and flight ability. When native milkweeds die back after blooming, the parasite dies along with them so that each summer’s monarch population feeds on fresh, parasite-free foliage. In contrast, tropical milkweed that remains evergreen through winter allows for OE levels to build up on the plant over time, meaning successive generations of monarch caterpillars feeding on the plant can be exposed to dangerous levels of OE. 

If you grow tropical milkweed be sure to cut it back in the fall, preferably by early October. Leave the stalk 4-6 inches tall and keep cutting it back through February as leaves re-sprout.  

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

2 – Plant natives for spring

If you don’t have milkweed in your garden, tropical or native, plant now for spring. Planting in the fall allows natives to establish a strong root system over winter, creating a more drought tolerant and healthier plant for monarchs and other pollinators to visit the following year.   

Interested in planting milkweed? Try one of these native varieties. Milkweed is notoriously challenging to propagate so follow planting guidelines closely. Many local gardeners report good success with the aquatic (Asclepias perennis) and swamp (Asclepias incarnata) varieties. 

Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will lay eggs on and the only food source for their caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters, capable of consuming an entire plant as they grow. To ensure an adequate food supply throughout their larval stage, bunch at least 4-5 plants close together. 

In addition to milkweed, native nectar-rich plants are a much-needed food source for adult monarchs. Monarchs will travel back through Texas in March and April, looking for nutrients along the way. Give them a hand by adding some of these native plants to your garden this fall.  

3 – Avoid pesticides

Be aware that insecticides and herbicides are harmful to not only the target pest but pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well. You don’t have to spray a butterfly directly to harm it: plants absorb these chemicals, toxifying their leaves and nectar and poisoning visitors.  Help protect monarchs and other pollinators by avoiding chemicals in your landscape. Look here for organic alternatives.  

Begin with one easy change to help countless monarchs this fall. If you were traveling 3,000 miles, wouldn’t you appreciate a little help?

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Earn cash by gardening

That’s not a misprint. Thanks to our sponsors, The Woodlands G.R.E.E.N., and Project PolliNation, cash awards will be given to the three village associations with the most points earned in the Plant for Pollinators Village Challenge. First place will be awarded $750, second place $500 and third place $250. These funds support village association scholarship programs. Simply put, your garden can grow money.  

Since the Village Challenge began in June 2020, residents have reached out to learn more about the program. We’re answering your most asked questions below. 

What is the Plant for Pollinators Village Challenge?  

This community challenge, created by The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department, encourages residents to support pollinators by providing food, shelter and a space free of harmful chemicals. Residents register their garden and share actions they’ve taken to provide a habitat for bees, butterflies, moths and more.   

Just like the Water-Wise and Recycling Village Challenges, residents earn points which equal cash for scholarships. Registrations submitted June 1 through December 1, 2020 earn a point for the village where the garden is located.  

The Challenge is part of the Plant for Pollinators Program, which supports Township-wide efforts to support and increase our pollinator populations. On-going efforts include distribution of milkweed to the public, installation of pollinator gardens in parks and schools, and educational outreach. 

I’m not a fan of insects. Why would I want to attract them to my yard? 

Pollinator gardens attract bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, bats, and even hummingbirds. These beneficial insects go to work in your garden pollinating flowers, fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Did you know that we rely on pollinators for roughly one third of the food that we eat? Our natural environment is even more reliant on their services.  

Maybe you’re having trouble with nuisance insects in your yard. Pollinator gardening can help. The native plants you add will attract birds and bats to control those unwanted pests. They’ll increase your biodiversity so that no single pest takes over. And, you’ll love the year-round flowers. 

I’ve never gardened before. Where do I start? 

We suggest starting with the Plant for Pollinators Garden Registration Form.  Each section (Shelter, Nectar Plants, Host Plants, Water Source) highlights essential elements for a pollinator garden. You likely have many of these in your yard already. For example, a loblolly pine tree is a host plant for elfin butterflies. Your wooden fence provides covered space for a caterpillar to form a chrysalis. Bare ground serves as a nesting site for native bees. And your fountain, provided its chemical-free, is an excellent source of water.  

Determine how much space you want to dedicate to your garden, how much sun that area receives and how what the soil is like. Is it sandy, full of clay or a mix of both? Does it stay moist or dry quickly? This is all important information to lead you to your next step – plant selection. 

To attract a specific pollinator to your yard, find out what plants they need or are most drawn to. Monarch butterflies enjoy nectar from many plants but only lay their eggs on milkweed. The color red attracts hummingbirds and bees are drawn to a variety of flowers, especially blue, purple, white and yellow.  

 Make a list and then head out to a local garden center or nursery.  A few things to keep in mind:  

  • Plant flowers in groups. Pollinators are drawn to bunches of flowering plants; much easier than  searching through the garden for a single plant.   
  • Provide flowering plants for each season. Some pollinators do migrate, so you may only see them once or twice a year as they pass through. However, there are plenty of pollinators that will visit year-round in search of food. As flowers die back in spring, add plants that will bloom throughout the summer, and so on. 

Start simple. Do you have plants that provide pollen and nectar? Does your yard provide shelter and water? Is your garden safe from harsh chemicals? Great! Sounds like you’ve started a pollinator garden.   

I live in an apartment or condo. How can I help pollinators?  

Good news! While bigger is better, small spaces can still provide value for pollinators. Container gardens work well on balconies and patios, especially if they are complemented by a nearby water source and wild native vegetation like oak trees and beautyberry. And they count towards the Village Challenge, too – don’t forget to register!  

I registered my garden before June 1, 2020. Do I need to register it again? 

No need to register again. While the Village Challenge officially kicked off on June 1, 2020, nearly 40 residents had already registered their gardens. Those registrations have been counted towards the 2020 Village Challenge. However, if you’ve made improvements to your pollinator garden since you registered, we would love to hear about it. Send us an email, or better yet, share a photo with us at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

As of August 1, more than 100 residents have registered their pollinator gardens as part of the village challenge. Photo credit: Sarah Ferderer

How do I register my garden 

There are two options. You can submit your registration online, or you can download the form here and then send your completed registration to enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov.  Be sure to submit your garden registration by December 1, 2020 to be included in this year’s Village Challenge.   

So, register today, earn a point for your village and support pollinators. There are cash prizes on the line along with bragging rights for your village. Most importantly, you’ll be rewarded with a garden buzzing with activity you can enjoy year-round.   

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Native Plant Focus: Heat Loving Perennials

Imagine a garden in full bloom. Every color you can think of exists as a delicate flower, their sweet scent drifting on a slight breeze. Bees and butterflies visit daily. Hummingbirds stop by in the evening. And that bit of rain last week means you don’t have to water for a few more days. You have a thriving, low maintenance garden and it’s the middle of summer in Texas. Sound impossible?  Not when you add native, heat-tolerant perennials to your garden. Check out this list of five plants that are low maintenance, attract wildlife and bloom all summer long.  

1. Texas Lantana (Lantana urticoides)

  • Hearty perennial. Deciduous shrub. 
  • Height of 3-6′ and spread up to 5’ wide. 
  • Flower: red, orange and yellow tubular flowers in dense, rounded clusters. 
  • Produces round, fleshy, dark blue to black fruits. Berries are toxic to humans and most mammals. 
  • Bloom Time: April – October 
  • Water Use: Low 
  • Light Requirement: Full Sun; Partial Shade 
  • Soil Description: Well-drained soils 
  • Maintenance: Low. Prune down to ground in winter to control spread. 
  • Use Wildlife: Attracts bees and birds, including hummingbirds and butterflies. Deer resistant. 

2. Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) 

  • Tender perennial that reseeds easily. 
  • Height of 1-3′ and spread up to 2’ wide 
  • Flower: Florescent red tubular flowers 
  • Bloom Time: February – October 
  • Water Use: Medium 
  • Light Requirement: Sun; Partial Shade 
  • Soil Description: sandy to gravelly soil 
  • Maintenance: Low. Deadhead and trim periodically to create bushier shape. 
  • Use Wildlife:  Attracts bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. Deer resistant. 

3. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

  • Bushy perennial 
  • Height of 2′ and spread up to 2’ wide 
  • Flower: large clusters of bright orange flowers 
  • Bloom Time: May – September 
  • Water Use:  Low 
  • Light Requirement:  Full sun 
  • Soil Description: well-drained, sandy soil 
  • Maintenance: Medium. May attract aphids, which you can leave for ladybugs to eat or spray off by blasting the plant with a high pressure stream of water. 
  • Use Wildlife: Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Larval host for Grey Hairstreak, Monarch and Queen butterflies. Deer resistant. 
     

4. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

  • A shrubby, well branched plant. 
  • Height of 2-5′ and spread up to 2-3’ wide. 
  • Flower: Lavender flowers with domed, purplish-brown, spiny centers. 
  • Bloom Time: April – September 
  • Water Use: Medium 
  • Light Requirement: Sun; Partial Shade 
  • Soil Description: well-drained, sandy or richer soils 
  • Maintenance: Low 
  • Use Wildlife:  Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Dead flower heads left standing in winter will attract birds who feed on the remaining seeds. 
     

5. Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) 

  • Upright, herbaceous perennial that exudes a milky sap when cut. Can cause skin irritation. 
  • Height of 2′ and spread up to 2’ wide. 
  • Flower: white clusters of flowers. Some may have a pink, purple or greenish tint in the center of the flower. 
  • Bloom Time: April – September 
  • Water Use: Low 
  • Light Requirement: Sun 
  • Soil Description: well-drained soil.  Does well in poor to rich soil conditions. 
  • Maintenance: Low 
  • Use Wildlife:  Attracts butterflies. Larval host plant for Monarch and Queen butterflies. Deer resistant. 
     
Photo courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, credit: Sandy Smith

These five featured plants are perfect for Texas summers. Native plants, like these, not only add beauty to a garden but require less water, fertilizer and pesticides because they evolved to survive in these tough conditions. Consider adding a few to the garden this summer. Be sure to keep them well-watered until they have established deep roots. You’ll soon be rewarded with a low maintenance garden full of blooms.

These plants qualify for a native plant rebate from Woodlands Water Agency. If you are a Woodlands resident and live in Montgomery County, be sure to check out the complete list of rebates available here.

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 


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Want to save pollinators? There’s an app for that.

Attention outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers and wildlife champions! Don’t miss the chance to participate in a community-wide, virtual event that brings you closer to the outdoors right in your own backyard. 

The Township is hosting a week-long “bioblitz” – a community effort to identify as many species as possible during National Pollinator Week. This effort provides an informal, fun opportunity for the public to learn together and share their enthusiasm for nature. And the information collected contributes to a genuine scientific survey. Anyone can participate regardless of age or knowledge level.  

This community-wide, virtual event coincides with National Pollinator Week, June 22-28, 2020. Created by Pollinator.org, this world-wide celebration is also a call to action to save the bees, birds, butterflies, bats, beetles and other pollinators who need our help.  

The Woodlands Township is celebrating National Pollinator Week by hosting a week-long BioBlitz. Participants are encouraged to seek out pollinators, in particular,when making observations. iNaturalist will automatically identify and track your observations and share the data with scientific organizations. Now you are participating in a world-wide citizen-science effort to help populations in need, like pollinators. 

How to participate 

  • Download the iNaturalist app onto your phone, tablet or computer.  
  • Before the Bioblitz officially begins, familiarize yourself with the app. 
  • Watch a short, simple tutorial at iNaturalist.org.  
  • Head outside with your phone and photograph the insects, critters and plants you encounter. 
  • Upload the photos to iNaturalist via the app or website. iNaturalist will help identify your picture. Just click ‘What did you see?’ on your phone, or the ‘Species name’ section under the photo you shared.  

To join The Woodlands Bioblitz, log into your iNaturalist account 

Cell Phones 

  • Select ‘Projects’ in the top left corner. 
  • Use the ‘Search’ magnifying glass in the top right corner. Type ‘The Woodlands Township BioBlitz June 2020’. 
  • Select ‘Join’. 

Computers 

  • Select ‘Community’ at the top of the page.  
  • Use the drop-down menu and select ‘Projects’. 
  • Use the search bar, located below the featured project. Type in ‘The Woodlands Township BioBlitz June 2020’. 
  • Click on the event to be directed to the project page. 
  • Select ‘Join’ in the upper right corner. 

Observations made during National Pollinator Week will be tallied at the end of the week. Results will be shared with our community.  You can make as many or as few observations as you like and from any area you wish – backyard, park or forest. However much you participate, you will find that you learn something new, contribute to important scientific efforts including pollinator conservation, and have fun being outdoors. Sign up today! 

For more information on how you can celebrate National Pollinator Week, visit www.pollinator.org or email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

New Village Challenge

Residents are encouraged to support pollinators by registering their garden or yard in the newest Village Challenge. The Plant for Pollinators Village Challenge aims to raise awareness about the importance of pollinators and how habitat creation can support pollinator populations. Many pollinators, including monarch butterflies, have seen a significant decline in the last few decades due to overuse of pesticides and herbicides and loss of habitat. Take action today to protect bees, butterflies, moths and many more pollinators.  

Local pollinator garden highlight
Photo Credit: Andy
Native plants provide food and shelter in a small backyard garden
Local pollinator garden highlight
Photo credit: Sarah Ferderer
The pollinator perimeter at the Veggie Village garden, located at the Alden Bridge Sports Complex, provides a variety of native and adapted plants for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects to enjoy
Local pollinator garden highlight
Photo credit: Sarah Ferderer
This well designed front yard blooms year round, inviting many pollinators to visit

Registered gardens provide the basic needs of pollinators, including food, shelter and water in a chemical free zone. The garden registration form highlights the many ways you can help pollinators, like offering nectar-producing plants for every season, leaving bare ground for burrowing insects and providing host plants so insects can lay eggs. The form is a great guide for those looking to start a pollinator garden offering many options including native plant lists, shelter ideas and water sources. 

Registrations received from June 1, 2020 through December 1, 2020 will count towards the 2020 Plant for Pollinators Village Challenge. Each registration earns a point for your Village Association. Program sponsors, The Woodlands G.R.E.E.N. and Project PolliNation, will contribute scholarship money to the three Village Associations with the most points. When you register your garden, you will receive a Plant for Pollinators window cling in appreciation. Find the garden registration form at www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/plantforpollinators.

Check out these past articles to learn more about local pollinators:

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov