Our forest needs our help. 3 ways you can lend a hand.

Thanks to the environmentally minded planners, natural areas are seemingly ubiquitous in The Woodlands with nearly 8,000 of The Woodlands’ 28,000 acres preserved as open space. Take pride – this fact sets us apart from most common communities in North America. However, our forest areas represent just a portion of the native forest expanse (what existed here pre-development). This presents a challenge as our forests do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to cleaning the air and water, capturing and storing carbon, and providing wildlife habitat.

Cue our residential landscapes to the rescue! They offer tremendous potential for supplementing those critical forest services, provided we’re mindful in how we tend them. Some basic considerations regarding what we put into our landscape and what we allow to flow off it carry a lot of weight.

Read on to find out how easy it is to turn your landscape into a resource for the environment and all of us who depend on it.

Encourage soil health

In healthy soil fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates work constantly at breaking down nutrients, making them available for uptake by trees, grasses, and shrubs. There are many critical functions of healthy soil and this is one of the biggest.

When we apply chemicals to our landscape we sever these microscopic relationships, stemming the production of soil nutrients. Organic lawn care methods, as opposed to chemical methods, support these relationships, promoting healthier soil which is the foundation of all healthy ecosystems.

Composted organic material – leaves, grass clippings, etc. – is chock-full of beneficial soil microbes. When you leave cut grass and leaves on your lawn or apply a layer of compost to it, you’re automatically introducing soil microbes which get right to work producing nutrients and building healthy soil! Composting is an easy yet powerful way to ramp up your landscape’s ecosystem value AND it’s a lot cheaper than chemical applications.

Give your lawn what it really wants

Warm season native grasses such as St. Augustine, which comprises most lawns in The Woodlands, depends on fungal soil networks to supply their nutrients. Compost, not chemicals, helps build those networks. The more roots interact with their fungal friends, the stronger they get, which then allows more energy to funnel to the leaves resulting in, you guessed it, that lush, green look we all love.

A healthy lawn needs, and wants, far less water. If you “set and forget” your sprinkler system you’re apt to overwater and harm the microbes. Use a moisture meter to avoid overwatering (they’re available at any home and garden store for a few bucks). Or make things even easier for yourself and subscribe to the weekly water recommendation email from Woodlands Water Agency – let the experts tell you when and when not to water. Installing a rain sensor on your irrigation system is another easy way to avoid overwatering by automatically shutting off your system during a rain event. Did you know you can install a rain sensor yourself in about 15 minutes?

Healthy lawns to the rescue! They add oxygen to our air, capture carbon in the soil and nourish plants and trees. You’ll be the envy of the neighborhood, to boot.

The most important thing of all

Multiply your impact – spread the word! When you make smarter choices in your landscape you become a model for environmental sustainability. Share your knowledge with others and encourage them to do the same.

If you’d like to learn more and take your impact to the next level, attend the online Smarter Choices Seminar on October 2, 2021 from 9 a.m. to noon. We’ll look at simple, practical steps for developing your landscape’s ecosystem value plus you’ll get an update on the new “smart” water meters Woodlands Water Agency installed across the community this past year. Learn how to track your water use and reduce waste right from your phone – remarkable!

This is a free presentation, sponsored by Woodlands Water Agency, The Woodlands GREEN, Chevron Phillips, HEB, and Alspaugh’s Ace Hardware.

Registration is required to receive the link to the Zoom presentation. Register using the button below.


Questions or comments?

Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Woodlands Landscaping Solutions Online Learning: Day 3

Build a Successful Landscape from Ground Up 

Today’s online programming will help you find easier, more effective and more sustainable ways to enhance your landscape. Learn about plant selection, improving soil health and pest control best practices (many common plant problems, like insects and disease, can be easily resolved once the cause is identified).  

Set-up for Success: The 3 S’s 

 Right Plant Right Place, UMN Extension Part 1  

While set in Minnesota, Extension Educator Julie Weisenhorn gives a great overview of how to choose the perfect plant for that empty spot in your yard or garden – whether it’s for your entryway or anywhere else. Putting the right plant in the right place is the foundation of any successful garden. Learn how to assess soil, sun, space and other factors in this handy how-to video on one of the fundamental aspects of garden design.  

Bottom line: Avoid most plant problems with this one concept (8:44)

Extra credit: The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Finder allows you to plug all your requirements into their database to find the perfect match for you from their list of Pineywood natives (which they call the South Central Plains).


Feed the Soil Microbiome 

Building Microbe-Rich Living Compost Part 1 

Making and applying microbe-rich compost is one of the most valuable things you can do for your soil. Understand principles and practices of home-scale composting to insure a rodent-free and biologically active compost pile. A great resource whether you’re just beginning to compost or are experienced and looking to make your compost even better.  

Cultivating Connections: Soil Redemption Song 

Michael Phillips takes you on a deep dive into the microscopic communities beneath our feet and our crops. He talks about the fungal network as a pathway to bringing resilience to gardens and landscapes.  Michael Phillip, who’s latest book, “Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together to Create Dynamic Soils,” explores the science of symbiotic fungi and sets the stage for practical applications across the landscape. 


Encourage Nature’s Pest Control 

Managing Garden Insects Begins with a Question: Friend or Foe? 

Learning “what is it?” is the first step in determining if an insect is a useful garden partner, a minor player, or potentially a bigger problem. Your garden may have over 1000 different insects! Most are actually harmless or provide beneficial functions like pollination and predation. Learn to recognize and protect nature’s pest control at various stages in their lifecycle, along with pests associated with chewing, discoloration, distortion, and die back.  

Bottom line: Every. Single. Gardener. Needs to know this info! (18:04) 

Farmscaping for Pollinators & Predatory Insects 

Learn about the dynamic interactions between plants, pollinator and predator insects that will help you create a buzz of biodiversity and balance in your niche of the local ecosystem. Discover key plants that add biodiversity and beauty to your garden through a conversation with Pat Battle from Living Web Farms. Watch the first 31 mins for a new approach to farming that works for the home garden too, then follow Pat and his class on a delightful tour through the farmscape.  

Bottom line: Good for gardeners who want to “level-up” on biodiversity (1:24:04) 

Building A Host Environment for Beneficial Insects  

Build it and they will come! Bring it all together with elements you can add to any garden that encourage self-sustaining populations of nature’s natural pest control featuring the story of momma hoverfly, and why its OK to have aphids!

Bonus: If you are considering purchasing and releasing lady beetles, check out Lady Beetles for Aphid Control by Oklahoma Gardening host Kim Toscano. 

Pesticide Safety 

Backyard Farmer – Pesticide Safety 

Sometimes a problem requires a chemical solution – whether its naturally derived like neem or a broad-spectrum pyrethroid. University of Nebraska Extension Pesticide Education Coordinator Larry Schulze gives us tips on active ingredients, reading and following pesticide labels and using these chemicals safely around our homes. 

Bottom line: Important information for all who use pesticides – the label is the law (5:58)

Additional Resources:  

Join us tomorrow for more online programming as we explore How To Attract Wildlife To Your Yard. 

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

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