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

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.

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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