Living on the edge (of the woods)


 

Population is growing – not just here in The Woodlands, or in Montgomery County, or in Texas, for that matter.

As that population grows, as new residential and commercial construction increases, the condition and size of natural habitat, where all varieties of species thrive, decreases. That may just be one of the facts of life of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about here in Montgomery County, and specifically in The Woodlands. Once, this area was a vast, contiguous tract of mostly pine forest. As development began, not only did the natural habitat area shrink, but it became fragmented.

While it may still resemble one, it no longer is a forest. It becomes, in effect, the edge of a forest, and is known to biologists, unsurprisingly, as the edge effect. Light, wind, temperature, moisture all change the dynamics of this ecosystem.

As we develop more “islands,” we change the requirements for native species of all types – birds, insects, mammals, plants, fungi and other flora and fauna.

Species which thrive deep in a forest are forced to abandon their habitat. The only species left are those which  thrive on the edges of a forest (or any native habitat). One might take a look at what’s left of the once magnificent Katy prairie to get an idea of what can happen to any habitat.

The species that are most affected by the loss of deep forest habitat are song birds. Decreasing the size of the forested area, and further fragmenting it with roads, reduces the living area of these species. A road cut through a forested area takes up a lot more room than just the thoroughfare. Increasing the edge of a forest also affects the reproductive abilities of many species.

Creating “islands” or forest edges without forests allows predators, of which there are many, easy access to many desirable species, including  the nests of song birds. These predators, which include racoons, cats (domestic and feral), rodents (not only rats – squirrels frequently raid nests for eggs or nestlings), skunks, snakes, oppossums, and predatory birds like the cowbird, who lays her eggs in the nest of a host species.

Is there a solution? Weighing the realistic needs of a human population against the retention of desirable species is a conundrum. Even in planned communities like The Woodlands, reduction of natural habitat for many species which once thrived here has been rampant.

End of rant.

Ragged gardens beginning to flourish after January Freeze


I think spring is finally here. At least with these much warmer temperatures, the outside chance of a very late frost has dwindled significantly.

The warmer temperatures are coaxing the many wildflowers into growth spurts. My numerous amaryllis and St. Joseph lilies are blooming non-stop and my Dutch iris blooms are already a memory. My 10-foot tall angel trumpet growth succumbed to the January freeze, but only the part above ground was affected. All of them have again sprouted from the roots, looking healthy and strong. I gave them a little slow release organic fertilizer to help them on their way.

The lion’s ear in my front yard had reached over six feet last summer, but it too froze back to the ground. It is now sending out sprouts, as are the four or five varieties of lantana, plumbago, night blooming jasmine, and Texas star hibiscus.

I did lose my ginger root plants (Zingiber officianale) …at least they’re not up yet. But my ginger lily (Hedychium sp.) is looking so well that I have already divided it.

Based on all that circumstantial evidence (also using the time-tested lore of budding pecan trees), I would venture to say that spring has arrived.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes a “Day of the Last Spring Freeze” map, which roughly corresponds to the U.S.D.A. Cold Hardiness Zone Map. The USDA map is the standard which gardeners and growers can use to find out which plants are most likely to thrive in a location.

Both maps draw a ragged line across Montgomery County. The jagged line, which runs southwest from Cleveland in the east to Magnolia in the west, currently divide Montgomery County almost in half. The northern part, which includes about three-fourths of Conroe, all of Willis, Cut and Shoot, Montgomery, and about half of Magnolia, is in Zone 8B. The southern part is in Zone 9A. The difference is that the area designated as 9A has become, on average, about 10 degrees warmer than the northern part of the line.

The southern part includes The Woodlands, Kingwood, New Caney, about a fourth of Conroe, Oak Ridge North, Shenandoah, Porter, about half of Magnolia and Spring. The line has two long prongs, one which stretches north almost to Lake Conroe, and another that almost reaches Dobbin Lake.

My plants can’t read maps, but they generally do know when the ground and ambient air is warm enough to stick their little green arms out of the ground. Sometimes, they might be surprised, but chances are, they’re not going to be this year.

So, you can start trimming back the dead parts of your plants. If you’re doing compost, the pruned parts make a great addition. Just make sure you cut all the hardwood stems into very small pieces or shred them.

Texas Earthkind  offers a great list of which ornamentals do well here, Hundreds of beautiful plants are featured.

In the vegetable garden, it’s almost too late to plant tomatoes, although if you’re brave enough, you can try. Early Girl tomatoes produce in about 55 days from the day you put them in the ground. That means, if you set them in today, they’ll be producing around the middle of May. Longer producing varieties may not produce until June. Then nighttime temperatures may have risen so high that the tomatoes will stop setting fruit.

Many people planted beans the first week of March and cucumbers the second or third week. Mine are about 8 inches high already, although my cucumbers just sprouted last week. The Montgomery Master Gardener website (http://www.mcmga.com) has a printable calendar on what vegetables to plant when.

 

 

Is the climate changing?  A conversation with a climate-change denier


I have a friend – I’ll call him “Cletus” – who is forever challenging me about climate change. Here’s a recent exchange I had with him. Now, Cletus is a nice guy. He’s gone out of his way to help me with some projects. I’ve done the same for him. But, when it comes to several subjects – like climate change – he becomes cantankerous.

Cletus: I wish you’d get off your liberal high-horse and just admit the truth. You actually don’t know if the climate is changing and you can’t prove it either.

Me: Well, I do know that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is pretty symptomatic of a warming earth.

Cletus: That’s stupid. (Cletus likes that word. He also likes to spit out the word “liberal” as though a bug just flew into his mouth.) We’ve got tons of carbon dioxide in the air and have had for the last 6,000 years since the earth was created. Plants must take in carbon dioxide for photo-whatchamacallit.

Me: That’s true (I refuse to get drawn into the 6,000-year argument). But, there’s a lot more carbon dioxide trapped in the world’s oceans that there is in the air, Cletus.

Cletus: Yeah? So? Let it stay there.

Me: Well, that’s a great idea. But it’s escaping.

Cletus: Escaping? Where to? Outer space? (He says the last two words sarcastically.)

Me: No, into the atmosphere.

Cletus: Well, that’s good, isn’t it? More carbon dioxide for plants to make more oxygen. Which is what we humans need to breath, moron. (He likes “moron” too. Ad hominem remarks are part of Cletus’ repertoire.)

Me: Okay, let’s start over. How much carbon dioxide was in the air, say, 6,000 years ago? (I knew the reference to 6,000 years would get his attention.)

Cletus: How do you expect me to know that?

Me. Well scientists have figured it out. They drill down into the polar cap ice, pull out ice cores, and measure the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in different layers. And, they’ve discovered that there is many more times carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was say six millennia ago.

Cletus: That still doesn’t explain anything.

Me: Follow me on this. The sun’s rays warm the earth. Are you okay with that?

Cletus nods.

Me: So during the day, the sun heats up the earth, right?

Cletus nods again.

Me: But if it continued to heat up the earth, eventually we’d burn up.

Cletus: You idiot. That’s what’s night’s for. To cool things off.

Me: (I think I got him). Exactly. The sun heats up the earth in the daytime, and at night, the earth cools off again, right? But what happens if the earth can’t cool off at night?

Cletus: That makes no sense.

Me: Remember the carbon dioxide we were talking about?

Cletus: Yep.

Me: Well, carbon dioxide can act as a sort of blanket. The sun warms the earth up, but the heat can’t escape at night, so the earth gets warmer. The more carbon dioxide in that blanket, the warmer it gets.

Cletus: But I ain’t felt it getting warmer. (I know Cletus knows the different between “ain’t” and don’t, but he likes to go country on me occasionally, just so he won’t lose his rustic charm.)

Me: No, because it’s not a lot right away. Just a little. Not even a degree. Just a small fraction of a degree. But it’s like a rock rolling down a hill. It starts off slow and gains speed the farther down it goes. But in this case, the hill may be 50 to 100 or more years long.

Cletus: So why does the carbon dioxide blanket get bigger.

Me: We may have been a little naughty. Burning things like fossil fuels adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Not only that, but as the earth gets warmer, the ocean, which has a lot more carbon dioxide than is in the air, begins to let go of the carbon dioxide trapped there. And the planet gets warmer still.

Cletus: Well, that all sounds well and good, but I still haven’t felt it getting warmer.

Me: But other creatures have. Seen those black-bellied whistling ducks around? They used to live no farther north than the valley. They’ve moved here. Why do you think that?

Cletus: Better places to eat?

Me: Well, yes. But birds and fish are much more sensitive to climate change than we are. Crested caracaras, also known as the Mexican eagle, have been spotted on the Harvey Toll Road. Heck, I’ve seen them just outside of Fredericksburg. Cedar waxwings are moving north out of Texas. Armadillos, the state mammal, has moved as far north as New York. A hundred years ago, the farthest north it ranged was southern Texas. Now, I don’t have a problem with those New Yorkers having to deal with armadillos digging up their backyards and vegetable gardens, but their movement up there is telling us something else is happening.

Cletus: Even if you’re right, a couple of degrees either way won’t matter.

Me: A couple of degrees can change or inhibit breeding and migratory patterns among wildlife. It can also change the kind of plants that animals feed on.

Cletus: I still think you’re an idiot, but you sure can speak gibberish good.

Me: We can talk some more about it when you want. Just come on over. I’ll be picking leaf-footed bugs off my tomatoes and dropping them into soapy water.

Cletus just gazes at me with that “ I’m so sad for you…how can you be so stupid” look before he jumps into his eight-cylinder dually, steps on the gas and roars down the road.

 

Neonicotinoids – Still killing butterflies and bees


A friend of mine purchased some plants at one of the big box stores the other day…some pretty pentas and salvias, along with a few other “fill-ins.”

When she removed the plants from their plastic pots, she was amazed – and horrified – to find, behind the plant marker, another smaller marker indicating that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

In case you didn’t know, neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides related to nicotine. The name actually means “new, nicotine-like insecticide.” Neonicotinoids affect receptors in the nerve synapse of insects.  Particularly toxic to insects, they can also harm vertebrates.

In a 2015 paper from the Environmental Science and Pollution Research group, an EU-sponsored organization,  neonicotinoids  can have lethal consequences on smaller bird species, and dangerous, but non-lethal effects on fish and mammals, including humans. See the report here.

Many growers treat seeds with neonicotinoids.  Since neonicotinoids are water soluble, they are also used in a spray. Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means once they are applied, they distribute throughout the plants vascular system – the stems, leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. They can exist in the plant anywhere from one to three years.

They are most dangerous to bees, for a number of reasons. Bees sipping nectar from a plant treated with neonicotinoids, or drinking moisture exuded from a plant (for instance corn sweats at night and bees are drawn to the moisture, are directly affected.

Growers know that aphids make plants less attractive, so they use neonicotinoids to kill the aphids. Aphids emit a sweet substance, that bees find attractive. Bees will also drink this.

Bees will also take neonicotinoid-affected pollen back into the hive with them, infecting larvae and adults alike.

Bees aren’t the only beneficial insects killed by neonic chemicals. Aphids love milkweed. Growers and nurseries spray milkweed with neonics to prevent aphids. But milkweed is the food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. When the monarch caterpillars hatch and begin eating the leaves, they die.

Home Depot and Lowes, two major big box stores, have pledged to phase out all neonicotinoids by 2018, and Home Depot has gone as far as to label those plants treated with neonics. However, gardeners need to look closely at the labels.

Ask your nursery if neonicotinoids have been used on the plants you are thinking of buying. Many locally-owned nurseries already know the dangers, and have taken measures to keep neonicotinoids out of their product stream. It still doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here is a list of brands that make and sell neonicotinoids, and under what names they are sold.

 

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Can we really smell rain?


We’ve all heard someone say “I smell rain,” as storm clouds gather. And we’ve probably heard experts say “rain has no smell.” As odd as it may seem, both answers are correct…well, sort of.

 

When a raindrop comes in contact with the earth (or any porous surface) it traps miniscule pockets of air. These air “bubbles” speed upwards very quickly and explode at the top surface of the drop. This, of course, takes place in milliseconds. Upon bursting, the bubbles release microscopic particles called aerosols.

The amount of these aerosol particles relies on how many raindrops hit the surface. The speed and number of the raindrops and the quality of the soil will determine how many of the aerosol droplets are released.

If close to the rain, we smell this rich earthy mineral odor right away. If farther away, temperature variations can cause wind to deliver it to our noses, even from many miles away.

The scent is called petrichor – a composite of two Greek words: “petra” meaning “stone,” and “ichor” meaning “the blood of the gods.”

Petrichor is basically composed of two substances: one is an oil that plants secrete during dry periods. The oil inhibits germination of seed. Plants hold onto this oil until it rains, then they release the oils.  These oils are encompassed in the tiny aerosol bubbles.

The second element is that rich, earthy smell, caused by microscopic, bacteria-like creatures called actinomycetes, which are released when the rain drop hits fertile soil. Actinomycetes are great nitrogen-fixing organisms. This means they can trap nitrogen from ozone and from the air and help soil retain it for later use by plants.  Actinomycetes exist in large numbers (read millions) in a teaspoon of good, fertile soil, and are part of an ecosystem that creates strong roots systems in turf grass and other plants. One family of actinomycetes, Streptomyces, provides us with many of the important antibiotics used in medicine.

A third element is ozone, which may or may not be present trapped in the aerosol. Ozone is formed during a thunderstorm. Lightning can split oxygen and nitrogen molecules which then forms nitric oxide. Rain brings this form of nitrogen directly into the ground. That’s why people say “everything looks greener” after a thunderstorm. It probably is greener, as plants take in lots of nitrogen from the rain, which helps them create more chlorophyll, thus greening up the plant leaves.

When someone says they smell rain coming, it’s probable that wind from a coming storm or rain event is carrying ozone, actinomycetes and oils from the soil and oils from plants. This goes into a person’s nostrils and is interpreted as “smelling rain.”

Enjoy the smell. It’s beneficial to humans, other animals and to the soil itself.

Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.

 

You can start cleaning up your gardens now…perhaps


My yard is a ragged mess. Many of my plants were damaged by the hard freeze in January.  In years past, I have waited until March to begin pruning damaged vegetation, but the pecan tree outside my window has swollen buds. According to gardening folklore, pecan trees begin to bud after the last freeze has passed and spring weather is truly here. I’m not sure about that, but I have begun pruning already.

There are a number of plants which are designated “herbaceous perennials.” This means that although the part of the plant above ground dies back, the root system is still alive. They will sprout again from the roots if the roots have survived cold weather. There are many plants falling into this category. Hibiscus is one of those. I have only the two varieties of Texas Star hibiscus, red and white, but they have already begun to sprout from the base of the previous year’s growth.

Because of mild winters here, many plants can stand moderately cold weather, and short periods below freezing. However, hard freezes like the one we had in January, froze many of these back, leaving them brown, wilted, and, for the most part, just plain ugly.

All of my salvia has died back to the ground. I’m not worried though. Salvia has a strong root system and I see some sprouts already. Same thing with Turk’s Cap, both the small varieties and the “giant” varieties.

Thus, I’m pruning – a lot. Here are some chores you can do now to clean up your flower beds and gardens, and get ready for spring beauty. If you’re not sure whether a certain plant is a perennial or not, there are lists available from Texas A&M and other universities. You might also try Texas Earthkind – a compendium of annuals and perennials. Simply conduct an internet search for Texas Earthkind.

I’m a pretty ruthless pruner. If I do see growth from the root system, I will cut the dead part back to the ground. If I’m not sure, I take a pocket knife, and gently scrape off the first layer of bark or skin of the plant, about have the size of a little finger nail. If I see green under the scrape, that part of the plant is still viable, and you shouldn’t cut it back. For larger plants you may want to make several scrapes down the stem. That’s because the top of the stem may have died, but the bottom part of the stem is alive. I am pruning some of these back, but not all the way to the green. That’s because I’m still a little cautious. If I cut these below the green, they may sprout out there – and if there is another freeze, the sprouting plants may suffer. I’ll cut some of the dead parts off, but I’ll wait until March to cut the back to the green part.

Salvia, phlox, lantana, butterfly bush, Copper Canyon daisy, coneflower, Brugmansia, yarrow, tansy, gaura, Turk’s Cap, I generally cut back mercilessly to the ground. While I’m at it, the rock roses, Carolina jessamine, esperanza, and many other plants are going to get a good haircut.

Interestingly, my crinums were the first to go under the knife. If you’ve raised crinums, you know that they are pretty indestructible, but the tips of the blades will freeze, and the damaged ends will stick to the tips of adjoining leaves and then blacken. These I cut just below the blackened area, and it’s okay to do that now. Some gardeners cut them all the way back to the bulb, but I like to keep as much foliage as I can. I also pulled out dead blades which had fallen to the ground.

Some of my native irises suffered a bit of freeze damage. I just trimmed these back below the dead leaves. I did the same with daylilies.

 

 

Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?


Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?

By Bob Dailey

There is a fungus which grows in the soil on and around plant roots that is absolutely essential for plant health. In fact, this fungus is so important that some plant species cannot exist without it. Named mycorrhiza, which literally means “root fungus,” this organism creates a symbiotic relationship with plants. The amazing properties of this root fungus has prompted scientists to call it “Earth’s natural internet.”

If one digs into leaf mold, or into really good soil, tiny white filaments resembling spider webs can be seen spreading through the soil or leaves. This is mycorrhiza. Though deceptively small, a teaspoon of good soil can have eight or nine feet of the tiny strings.

Mycorrhizal fungi create a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, taking in minerals from the soil and delivering it to the plant, in exchange for sugars produced by the plant. Plant biologists have estimated that 95 percent of the plants investigated are either partially or completely dependent on these fungi- a testament to their importance. Orchids, for instance, are so dependent on mycorrhiza that even their seeds cannot germinate without it.

Once attached to plant roots, this fungus sends out tiny threads which extend out much further than the roots can extend.  Though they look like plant roots, these white filaments are what absorb nutrients. Since they have a great deal more range than the plant roots themselves and have significantly more surface area, they are able to find and take in significantly more water and nutrients than the plant roots can. Scientists have also discovered that mycorrhiza can store up nitrogen when it is plentiful, and then release it to the plant when there is a lack of nitrogen in the soil.  These fungi can also store water, which it releases to the plant in times of drought.

Plants that are not aided by these fungi may not be able to take up important nutrients such as phosphate or iron – which can lead to iron chlorosis or other plant deficiencies. Mycorrhiza can also play a protective role for plants in soils with high heavy metal concentrations, such as acidic or contaminated soils. These fungi are also suited for colonization of barren soils.

Soil-borne diseases (such as take-all patch and brown patch) are also serious problems for plants. Unfortunately, many residents are quick to apply fungicides at first signs of take-all or brown patch. While these fungicides will kill the bad fungi, it will also kill the mycorrhiza. A better method may be to inoculate the lawn with organic material that has high concentrations of mycorrhiza.

Studies are showing that plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi are much more resistant to these and other diseases.  Scientists have also now determined that mycorrhizal fungi can also transport nutrients and water from plant to plant through extensive underground networks.

Operations like tilling can also kill mycorrhiza, although aeration prior to adding organic matter will do relatively little damage to it.  For floral or vegetable gardeners, many experts are recommending “no-till” methods.

Ultimate garden gloves


 

I told you about my socks, but I didn’t tell you about my new gardening gloves…by far the coolest present I received this year.

They’re called Honey Badger gloves, and I absolutely love them.

First, I love digging in the dirt. A gardening friend of mine will remind me that there is a difference between “soil” and “dirt.” And she’s right, or course. But digging in the dirt has a greater connotation for me that digging in the soil.

I’ve planted seedlings often by digging holes in my garden with my bare hands instead of using a trowel. And my family can tell you that I often resemble the Peanut’s character Pigpen when I come in from the garden or from sifting compost.

There’s something about feeling the tilth of the soil, the warmth stored in it from the sun’s rays, dirt under my fingernails, and smudges on my face that not only bring back memories of my misspent youth, but also create new memories every day.

Before I wax too poetic, I need to tell you that I think these gloves are brilliant. I’ll still be digging in the dirt with my bare hands, but I’m also looking forward to using these gloves to do the same thing.

If I get tired of digging with them, I can always use them to frighten neighborhood children.

Sock it to me!


 

Christmas is always interesting at my house. My family has an…er…rather unique sense of humor. For some reason, it’s usually directed at me. To those of you who know me, you probably know that, in many things, I often lack circumspection (yes I know what circumspection means – look it up) and foresight.

Several weeks prior to Christmas, on the little chalk boards above the mantle, where we write down our Christmas “wants,” I naively wrote “Socks.” I thought it was a good idea, since my current ones were getting a little threadbare. It would also be an easy, inexpensive gift, and, since I would probably be paying for it anyway, it seemed a thrifty thing to do.

Christmas morning. I’m sitting in the living room, groggily drinking my morning coffee, when my daughter plops a very large, bulging stocking on my lap. I reached in and pulled out – yep, you guessed it, a pair of socks. But not just any old pair of socks, and certainly not the socks I am accustomed to wearing (black, conservative). These socks looked like something that a Dr. Suess character would have worn. (see photo).

But wait, that’s not all of the story. As I withdrew the socks from the stocking, a ribbon tied to the first pair pulled out a second pair. Then a third, then a fourth. All told – 24 pairs of the most outrageous socks I can imagine. (Again see photo for example – and that pair is one of the tamer ones.) I figure now I have enough socks to last several years…which is good, because I’m not going to ever ask for socks again – EVER!

It’s a good thing I wear boots most of the time.