Henry Owen

Worms working at the Nature Discovery Center

Under my desk at the Nature Discovery Center, I keep a tub full of thousands of red wiggler earthworms. The worms are fun and they are also hard at work eating our food scraps like coffee grounds and banana peels.

Worm Composting (Vermicomposting) is easy, good for the Earth, good for your plants, and fun. Worm composting allows you to responsibly dispose of your vegetable food scraps while at the same time creating a nutrient-rich compost that you can use on your indoor or outdoor plants to make them healthier.

Overview of Worm Composting

Worm composting is a form of composting in which you feed your veggie kitchen waste to a specific type of earthworm known as red wigglers (scientific name is Eisenia Fetida). Vermicompost (worm poop) is better for plants than almost any other type of compost. Composting worms have three jobs: eat, poop, and make babies.

Worm Composting Container

Almost any container can be used as a worm bin. Worms breathe air through their skin, so air holes are very important. The simplest bin to use when getting started is a plastic storage tote or tub. You will need to drill holes in the sides so that the worms can get air. The composting worms won’t go out the holes because they don’t want to leave the nice comfy home that you have made for them. In fact, if they do leave, they will die without moisturebedding, and food.

What Type of Worms are Used in Worm Composting?

Red Wigglers are the most widely used composting worms. These worms are used because they eat A LOT (up to half their weight every day!), tolerate being dug through, and are easy to keep contained indoors or out. Red wigglers can be purchased online and mailed to you. Red Wigglers can be found in nature in leaf litter or under logs but gathering your own to start a worm composting bin is very difficult.

Bedding for your Worm Compost Bin

Your red wiggler worms need bedding to live in. Think of the worm bedding as their furniture. Any carbon source can be used as worm bin bedding. For example, leaves, shredded office paper, shredded cardboard, and shredded newsprint (no glossy paper) all work well. The bedding must be moist at all times.

Moisture Level of your Worm Bin

Red Wigglers need a moist environment to live. The easiest way to provide moisture is to soak the bedding material in water before adding it to the bin during the set-up process. The ideal moisture level is like a damp sponge. The bedding should feel moist, but when you squeeze it, no water should drip out. You should never have standing water in the bottom of your bin.

Feeding Your Composting Worms

You can feed your worms any vegetable scraps including egg shells and coffee grounds (if you use a paper coffee filter, throw that in too!). You can also feed your worms lint from your clothes dryer and paper towels (use only paper towels that were used to clean up drink spills and do not have cleaning solution on them). Don’t feed them meet, eggs, butter, or oil. They also don’t do well with bread or cheese. Be careful not to overfeed your red wigglers as this can attract fruit flies and other pests because the red worms won’t be able to eat the food scraps fast enough. Here at the Nature Discovery Center, we feed our composting worms coffee grounds from the kitchen and Mr. Eric’s banana peel from his breakfast.

Harvesting the Worm Compost

You won’t harvest for the first time for at least 6 months, after that you can harvest more frequently. When it is time to harvest, simply dig down to the bottom of the worm bin and pull out a handful of worm castings (poop). This can be added directly to your soil with the worms included or you can pick out the worms and add them back to your bin.

I love teaching people worm composting so much that I started a website about it. Check it out if you are ready to begin your wiggly journey (www.wormcompostinghq.com) and soon you will proudly say “I’ve got worms!”.

By Henry Owen, Executive Director

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Leadership Change at the Nature Discovery Center

November will be my last month serving as Executive Director of the Nature Discovery Center. I have accepted the position of Executive Director of John Knox Ranch, a summer camp and retreat center near Wimberley, TX.

I am so grateful for the opportunity to have served the Nature Discovery Center over the last four years. I am immensely proud of the great work that our team accomplished and the thousands of lives we helped connect to nature. Success is not possible without a community of people pulling in the same direction. Thank you to the staff and board of the Nature Discovery Center; our members, supporters, and visitors; the City of Bellaire residents and staff; and all our partner organizations across greater Houston.

The Nature Discovery Center is a unique place where kids and adults have a much-needed place to see migratory birds, watch butterflies, enjoy native wildflowers, and catch tadpoles. The mission: to ignite lifelong curiosity, understanding, and respect for nature through education is as relevant today as it has ever been.

The future of the organization is bright. I look forward to following the story as it unfolds. I am so grateful for the impact the Nature Discovery Center and its people have had on my life and that of my family. It was a pleasure to serve with you.

Go play outside!

Henry Owen
Executive Director
Nature Discovery Center

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Back to School Calendars: Scheduling Time for Nature

It’s that time again, time to update your calendars with your child’s schoolyear commitments, whether they be music lessons, sports practices, afterschool art or robotics programs. Our children are busier than ever! As you work on penciling it all in, consider scheduling time for nature. Exposure to the natural world plays a critical role in child development and acts as an important de-stressor (www.texaschildreninnature.org/resources/research) but yet is often overlooked as we commit our children to other activities.

What does scheduling time for nature look like? What does it mean to commit to nature for an hour or so once or twice a week? For every family and every child this commitment may look different. The specifics may change from week to week as you and your children dabble and explore abundant opportunities to get outdoors around Houston and learn what catches your interest. What is important is that spending time in nature or appreciating the natural world becomes a priority as we fill our children’s (and family) calendars. Penciling in time for nature and treating it as a commitment just as we would soccer or drama or coding classes will not only benefit our children’s development, and reduce their stress, but it will also ensure that they grow up understanding, respecting, valuing, and hopefully protecting the natural world.

So, what are the possibilities? Here are some ways we suggest your child, or even your whole family together, might commit to nature:

  • Signing up for structured classes or scheduled programs at a local nature center. The Nature Discovery Center offers Curious Kids for preschoolers and Junior Scientists for elementary aged students.
  • Spending time outside at a nature park – playing, exploring, observing. Russ Pitman Park offers shady trails, ponds, a nature play area, interpretive signage and has abundant local wildlife. Try taking informal “field trips” to other area nature parks like Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, the Houston Arboretum, Jesse Jones Park and Nature Center, or Brazos Bend State Park and the George Observatory.
  • Volunteering for neighborhood or park clean-up with an organization or simply picking up trash as a family.
  • Participating in citizen science and making valuable contributions to science by observing and recording local bees, butterflies, birds, or plants via a free SciStarter.com account.
  • Gardening together in your own yard or in a community garden.
  • Getting a little dirty with messy outdoor nature play. The sandbox and loose parts play materials in the Nature Play Area in Russ Pitman Park offer great opportunities to get a little dirty!
  • Hiking or bike riding on local trails. The Newcastle Trail is a nice, wide trail for family bike rides. With the new bike pump and repair station and bike racks, Russ Pitman Park makes a great pitstop for bike riders of all ages. The Bayou Greenways trail projects along Brays Bayou and White Oak Bayou are also worth exploring and may provide glimpses of our urban wildlife.
  • Trying out geocaching (geocaching.com) as a family. It’s like a scavenger hunt that the whole world is always playing (in secret).
  • Requesting a behind the scenes tour of a local recycling center or wildlife rehabilitation facility. The Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Center and Wildlife Center of Texas have a wealth of experience caring for orphaned and injured animals and can offer great advice about what you can do if you encounter wildlife that may be in distress.
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Venomous Snakes in Houston

First of all, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Venomous snakes in the Houston area are not as dangerous as people think they are. Keep calm. Now, I’m not saying you should go pick up a venomous snake, and kiss it on the lips, but they’re really not that aggressive. Venomous snakes get a bad rap. Very few people actually die in the U.S. from snakebite. The best ways to deal with venomous snakes, is to give them their distance (when you can) and to educate yourself about the common species of local venomous snake.

The most potently venomous snake in our area is the Texas Coral Snake, which is in the cobra family. Sounds scary, right? You definitely shouldn’t touch one, but they are shy snakes, that prefer to hide out under rocks and logs, in rodent burrows, and will flee, rather than hiss or strike, when surprised. Texas coral snakes have a distinctive red-yellow-black color pattern, which could also be described as alternating red and black sections separated by “gold rings.” They are thin snakes, that are usually only 2 – 2.5 feet long. These beautiful little reptiles eat mostly other snakes and small lizards, and they spend most of their time underground.

Southern Copperheads are most likely to be found in areas with trees. They can be very well camouflaged on forest floors covered in leaf litter. They are also rather shy snakes, have relatively milder venom than other area venomous snakes, and are not usually likely to bite. As with all venomous snakes though, give them some distance. Compared to other venomous snakes, they have an unusually wide variety of prey items, including: rodents, frogs, fish, lizards, birds, and large insects. Unlike coral snakes and most non-venomous snakes, Copperheads have elliptical “cat-like” pupils and heat sensing pits located between the eye and the nostril on each side of the head.

The aquatic Cottonmouth, which is also a pit-viper, also has the heat pit and slit-like pupils. The Cottonmouth is strongly venomous, and has a bad reputation for being aggressive, but recent scientific studies into their behavior has shown that they are actually not that likely to bite when encountered. Their fearsome hissing gaping mouth display, and occasional habit of fleeing in the direction of someone who has cornered them, have led many to believe that they are more aggressive than they actually are. Cottonmouths are almost always found in or near water. They sometimes climb onto low branches to sun themselves and keep an eye out for prey in the water below.  They prefer to feed on frogs and fish, but they are one of the few snakes that will scavenge various dead animals, as well.

Venomous snakes are rightfully a source of fear and fascination. They’re helpful predators that keep rodent populations in check, and are therefore an integral part of local eco-systems. Also, they’re not usually that dangerous if given a respectful distance. However, if you should be bitten by a venomous snake, don’t attempt any home treatments, just get to a hospital as quickly and calmly as possible. Do not kill the snake. If you’d like to learn more about them, visit the nature center and talk to one of our naturalists.

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Frogs in Your Backyard

The warm weather of summer brings out all kinds of creatures that had remained hidden during the cooler months. One such group of animals, that has recently become active, are frogs. A lot of people think that you need to visit a pond or a stream or a marsh to see frogs, but they are right here, all around Houston. We can see many species of frog right in our own backyards. Let’s have a look at a few species that are most commonly encountered.

The Gulf Coast Toad is the most common frog found in yards around the Houston area. As with most toads, they are primarily terrestrial, only heading to bodies of water and rain puddles to drink, mate, and lay eggs. They have bumpy skin, but those bumps aren’t warts, not like the kind that we get on our hands or feet (those are caused by a virus passed between people). Toads do have, however, poison glands on the sides of the head which produce a milky toxin, that helps protect them from predators. After heavy rains, listen for a loud trill call from ditches, ponds, and wetlands.

The Green Treefrog, despite its name, is found in wet areas away from trees, even in gardens on the sides of houses. This large bright green, waxy looking tree frog, is active on warm summer nights, when it can sometimes be heard making a loud nasal KWAK KWAK KWAK call. In wetlands, the chorus of dozens and dozens of males may be deafening. As with that vast majority of frogs, it is the males that call, to attract females to mate. Also, as with most frogs, they require standing water to lay their eggs. There is a similar small treefrog that can be either green or brown, called the squirrel treefrog, that you may encounter around your house as well.

Rio Grande Valley Chirping Frogs were introduced into the Houston area accidentally in potted plants brought up from the Valley. The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is the Northernmost extent of their native range, the area around Brownsville and Harlingen. Chirping frogs do not require standing water to lay their eggs, so they lay them in moist soil.  Their offspring go through the tadpole stage inside of the egg. Basically, the conditions in the soil of a potted plant, and in the leaf litter of your garden are ideal. Though you may not see these tiny frogs often, you will hear them squeaking and chirping after rains, next to your home.

If you want to encourage some of these frogs to live in your yard, you need to make your yard and garden a good habitat for them. Try not to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Make sure to leave leaf litter under bushes and other plants. Try to have a variety of native plants that will attract tasty insects. If you have space for it, try to have a small pond that frogs can soak in.

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Making Compost is Like Baking a Cake

Build a Compost Pile this Winter

Winter in Houston is a great time to start an outdoor compost pile because leaves (a carbon source) are plentiful. Making compost is like baking a cake: mix your 4 ingredients (carbon, nitrogen, water, and oxygen) in the correct proportions, and then let it cook!

Compost is a dark, nutrient-rich organic material that is the result of decomposed garden and kitchen waste. The two main benefits of composting are:

  • responsibly disposing of your kitchen scraps (nitrogen), and;
  • using free materials to create “black gold” to improve the quality of your soil and help grow healthy plants.

The most important thing to remember is that composting is a natural process. It is going to happen anyway, we are just trying to speed it up a little and control the end product (compost).

What You’ll NeedWire Compost Bin

Bin: While not absolutely necessary, compost piles in bins have a neater appearance and heat up faster, speeding up the composting process. You can buy a bin, or build one inexpensively from simple materials like old pallets or welded wire.

Dedicated space: Place your bin anywhere that is convenient. A sunny location will help speed up the “cooking” (hot compost piles need to heat up) and will require more water than a shady location.

Tools: You probably already have all the tools you need! A shovel, garden hose, wheelbarrow (for transporting), rake (for keeping the area tidy), and a pitchfork or similar tool (optional, but useful for aerating and turning your compost).

4 Essential Ingredients & Why It Works

This aerobic (with air!) composting is powered by microbes that require oxygen. You make compost by combining the right amounts of 4 ingredients: water, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.

Water and oxygen: Make sure your batch is thoroughly moistened. The pile should be moist but no water should come out if you squeeze a handful, like a wrung out sponge. Oxygen is provided by turning the compost or by including chunky materials such as twigs and Sweet Gum tree gum balls.

Carbon: This is the “brown” material you add to your batch. One of the easiest (and cheapest!) sources is fallen leaves, which can be collected in the fall and winter and stored for multiple compost batches throughout the year.

Nitrogen: This is the “green” material and is what heats up your hot compost pile. Sources include fresh manure from farm animals, grass clippings (be careful about including clippings from a lawn sprayed with insecticide or herbicide), and raw vegetable kitchen scraps (no meat or dairy!). Coffee grounds, though brown, are actually “green material.” You can also use purchased organic materials such as alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, or blood meal.

Starting Your Compost Pile Compost BinTube

Layer the raw materials, following this sequence 3 or 4 times until your bin is full:

  1. Add about one foot of leaves (about 3-4 bags in the simple bin described above). Pack it down with a rake and soak the leaves.
  2. Add nitrogen (food scraps, cow manure, grass clippings, etc), spreading it evenly over the surface of the leaves.
  3. Add one shovelful of rich soil or finished compost (to introduce beneficial microorganisms that will break down food scraps and leaves.)
  4. Mix well with a garden fork while watering until the layer is soaked.
  5. Repeat until the bin is full. Be sure to end with a layer of carbon to reduce odors that could attract pests.

Upkeep Directions

Turning the Hot Compost Pile: To maximize the hot compost pile, turn it roughly once per month. Turning the pile consists of remixing the material in the bin. If you do not turn the hot compost pile, you have a cool/passive pile and that’s okay; it will simply take longer to get rich compost.

Adding Food Scraps: Save your family’s food scraps and add them to your bin each week. Fresh food scraps should always be buried in the carbon material to avoid fruit flies and other unwanted pests!

Worms! Nightcrawler worms can be added to compost piles to help speed up the rate of decomposition. This is also a great way to get kids involved in your new composting hobby! You can buy bait worms or dig in the dirt on a worm search.

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Job Opening: Weekend Naturalist

Join our Team!

The Nature Discover Center is looking for an energetic and enthusiastic individual who has a passion for science, nature, and children to join our education team. This part time position will manage weekend operations of the Center and focus on visitor and educational experiences. This individual will be a crucial member of the team in adding to the overall Nature Discovery Center experience.  Working hours will be 20-25 hours per week, Friday – Sunday. Read the full job description and application instructions here.

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