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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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Wildlife Wednesday: Insect Friends in the Garden

Wildlife Wednesday: Insect Friends in the Garden

A couple of were working out in the herb garden behind the Nature Center building (the Henshaw House) a few days ago, digging in the soil and pulling out weeds, and we noticed several animals living or spending time in the garden as well. This week, we thought we’d give you a little survey of some of the creatures that are currently moving around the herbs.

Most people who grow Mexican Milkweed in their gardens expect Monarch Butterflies, and even the tiny yellow milkweed aphids, on their milkweed plants, but we were surprised to notice, a couple of years ago, that our herb garden milkweed had also attracted bright yellow and black Milkweed Leaf Beetles (Labidomera clivicollis). Like monarch caterpillars, these round conspicuous beetles feed on the poisonous leaves of the milkweed, and are therefore toxic to predators, as well. The beetles come on black and yellow, black and red, and black and orange.

There were a number of butterflies, but the 2 that were the most conspicuous were the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae, above) and the Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae, right), as well as a few Monarchs. Gulf Fritillaries are not related to other fritillary butterflies, but are actually a kind of Heliconian, or longwing butterfly. The larvae feed on passion vines, and they keep emerging through the summer and fall in this area until low temperatures prevail. Cloudless Sulphur caterpillars feed on legumes, and both migrate here from the North and continue to emerge here into the Fall.

Eastern Leaf-footed Bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus) are one of 3 common leaf-footed bugs that are found in our park throughout the year. We’ve seen the adults, and the red wingless nymphs prowling around plants in the garden. They feed on plants by piercing them with a straw-like proboscis and sucking juices out of the plant. The inject chemicals into the plants to aid in feeding, and these secretions may be somewhat toxic to the plant. In small amounts, this isn’t harmful, but in large numbers may kill the plant.They are harmless to people, but they may release a foul smelling substance when bothered.

Another small creature that we found all over the herb garden were Asian Many-spotted Ladybird Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) larvae. They of course look nothing like their red black spotted parents, but just like their parents, they are voracious predators, feeding mainly on aphids and other tiny plant sucking insects. They are a non-native invasive species, and negatively impact native ladybug populations. As with most ladybugs, they are toxic, and this is one of the few ladybugs (even as larvae) that may bite if handled.

Though the temperatures are dropping, its still possible to see some of these creatures in our gardens, and perhaps even in your own garden at home. If you get a chance some time soon, drop by and see what you can find.

Thanks for joining us this week, and see you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Photographs by Eric Duran

 

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Volunteer Opportunity: Field Trip Guides Needed

Make a difference in kids’ lives, volunteer with our field trip program this year!

We are gearing up for our school field trip programs and are looking to recruit a few volunteer “Field Trip Guides” to help lead small groups of elementary school students through our nature park. This is a weekday morning volunteer opportunity.

This is a great opportunity for you to make an impact on children’s lives by helping them to connect with nature through our field trip program.

 

Primary Responsibilities:

  • Co-teach our discovery-based field trip program Nature at Your Doorstep.
  • Provide interactive hands-on experiences in our science based Discovery Rooms.
  • Volunteer Teachers will lead a tour of the nature center and park to a small group (8-12) of early elementary students and their adult chaperones.
  • Training is provided.
  • Field trips are scheduled weekday mornings. Volunteers are needed for 2-hour time blocks.
  • Frequency is flexible, weekly or monthly.

 

Please see this role description for more details. And view this short video to learn about the impact of the Nature Discovery Center from one of our NAYD School Field Trip Volunteers.

If you feel called to volunteer in this way, please email Anne Eisnerand we will schedule a time to bring you in for an interview and training.

Thank you for partnering with us to make a difference in kids’ lives.

 

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Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Wildlife Wednesday: Houston Area Salamanders

Salamanders are an underappreciated and overlooked group of amphibians. That’s because they often lead secretive lives underground, down in the mud, and underwater. As with frogs, salamanders undergo metamorphosis, in which their shell-less eggs are laid in a wet location (often in a pond), they go through an aquatic larval stage (the tadpole stage), and then become air-breathing adults. Also like frogs, they have semi-permeable skin that allows water to pass in and out, so they can dry out easily, but can also drink through their skin. Some adult salamanders “breathe” or respire using lungs, while others use gills, and a group called the “lungless salamanders” breathe through their skin and the lining of their mouths.

Though they are seldom seen around Houston, there are several species of salamander found in the area. Here’s a survey of 3 of the more common species.

The Central Newt (Nothophthalmus viridescens louisanensis) is a small aquatic salamander that lives in still freshwater habitats. They actually have 4 life stages:  1. The eggs are laid on vegetation in the water.  2. The gilled tadpoles/larvae stay in the water while they develop. 3. After a number of months, the larvae change into a reddish orange terrestrial stage called an “eft”. They live in forested habitats for 1 – 3 years like this. 4. Eventually, they change to their adult yellow-olive brown coloration, and go back into a pond to live out their adult lives in the water. The Eastern newts of North America (which this is a subspecies of) are the only salamanders which go through this terrestrial eft stage, though some newts in other parts of the world are terrestrial as adults. As with all salamanders, Central Newts are carnivorous, eating a wide variety of small invertebrates.

The large 3-Toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma tridactylum) doesn’t even look like a salamander! You’d be forgiven for thinking it was a eel. They are long bodied (up to almost 4 ft), aquatic, and their 4 tiny limbs are so small, that you’d only see them upon close inspection. They are highly carnivorous, eating a wide variety of fish, other amphibians, reptiles, and large invertebrates. Though salamanders are basically tooth-less, amphiumas have a sharp bony ridge in their mouths, which they use for defense and predation. Also unlike other salamanders, they are known to emit a squeaky bark noise, when molested.

Another fully aquatic eel-like salamander is the Lesser Siren (Siren intermedia), which grow to about 18 inches in length. They have 2 tiny front legs, no back legs, and a flattened paddle-like tail. Sirens are easily identified by their feathery gray and red external gills, which extend from the sides of the head. Much like the amphiuma, they are very carnivorous and can deliver a painful and bloody bite. However, instead of a sharp bony ridge, they have a sharp horny beak-like structure. Also similar to amphiumas, they have extremely smooth slimy skin. Both sirens and amphiumas are believed to guard their eggs in mud nests under the water or in burrows next to their ponds, lakes, and bayous.

Thanks for exploring a few of the local salamander species with us this week. While you may not encounter any wild salamanders in our park, many of our larger and wilder Houston area parks and nature centers offer chances to find these 3 species. And if you’ve never seen a live salamander up close, we invite you to visit the Nature Discovery Center some time, and get to know Sherman, our friendly Barred Tiger Salamander.

See you soon!

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

photos: Adult newt – Psyon | Wikimedia; Newt eft – Corey Raimond | Flickr; Amphiuma – Ashley Tubbs | Flickr; Siren – Andrew Hoffman and Zeke Franco on Flickr

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Wildlife Wednesday: The Beetles Return

Wildlife Wednesday:  The Beetles Return

Another group of animals that return in the warmer weather of Springtime is the beetles. Now there are a ridiculous number of beetle species around the Houston area, but I wanted to focus on some of the more noticeable species that we’ve seen around the park this week during our classes and nature hikes.

Ladybugs are all over the park right now, but we’ve seen mostly Asian Many-spotted Ladybird Beetles in our wildflower gardens and Pocket Prairie. This week, we finally spotted some of our native Convergent Ladybird Beetles (Hippodamia convergens) skulking around various plants, preying on aphids. They are best known for converging in large numbers on logs, rocks, and even the sides of homes in autumn and through the winter.

photograph by Drobibcorvette | Wikimedia

The Texas Eyed-Click Beetle (Alaus lusciosus) grows to about 2 inches long. They’re known for the loud clicks they make when they pop their bodies and jump suddenly. They’re quite noticeable, because of their size and the prominent false-eye spots on the pronotum, the exoskelatal shield covering the thorax. The large plump larvae feed on other insect larvae, and the adults feed mainly on nectar and other plant juices.

The Hardwood Stump Borer (Mallodon dasytomus) grows to about 2 1/2 inches long, and can deliver a painful bite with their large sharp mandibles (though this is not an aggressive species, and only bites when grabbed). They live in and around dead rotten stumps and logs, where they prey on a variety of other insects, especially ants and their larvae. the wood boring larvae (grubs)  may take 3-4 years to mature into adults!

Well thanks for joining us again this week for Wildlife Wednesday. If you found these beetles interesting, please come out to the park, and see if you can find some out along the trails!

 

See you soon,

Eric Duran
Staff Naturalist

Top photo of Convergent Ladybird Beetle by TJ Gehling | Flickr

 

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Help Wanted: City Nature Challenge Pits Houston Against Austin & Dallas

Join nature lovers across the city of Houston as they compete with residents of Austin and Dallas to document as many species as possible during a fun City Nature Challenge!

Texas Parks & Wildlife, the Audubon Society, Texas Master Naturalists and lots of volunteer citizen scientists like yourself will compete in this fun challenge to see which city can document a grater diversity of species. No prior experience necessary!

Challenge organizers say “It is easy to participate by joining an event, or making observations on your own using the iNaturalist app. With the iNaturalist app, you just take a picture of a plant or animal, and the community will help identify which species it is.”

Any observation in the greater Houston Area will count during the five day challenge. You can participate by exploring the life in your backyard, or anywhere you visit outside in Houston between April 14 – 18. But we’d love for you to make observations right here in our nature park and record them with iNaturalist.  So come out, enjoy our new park improvements, and record the plants and animals you find!

Let’s show Austin and Dallas what we’ve got here in Houston, and show our fellow Houstonians just how wildlife rich Russ Pitman Park is!

For more information about how to get involved visit:

Houston Challenge Page: https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/city-nature-challenge-2017-houston

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/257551441366716/

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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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Park Transformation: Gateway Project Complete, More Park Improvements Announced

The Nature Discovery Center is pleased to announce that the final phase of our major capital renovation, the Gateway Project, is complete. The Gateway Project represents a $1.26 million capital initiative to improve the historic Henshaw House (Phase One) and Russ Pitman Park (Phase Two), both of which are managed by the Center.

The public/private capital funding included a $500,000 City of Bellaire bond referendum as well as $760,000 from foundations and private citizens.  The Nature Discovery Center is a hub for community gatherings and nature education. And, it now boasts new features such as an outdoor restroom, a revamped pavilion area, pathway lighting, and an outdoor restroom.

But we’re not done! Additional improvements to Russ Pitman Park are under way. As part of the park’s master plan, additional work is planned to enhance the park’s usability for both everyday visitors and school groups. This work is made possible through a key partnership with Resource Environmental Solutions (RES) — the largest habitat restoration company in the country. RES is donating services to enhance the 4 habitat zones in the park through pond restoration, nonnative plant removal, and native plantings throughout the park. “The RES team is delighted to contribute to enhancements at the nature park.  We have already witnessed the transformative effects of the Gateway Project renovations. Such initiatives will help to accommodate the growing crowds at the nature park and assure that this greenspace is preserved for generations to come,” said Elliott Bouillion, RES president and CEO.

The park’s current center path is flood prone and will be replaced with a Porous Pave nature trail made from recycled rubber, saving 750 tires from the landfill. The new center trail will be porous, allowing water to flow through and allowing visitors to enjoy the park after a rain. The new path will feature a gentle curve through the middle of the park, creating a more natural experience and highlighting our mature pecan trees, Pocket Prairie, and other native plants.

A raised wooden boardwalk with a bench will be built through the Prairie Wetland. This boardwalk will complete our ADA accessible trail loop and provide a dry seating area for birdwatchers and photographers. A new teaching deck will be installed at Cypress Pond, allowing our staff naturalists to teach hands-on classes focused on pond life. Finally, professionally designed, custom interpretive signage will be installed throughout the nature park to ensure all Russ Pitman Park visitors have an opportunity to learn about its unique habitats.

On Saturday May 6, 2017 the Nature Discovery Center will reveal our completed renovations at the free event, Gateway to Nature: Experience our Park Transformation. We will have a short ceremony at 10:00 am to thank donors and contributors. Afterwards, our education team will lead a series of family-centered activities throughout the renovated nature park, highlighting the various improvements.

For more information about the Nature Discovery Center and its ongoing programs for children and families, and for Gateway Project updates, visit www.naturediscoverycenter.org.

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