Despite its drab name, the mourning cloak butterfly might be one of spring's earliest flowers. My two sons and I spotted one on a walk along the woods mid-March in 2015. It was resting upside-down sipping away at tree sap along with a flurry of ants. As the butterfly fed, the warm late-winter sun warmed its wings.

With its wings folded the mourning cloak appears relatively unremarkable. As we watched the butterfly's wings spread open my oldest son exclaimed "It's a butterfly!" The dark inner portion of wings contrasts nicely with pale yellow margins.

These days it seems like salsa is everywhere. Americans have come to love this condiment as it tends to show up on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Nothing is better than fresh salsa. Better yet, the ingredients used to make salsa are incredibly universal and can be grown in your backyard.

If you love fresh salsa, this summer think about setting aside a sunny area (6 hours or more of direct sun each day) in your yard to grow a salsa garden.

What's going on in the garden this week? Here is a snapshot of observations and questions coming into the Extension office.

Out in the Garden

You're walking through your lawn. You notice some discoloration in patches, but it doesn't seem too alarming. After walking in your front door you begin to slip off your shoes and notice they've been turned an orange-red color. You'd swear it looked like your shoes were rusted-over.

This above scenario is where it typically starts. Homeowners call the Extension office with a strange substance on their shoes after walking through their lawn. Following are the questions that come up in these conversations in their usual order.

What is it?

Thoughts on Growing Food on Mars Inspired by the book "The Martian", by Andy Weir.

Growing up, a family tradition was going out to the Christmas tree farm to find that perfect tree. As a child it was fun going out to pick our tree, cut it and then watch it hauled to the barn on a sled, shook for all its worth to get the dead needles out, and finally bundled up on our car ready for home.

My wife had an altogether different experience growing up. She would help her mother haul a fake tree out of the crawl space every year. It was the family tree and had been used for two generations.

So far the winter of 2015-2016 has been unseasonably mild. Many gardeners speculate what this means for our next growing season and the pest insects we love to hate.

The past two winters beheld a new term for most of us living in North America – polar vortex. Residents in Central Illinois saw first-hand the effects of severe freezing temperatures of -20°F to -30°F. One such result was the steep decline of Japanese beetles. (Though, this past year the calls I did receive were localized pockets where they remained as numerous as ever.)

Despite our best intentions to create healthy gardens and landscapes, sometimes we wind up introducing a material that has potential to affect environmental or human health. Do you know if you have any in your yard? Let's look at a material commonly found in the landscape and its potential impact on environmental and human health.

Rubber Mulch


Let it be known that in my family I hold the record for number of mosquito bites at one time. While on a vacation in the coastal swamps of Georgia (yes I said 'vacation'), I racked up over 100 mosquito bites.

So what makes a person more attractive to mosquitoes than others? Here are a few things that mosquitoes find very tempting:

What's going on in the garden this week? Here is a snapshot of observations and questions coming into the Extension office.

Out in the Garden

What's going on in the garden this week? Here is a snapshot of observations and questions coming into the Extension office.

Out in the Garden

Fall is the time to renovate our cool-season lawns following are recommendations (aka lawn chores) for this late-summer to early fall growing season.

First analyze your soil. If your soil has become compacted or is very heavy clay, it is best to aerate prior to seeding. Hollow tine aerators work the best. Soil must be slightly moist for successful aeration. If soils are dry the aerator tines will simply bounce off the soil surface, not reaching the correct depth. I always core aerate a few days after it rains.

A co-worker is headed out on vacation this week and asked me to babysit her twenty babies. By babies I mean monarch caterpillars. I have built rearing cages, taken classes, learned all about the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly, but I have never raised them before. I've gone back to the materials taken from the Monarch Teacher Network Class to make sure I don't kill these tiny caterpillars entrusted to me. Here's what I've learned:

Things sure do seem to be getting clean outside. Not clean in the ordinary sense of course, but in terms of weeds. Our yards are cleaner, farms are cleaner. For the past century humans have spent a lot of energy, time and money on cleaning up the landscape. It has led to increased farm yields, and large luxurious weed-free lawns. Sounds pretty good, right? Well not so good if you happen to depend on some of those 'weeds'.

My son loves birds. And it all started with a walk on a cold, snowy day during the winter of 2013-2014.

As we walked, a sound caught his attention. It was something he never heard before. It was the rat-a-tat pecking of a woodpecker. He looked around excitedly trying to pinpoint where the sound originated.

"What is that daddy?" he asked. I replied with, "It's a woodpecker, using his beak to peck away at trees to find food."