The University of Illinois Extension serves as a leader in the state for offering research-based advice on a multitude of topics. My role as a horticulture educator places me in the realm of anything that grows, creeps, crawls, or flies.

They're baaack!! Japanese Beetles are buzzing and flying again and have already begun to feed on some of their most favorite plants including lindens, grapes and roses. With the emergence of Japanese Beetles, people usually also begin to ask about grub control.

As of today (February 10, 2016) there is a little over 5 weeks left until Spring! I am more than ready for Spring to arrive….I want to open windows and get back out in the yard and get my garden cleaned up from last year. Granted, as we are all well aware, even once it's officially Spring, Mother Nature may send us the kind reminders that the weather isn't always nice just yet. Usually once the weather begins to warm up in the Spring and the grass resumes it's growing and turns back to green, lawn care comes to mind for many.

It feels like just yesterday summer showed up and now its fall and October is here and is leaving me wondering just where has 2016 gone? Cooler days means it's easier to work in the yard and of course being outdoors means we can enjoy the gorgeous colors of fall.

It started as any normal phone call. A homeowner had contacted the Extension office with a question on controlling a grassy weed in her lawn. A weed she knew was ubiquitous in the world of lawn care. However, when she said the name, "water grass", I was dumbfounded. The voice on the other end of the line seemed concerned on my lack of knowledge for this very common weed. Putting on my best voice of reassurance, I promised to get back with an answer to her question.

The other day I bought a brand new bag of potting mix and with some warm weather happily potted up a new houseplant I had purchased in the wonderful sunshine streaming on my back porch. The smell of a freshly opened bag of potting mix makes any gardener's heart begin to sing.

There are some things I need to get off of my chest and what better place to vent, than a news column. In a profession from astronaut to zookeeper and all careers in between, we learn and do tasks, which in our mind, are the best practices. Imagine you are a professional shower tile installer, and I am a guy who learned to tile a shower on YouTube. If you were standing over me watching as I installed tile, you could point out all of my common mistakes that drive you bananas.

There are many times people will call with questions about what they can do to help their trees grow better (cultural practices) or what they can use to help keep weeds out of the garden. One of my suggestions always is mulch. Now it should be stated that mulch is just one component of good cultural practices in landscaping and gardening, especially with trees, but mulching is definitely an important one.

What benefits does mulch provide plants?

Yesterday as I pulled into my driveway, I was looking at the shrubs in my front yard and that sudden realization of just how overgrown they had become. In the back of my mind I knew that they needed to be pruned, but I didn't really want to admit that I had let that happen, but sometimes things do get away from us. So, out I went with a good pair of pruners, loppers and a small handsaw and went to work. A number of my front shrubs were spring bloomers so I needed to wait until they were done blooming before I could prune them.

Chirp, chirp, chirp. In my mind, the hum of crickets chirping away outside is very relaxing. In the spring we open our windows and sleep with the soothing sounds of the night outside. Chirp, chirp, chirp. Something changes when that lone cricket enters our house. Instead of a nighttime symphony, we have a cricket solo. Chirp, chirp, chirp. Like the erratic beeps of a smoke detector with low battery, a lone cricket in the house can drive us mad.

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:

Producers are concerned about making a profit on corn and soybeans this year in light of declining crop prices and steady input costs. Looking back over crop prices the past few years, the last time period that saw soybean prices similar to today was in 2009. But input costs have increased sharply since then. So what are producers to do?

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." –Leopold 1938

What is your land ethic? It is a question to ask of us humans these days. Our ethic toward the land determines how we view it as either good or bad. We exert so much of our will on the landscape, forming it in what we believe to be good.

60 degree days have already arrived even though the next day the temperatures fell back into the 30's, but spring is definitely on its way. Even my tulips are up out of the ground a few inches and it won't be long before the tulips will be in bloom.

Not only does the thought of spring flowers make me excited but the ability to get my vegetable garden back up and running and often I received questions of when can I get my garden started, what can I plant in the spring time?

As usual some days trying to figure out what to write on can be difficult, that is until you are sent photos of a very large caterpillar that needs to be identified. A colleague of mine sent me a few photos of this very large green caterpillar that had what looked like yellow horns on its head and I was told that they were very large and found wandering in the grass. Now I will be honest, I am not a bug person, I love outdoors and I love plants, but bugs really aren't my thing, but I had a healthy respect for such an awesome and amazing looking caterpillar.

It was a hot late-summer day. A yellow school bus plodded away, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. Songbirds sang while the leaves rustled, patiently holding on till autumn called them from their perch. The forest was still, as the crunch of leaves beneath hopscotching squirrels echoed on the hillside.

It's March and now is the time that everyone starts thinking about lawn care. The grass is greening up and plants are starting to grow again, daffodils are blooming, and garden work has started.

You may be looking at your lawn and wondering where to start, maybe you have a few bare patches or the entire lawn is thinning out. I often receive questions about when to reseed or seed new lawns, when to apply crabgrass preventer and when to start fertilizing lawns and there is still time to do all of them.

The tri state area will host a Local Foods Summit on Saturday, Feb. 20th, at JWCC in Quincy. The program has educational sessions for both producers as well as consumers, and will provide a plethora of information addressing the importance of local foods. Dr. John Ikerd, who is known throughout the Midwest for his knowledge of local and sustainable economies, will be presenting the opening keynote session.

April is almost here and the last Friday in April is celebrated as Arbor Day. Arbor Day was first declared by J. Sterling Morton in January of 1872 to be recognized on April 10, 1872. That day it's estimated over 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska. The Governor of Nebraska officially proclaimed Arbor Day in 1874. Other states began to declare Arbor Day's during the 1870's by 1882 it was a tradition in schools nationwide. Today Arbor Day is officially recognized as the last Friday in April.

The other day a friend posted a picture on Facebook from a walk showing a young Monarch caterpillar happily munching away on some milkweed. I immediately ran out to my little patch of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in hopes that I would see some Monarch caterpillars enjoying a plant feast. Sadly no such luck. Of course what is my luck is finding a big Tomato Hornworm eating away on my tomato plant, so apparently I have no trouble attracting those to my yard.

August is right around the corner and by the time you're reading this it may well already be here. There are still gardening activities that we can do in August, one of which is relaxing and enjoying our gardens!

It seems we blinked and 2015 is behind us and 2016 burns bright with opportunity and chances to garden, enjoy plants, learn and grow in a new year. One of the things I love about horticulture and gardening is that there is always something new to discover, to learn about and to experience. The early months of the New Year are always filled with opportunities for learning and I wanted to let you know about some of upcoming events.

Lunch & Learn – Strawberries and Blueberries

In mid-October, I walked around marveling at the outstanding color of one of our earliest trees to exhibit excellent fall color, the ash (Fraxinus spp.) And I realized, for many homeowners, this might be the last time they can enjoy the spectacular fall display of an ash tree. What I am referring to is the loss of our native ash trees to the emerald ash borer (EAB).

If you are like me, you may enjoy the sight of deer browsing in the forest. They are fascinating creatures to observe and one of the largest wild animal in Illinois. My interest in watching deer waned one morning last week when upon opening the drapes to the backyard I found myself nose to nose with a doe browsing on the hostas near the air conditioner. Our surprised staring contest broke when my yellow lab, Murphy, sounded the alarm. Too late dog, but thanks for trying.

I was out shopping the other day and what greeted my eyes – stands of spring bulbs for sale. Then you stop to look at the calendar and realize that it's almost the end of September and that the perfect time to plant spring bulbs is right around the corner. Bulbs are awesome and amazing plants to add to our gardens and a great way to jump start the spring season which makes me realize I need to start planning!

Ophiophobia: the fear of snakes. 

Seeing a snake stops me in my tracks, leaves my heart pounding and scarcely breathing while my eyes are fixed on the reptile. Being someone who has made a living working outside much of my life, snakes are not a rare thing in my day-to-day activities, but I still prefer to avoid them.

Very often what grows in a garden are those fruits and vegetables we enjoy eating. Though, sometimes our gardens may exceed our appetites. After growing fifteen kale plants last year, my family determined, we probably could live off of two. And ten cherry tomato bushes were nine too many. One vegetable, my family does enjoy regularly is sweet potato. Baked, boiled, or fried – sweet potatoes are used more often than potatoes in my home, making it a good candidate for the garden. Let's examine what it takes to grow sweet potatoes in our Central Illinois climate.

"Which maple should I plant?" is a question I routinely encounter. My response, "None!"

Maples (Acer spp.) aren't bad trees. In fact, they are great trees. Drive down most streets and you will see a maple in everyone's yard. Speaking with landscapers about their inventory and what they sell more than any other species are maples. We love maple trees.

The other week, a colleague of mine and I began a youth program called Junior Master Gardener – Learn, Grow, Eat & Go! It's a curriculum that was developed by Texas A&M to help youth learn about gardening, plants, healthy eating, and getting up and moving. One of the great things about the curriculum is it incorporates taste testing each week of a different vegetable. Some weeks it might be something the youth are familiar with others they may not have ever heard of before – week one is carrots, another week is bok choy.

There are times when trying to figure out what to write every other week can be a challenge. Then you wake up and its 5 degrees out and you immediately begin to think to warmer weather and next year's growing season. That of course led me to thinking about seed starting.

I was at the store the other day and sure enough, Poinsettias are out and about. Usually without fail at some point I will come home with one, it's pretty much an annual guarantee. If you are like me and fall for the pretty poinsettia and bring it home, there are some basics to poinsettia care that will help them last the entire holiday season. Poinsettias can usually last 6-8 weeks with the right care.

I've been receiving a lot of calls lately about trees and diseases in the last few weeks. Calls or emails usually include the statement of what's going on and how do I stop it and fix it. The first thing to remember with foliar diseases – by the time you see a problem – the leaves were infected long before that time. For example, trees that show signs of Anthracnose, were infected in the spring so by the time you see issues the window for prevention has passed.

This past weekend I was finally able to get into my garden to begin the much delayed clean-up process from last year's garden. What should have been done in the fall was time and again delayed this spring usually due to weather or the occasional other weekend commitment. As I was going through cleaning up and organizing various planting containers and dumping out old soil from some of them, fond memories of my days of growing vegetables in containers came to mind.

In my current role as a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension, I have the pleasure of working with Master Gardener volunteers who share a love of the outdoors and a willingness to give back to our communities.

U of I Extension is building a new group of volunteers that complements our Master Gardener program. This new group of volunteers is called Mater Naturalists. Our mission aims toward conservation and education.

Working as a horticulture educator with University of Illinois Extension, one would think visiting a garden center is fun and relaxing. You may be surprised, but for me and certainly horticulturists everywhere, it can be stressful. Where every other shopper sees roses, I see rose rosette virus. Where my wife sees a deal of a tree, I see a tree too deep in the pot and a plague of circling roots. Despite my continual denials, my wife's term for this is plant snob.

I was presenting a program the other day and a question came up asking if a plant was related to another plant since they had similar common names. It got me to thinking how important it is to understand the difference between common names and scientific names of plants.

I was on Facebook the other day and was so excited when I saw a picture of beautiful flowers in bloom, sun shining and saying 8 weeks until spring. Of course, I immediately had to share it as it had me smiling and I wanted to make other fellow gardener's smile at the thought that spring is on the horizon. It also got me to thinking about what inspires us in our gardens, what gives us our ideas, what is our garden muse?