Master Gardeners and Extension offices are getting many calls on lawns right now, especially when it comes to weeds. Dandelions and other broadleaved weeds are easily identified in the lawn. Some that are harder are the grassy weeds; those that look similar to our desirable grasses, just a bit different. Here are some common questions and answers from our Master Gardener Help Desks:

Q: I have patches of stringy straw- or tan-colored grass in my lawn that is not greening up like the rest. What is it?

What do fruit tree experts mean when they say "you need to train" your fruit trees?" Many of us have trained our dogs, but how do you train a tree?

Homeowners and orchardists need to train their trees for structure to encourage fruit production and to have a productive, high-yielding home orchard. Just like with dogs, proper training makes a difference. It gives you a tree that can hold the fruit load without needing any additional support.

Time to address several good questions that Master Gardeners have gotten already this early spring. We are right on schedule for some; others will have to wait, being weather dependent.

Q: I need to trim my oaks and maples. Do I do it now or wait?

There are signs, despite the weather pattern, that spring will indeed arrive this year.

More and more spring bulbs are showing up with flower stalks well above the soil line waiting for a bit better weather to bloom. There is even an up-side to our temperatures. If it remains cooler, those spring blooms will last longer in the home landscape once they open.

What do fungus gnats, drain flies, Boxelder bugs and stinkbugs have in common this time of year? The common thread is they are all nuisance household insects that can be found in any home during winter.

Fungus gnats and drain flies can be lumped together based on their favored conditions, cool temperatures and humidity. Fungus gnats often come in with our houseplants for the winter, as they are stowing away in the pots. Drain flies find their way inside at some point before cold weather shows up and need "open water" to breed.

It has been a couple of years since I used the month of January to address starting a home orchard. The fruit and vegetable catalogs have begun to replace the holiday flyers in the mailbox and January is not too early to begin planning for a home orchard or expanding the one already there.

There are several different kinds of fruit trees to consider – apple, cherry, peach, pear, plum. As we live in northern portion of Illinois, apple is likely the main fruit tree grown in backyards because it is very winter hardy.
Right now, there is plenty of soil moisture with all the recent rains. Even when the top of the soil seems dry, dig down just a little bit, and the moisture is there. Established plants are doing well as is the lawn. Gardeners will still be watering in any new transplants, trees, shrubs or evergreens; not because the soil is dry, but rather to settle the soil around the plants so roots do not dry out.

All the soil moisture that has the home landscape looking so good right now also encourages any perennial weeds, whether grasses or broadleaves, to grow vigorously too.

Here we are, nearing the end of May. Maybe the beds in the backyard look OK, or maybe not? We love our lawns, yet grass can move into our landscape beds in a stealth-like manner while we are waiting for better weather for weeding and edging.

Putting a strong clean line on the landscape beds really makes a difference in how they look. It brings out the strong curves that make the bed flow through the yard, and that edge is the important transition from bed to lawn. Grass will grow towards and into the beds about 3 to 4 inches a year, so annual edging is quite beneficial.

Raspberries are a wonderful addition a backyard, providing us with berries for fresh use while they are in season and for preserving to enjoy later. Raspberries are a perennial, giving us many years of production, though there should be some annual pruning done. This will prevent that row we started with from becoming an uncontrollable patch that only gives us few berries compared to its size.

Raspberries have perennial roots and crown with bi-annual canes. Each year, new canes appear and grow vegetative manner. Those same canes give us the berries the second year and then die.

Now that the snow is all gone our yards are now shades of brown. All too obvious is the debris from the neighborhood that has blown in, collecting in the ground cover and shrub beds and at the base of your fence. Time to do that quick walk about and pick up so you do not have to look at it every day until spring arrives. Natural litter from your landscape is expected though, and leaves and twigs would be normal right now.

This may be your first walk about in the home landscape for 2018.

A Note to Readers: This summer, we are excited to announce we will be joining our two horticulture blogs – "Down the Garden Path" and "Over the Fence" into one convenient place. "Over the Garden Fence" will still feature timely topics and helpful hints you expect from expert Richard Hentschel, and you can sign up for email alerts so you won't miss a post.
You know it is finally spring, not by the calendar, but by the first landscape maintenance trucks hitting the road without snowplow attachments. Mother Nature is struggling a bit; we are having warmer days, but the nights are still crisp. Those warmer temperatures are needed by many blooming plants to trigger the soon-to-be flowers. Winter bud scales will be softening with rains to later allow the flower and leaf buds to open easier.

If you are out in the yard cleaning up beds, watch carefully for emerging spring bulbs and the crowns of early tender perennials.

It is early to be starting any flower or vegetables seeds. However, it is not too early to round up those saved seeds and determine just how good they are.

As a rule, smaller seeds do not last as long as larger seeds, as there is more stored energy in the big ones. This "rule" is especially true if the seeds were not stored in the best conditions. The best place would be in a tight-sealing container in the refrigerator. These seeds are alive the entire time we have been storing them. Lower the storage temperature and the respiration rate lowers too, conserving that energy.

Bird feeders will bring in a variety of migrating birds during the early spring on their journey to summer digs. This is before there is much for them to eat elsewhere, in nature or in home landscapes. Our winter resident birds that have hung out with us all winter still need that seed too. Be sure to continue your feeding efforts well into spring until they can find food on their own. Plan to use up all birdseed so summer storage or grain pests are not issues. Birds also need water, and without snow now, remember to leave out some shallow dishes of water.
By this time of the year, there has already been a lot of landscape mulch applied for the summer. Landscape mulch can provide more benefit than just how nice a freshly applied layer looks.

When applied around young trees, we know that it reduces the competition from grass and makes it easier for the tree to establish in the new location. The tree gets more water and has no competition for soil nutrients. A big plus is there is no need to trim grass away from the trunk saving the tree from the destructive string trimmer!

Our weather has very likely already messed up any plans for getting those early plants in and seeds sown. No one has a clear crystal ball right for when consistent spring weather will happen. If you have sown seeds for later planting as transplants, keep them from getting any taller until they can go outside. Give them strong light and cooler nighttime temperatures than they have had, to keep them from stretching more.

Should we be worrying about any plants that are already up?

So many things, only so much space to get them down. I think the weather has been both good and bad, depending on your perspective right now. Lawns usually begin to slow down a bit, as the natural spring flush begins to pass, but as long as the rains continue, grass will continue to grow at an above average rate. The good part is I have not seen a bad looking lawn, park, cul-de-sac or parkway yet. The bad news is keeping up with the mowing is tough between the rain and attempts to follow that one-third rule.
Just about now, you can see holiday trees sitting in the front or side yard, waiting for the assigned pick up date to be collected and mulched. This is one way to be sure your holiday tree gets recycled to the benefit of the environment. The follow through to getting your tree composted in a community program is to be sure you take advantage of the composted material later by bringing some back home and using it in your landscape beds. Those fallen needles from the tree in the front room can be collected with a broom and added to the compost pile avoiding clogging up the vacuum cleaner.
Now that the vegetable gardens have been planted for a few weeks, questions to the Master Gardener help desks have switched over from "How do I?" to "What's going on with my vegetable plants?" Here are a few commonly asked questions:

Q: My spinach and lettuces are sending up flower stalks before I really got to harvest as much as last year. What is the deal?

A Note to Readers:
Our timetable to get dormant oils on and pruning done has been thrown out the proverbial window this year so far. The weather pattern has not given us even a couple days where it is safe to get on the dormant oil sprays. We will need, depending on the product used, at least one 24-hour period where temperatures remain above freezing. More commonly, we want 2 to 3 days of moderate temperatures to allow the dormant oils to work against overwintering insect adults, any eggs, and especially overwintering female scales.
Mosquitos are adjusting to our ever-changing weather patterns just like our plants in the home landscape this season. May into June would be our traditional time mosquitos start show up for the summer. This season, April had the rain and not May, so mosquitos can be behind a bit.

Mosquitoes favor warmer temperatures and the right kind of water – permanent, floodwater or stagnant, depending on the species. Permanent bodies of water include ponds and lakes. Floodwaters are retention ponds that are dry most of the time and natural low-lying areas.

Orchard Tree Series: Location Location Location

University of Illinois Extension offices are already getting calls about needle evergreens that are not looking healthy, and spring has yet to arrive! If you drive your neighborhood right now, you can spot those evergreens that died late last fall. Arborvitaes are standing dead in many locations in the Fox Valley, as are Austrian pine and spruce.

Spruce are not well adapted to our area, and although they do grow pretty well for us when young, spruce begin to suffer as they mature.

A Note to Readers: This summer, we are excited to announce we will be joining our two horticulture blogs – "Down the Garden Path" and "Over the Fence" into one convenient place. The upcoming "Over the Garden Fence" blog will still feature the timely topics and helpful hints you expect from expert Richard Hentschel, and you can sign up for email alerts so you won't miss a post.
A couple of weeks ago, my column covered getting ready for the vegetable gardening season. This time it is about the home orchard. While dormant pruning has been and will continue to be done, getting ready for the management of fruit tree diseases and insects can be done inside, dry and warm.

In the early spring, the first spray should be applied while the ground and air temperatures are still quite cold. This will be the dormant oil spray, aimed at overwintering insects. Dormant oils are applied on days where the air temperature will remain above freezing for 24 or 36 hours.