Peace Art Garden at Cardinal Valley Elementary: a Danaus Plexippus success story

In the fall of 2014 we created a native plant garden at Jesse’s Elementary School here in his neighborhood of Cardinal Valley. The garden was a supplement to the Science teacher’s outdoor classroom and the surrounding area is filled with raised beds where the youngsters learn about the biology of plants, growing seeds, insect populations and connecting to their natural environment. Last year the art teacher helped students paint a bee mural and various student made “art” is displayed throughout.

We were excited to add milkweed in the fall of 2016 in the hopes that it would add not only another course of study and observation for the students but also to help the Monarch (Danaus Plexippus) population in our small corner of the world. The area has been certified as a Monarch Waystation and it was named “Monarch Valley – Valle de las Monarcas” appropriately since it is in Cardinal Valley!

During the 2017 growing season several Monarch caterpillars were observed in the area and to “boost” the learning opportunity we provided the school with several Monarch chrysalises (chrysalides) and caterpillars from the Dunbar Memorial Garden.

Students release a Monarch into the Peace Art Garden

When the students returned to school this Fall they were greeted by a much-increased Monarch presence: caterpillars of all shapes and sizes were seen munching milkweed throughout the garden. We also added a barrel planter filled with dill and parsley in the hopes of attracting the Eastern Black Swallowtail.

Hungry hungry Black Swallowtail cats: can you see all 3?

And while it was wonderful to see all these hungry caterpillars in the garden, nothing could have prepared us for what was to come. The Science teacher emailed us to say they had found EIGHT chrysalises “in the wild” in the garden!

And one chrysalis was found way, way up high in the corner of the garden above the tool shed:

While we have seen more than our share of chrysalises in captivity (raised indoors) we do not often see them outdoors – and certainly never expected to see so many in one place at the same time. As Jesse’s dad says “if you want to see caterpillars you gotsta have the milkweed!”

True dat 🙂

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Monarch Butterflies in the classroom

We like to say “If you plant it, they will come” and we’ve planted a lot of Milkweed (the larval host plant for Danaus Plexippus) at various locations around our Lexington Kentucky community.

One of our favorite ways to introduce youngsters to the beauty and scientific study of the Monarch is by donating a chrysalis to a classroom hoping ultimately to inspire a new generation of butterfly enthusiasts and conservationists. While we have been quietly doing this for several years, it is in 2018 that our efforts have been concentrated: after raising the caterpillars from our Monarch Waystations we place a single chrysalis in a clear plastic jar, include a set of instructions then pass them around. This year, we’ve sent chrysalises (chrysalides) to The Learning Adventure, Cardinal Valley Elementary, James Lane Allen Elementary and Mary Queen of the Holy Rosary School.

And this year we went a step further by pairing the chrysalis with a variety of books (and puzzles and magnifying glasses) for different age and reading levels all with the theme of Monarchs and butterflies.

Monarch Madness for kids of all ages

Before sharing photos and videos of these youngsters and their experiences, an update on our school Monarch Waystations:

In July of 2018 we installed several planter barrels of Milkweed at Mary Queen school where a lovely Memorial Garden had been planted for a former teacher. The area already included a very nice variety of native plants and it is literally a “stones throw” from a Riparian Buffer Project where we found several nice stands of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). In fact, the day we met with the Kindergarten Teacher and Principal to discuss our work a Monarch butterfly flew by us. A good omen for sure!

When we returned to the school in mid-August to donate a chrysalis and books we were happily surprised to find THREE caterpillars munching away in the barrels of milkweed.

The Trust completed paperwork and the Mary Queen Kinder Garden Monarch Waystation becomes our SIXTH certified waystation to date.

Monarch Waystation #20888

At Cardinal Valley Elementary’s “Monarch Valley – Valle de las monarcas” this years’ Monarch caterpillar population is at record numbers! We also installed a barrel of dill, parsley and fennel in July that hosted several beautiful Black Swallowtail caterpillars.

All the way to Kitley Elementary in Indianapolis, our favorite first grade teacher and long- time Trust volunteer, Sarah Weck has renewed a much-neglected school garden and turned it into a butterfly sanctuary. Her diligence in adding host plants for a variety of butterflies (the Trust donated native plants) has rewarded her with great study opportunities for her students and herself!

And at our favorite garden in the world, the Dunbar Memorial Garden, the Monarch population thrives – along with fritillaries, sulphurs, swallowtails, questions marks, snout nosed, hairstreaks and other butterflies we have yet to identify. But it is there that this all had its beginning: from one garden sprouted many gardens and many more are to come.

This Fall we will be installing our SEVENTH Native Plant Garden and Monarch Waystation at the Women’s Hope Center conveniently located right here in Jesse’s neighborhood. Which is why we do what we do, for Jesse <3

Enough with the words, on with the pics and videos:

Here’s Jesse’s dad releasing a newly “hatched” Monarch at James Lane Allen Elementary. This has got to be the most well-handled, patient Monarch ever!

Some excitement from Kitley:

Watching a Monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis
Excitement at Miss Weck’s Monarch Growing Station
Observing Monarch eggs and 1st instar caterpillars
A newly emerged Monarch butterfly released into the garden

A very sweet pic from our favorite pre-schooler at the Learning Adventure:

Atty and his classmates with a brand new Monarch butterfly

Some serious observations by the young students at Mary Queen School:

Using their new magnifying glasses to study a caterpillar and several chrysalises
Future lepidopterist!
I spy!

Cats at Cardinal Valley Elementary:

Do you see all 3? Black swallowtail cats in dill, parsley and fennel.
A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar

And last but not least a wonderful student drawing of a Monarch caterpillar just finishing its chrysalis:

“It’s wiggling off its skin”




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Raising Monarchs in captivity: a detailed guide

This blog post is written as an instructional guide for educators raising monarchs in their classrooms. Some information is specific to certain teachers.

Monarch Butterfly Release Party at the Dunbar Memorial Garden

Raising Monarchs

  • Egg hatches at about Day 4
  • 1st instar (1-3 days) caterpillar is very small with pale stripes and no antennae, it will reach ¼” in length
  • 2nd instar (1-3 days) short stubby antennae are present, it will reach 3/8” in length
  • 3rd instar (1-3 days) dark head capsule, longer antennae, it will reach ½” in length
  • 4th instar (1-3 days) no head capsule, thicker black stripes, long front antennae, it will reach 1” in length
  • 5th instar (3 -5 days) white spots on leg triangles, wide black velvety stripes, it will reach 1 ¾” length
  • Chrysalis (8-15 days)
  • Butterfly (2-5 weeks in Summer OR 9 months in Fall if migrating)

The female Monarch lays eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, usually on the upper leaves (newer leaves) and also on the milkweed flower buds. The eggs are creamy white in color. She usually only lays 1 egg per plant stalk to assure enough food for each egg. Eggs can be “harvested” by removing the leaf or cutting a part of the stem and leaf but because the leaf will dry out even if it is kept wet, it is generally easier to wait until after the caterpillar has hatched and reached 2nd instar. If an egg on a leaf is collected pay close attention to it, as soon as the leaf begins to wilt and dry up there MUST be a new leaf immediately nearby. An egg hatches after 4 to 6 days and if the milkweed is dry/dead/inedible the egg may not hatch and if it does hatch, the cat may die because it cannot consume a dry leaf.

Basically the caterpillar needs only food (milkweed) and a container that is regularly cleaned of “frass” (poop). The container must have a lid or the caterpillar will wonder off. It is amazing how far they can travel.

My favorite containers are clean clear plastic ones with an opening easy enough to fit your hand in. It is MUCH healthier for each caterpillar to be in a separate container – it prevents them from “eating” their housemate(s). Caterpillars cannot see and if there is an egg on a leaf or even a smaller caterpillar they will eat both. Their job is to eat, it is our job to keep them as safe as possible. Additionally, when caterpillars are all kept together in containers there is a higher chance of spreading disease which can result in death which is a lesson to learn but not a pretty one, especially for children.

The most important thing about using plastic containers is that they can be sterilized between uses. Once a butterfly has emerged and been released the container should be cleaned with a 20% bleach solution. Add about ¼ cup of bleach to the container then fill it with warm water. Let it sit for about ½ hour then pour out and add clean water with a bit of dishwasher soap. Rinse several times with water.  Wipe or air dry before reusing.

Inexpensive and disposable containers such as clear 1 gallon bottled water jugs ($1 each at most stores) with the tops cut off are my favorite because they are easy to clean and easy to dispose of as needed. They are also tall enough to keep a small vase or cup of water with milkweed inside, preventing the necessity of daily harvests of milkweed which can be time consuming.

It is important to remember that the caterpillar is “captive” inside that container. Before replacing its food the milkweed should be gently rinsed in cool water to remove any possible predators. Examining the stalk of milkweed before cutting is a great help too, checking not only for bugs but also for eggs!

Basic setup is: a clear clean container, a small vase or small cup with water and a cling wrap top (secure the cling wrap with a rubber band). The cling wrap acts as a barrier and prevents small cats from inadvertently falling into the water and drowning.  Poke a small hole in the middle of the cling wrap and insert the milkweed stalk. The caterpillar will move to the new milkweed on its own. As the cat eats it poops so once a day (or 2 for smaller cats) simply pick up the vase with the cat and set it on a level surface then dump the frass into the trash or outdoors, it is good fertilizer! The container does not need to be rinsed if the same cat is going back into it but try to knock out all of the frass or use a paper towel to wipe it out.

I use a paper towel over the top of the plastic container held in place with a large rubber band. I also poke small holes in the paper towel with a stick pin, just to be sure there is air circulation.

Keep containers out of direct sunlight and away from any air conditioning vents or fans. A sunny window is NOT a good place to keep them as the heat will be intensified in the container and could literally fry them.  Try not to move the cats when they are being very still and not eating – they molt (shed skin) several times which is a labor intensive process and they should not be disturbed at that time.  While there is no harm in the students touching the caterpillars they should never try to lift them off of a leaf as it can damage the “suction cups” on the bottom of their “legs.” When the caterpillar reaches 5th instar it is fun to see how they react to noise – saying BOOP in a high pitched voice will often make them bop their heads up and down.

It is most important during the 5th instar to be observant: if the cat appears to have stopped eating and moving it means they are soon to go into chrysalis and should not be disturbed.  I add a long stick to each jar before this time again making sure it is free of predators (bamboo skewers are great to use for this!).  Often they will use the stick to hang on but they will most often use the top of the jar and make their chrysalis on the paper towel or even use the stalk of the milkweed to hang on. If you are lucky enough to see this happening it is fascinating. They will hang in a “J” form for many hours and eventually molt their final skin to reveal a bright green new skin underneath which is the chrysalis. Try not to move the container for at least 24 hours so the chrysalis can harden. After that time the container should be cleaned of any remaining frass and milkweed. Try not to touch the chrysalis but also try to keep it in a hanging position. If the chrysalis is on the paper towel just hold the towel in one hand and dump the container out with the other. If the chrysalis is on the stalk of milkweed lift the vase out (keep the stalk in water so it won’t dry out). If the chrysalis is on the stick lift it gently with one hand and dump the container with the other. You’ll get the hang of it! It is important to clean out the frass before the butterfly emerges to keep the environment healthy.

The day before the butterfly emerges the chrysalis will appear to have darkened and look black. It is actually a clear chrysalis so what you are seeing is the color of the monarch wings. It is VERY important that the container is not moved or disturbed at this time! Most butterflies emerge fairly early in the morning (7 to 9am) and when they do it is an awesome sight. They split open the bottom of the chrysalis and then grab onto the shell holding tight as they begin to pump fluids from their body to their wings. The butterfly will appear very misshapen with a very swollen abdomen. A small amount of meconium (orangeish fluid) will be noticeable in the bottom of the container. It is not blood and there is no need to be alarmed. As the butterfly holds onto the shell it will swing back and forth – this is how it pumps the fluid to its wings. It happens quickly and soon it will be flapping its wings. It will hold onto the chrysalis for several hours until its wings have dried. (The stick in the container is also a “backup” just in case the butterfly loses its grip on the chrysalis and falls).  Try to wait about 3 hours before moving the container. After that point it can be released into the garden. Do not worry about food or drink. The butterfly does not need either until it is at least 24 hours old.


Take entire container outside. If it is storming or raining hard try to wait until later or up to 24 hours. Butterflies cannot fly well in rain. Place container on the ground and remove the paper towel lid. Sometimes the butterfly will be so anxious to get out it will fly away as soon as the lid is removed. Most times you can gently insert your hand into the container and it will grab onto your fingers. Very slowly lift your hand out of the container, if done carefully the butterfly will often cling to you for several minutes making for great photo ops! If you don’t want to handle the butterfly at all simply turn the container on its side and it will eventually find its way out.

Let’s Talk about Milkweed:
Monarchs have a reputation among their predators for being “poisonous” and untasty. They ARE poisonous and they get that from the toxins produced in the milkweed that they eat as caterpillars. The milky white sap that is in the stems (and leaves) of the milkweed is also a skin irritant to humans. Proper care should be used when cutting and handling milkweed. ALWAYS wash hands with soap and water after cutting or touching milkweed. Gloves are a good idea as well. Children should never handle cuttings.

Fresh cuttings of milkweed should be given to the cats every couple of days because after a few days the milkweed in the containers will start to wilt and dry up even if it is in water. Failing to give the cats fresh milkweed could result in their death. A cat left in its container in which all the milkweed has been consumed will attempt to go into chrysalis early, at that point the chances for success are slim. It is extremely important for 5th instar cats to have a ready supply of milkweed – their container should be checked several times a day to make certain of that.

Best success without waste of milkweed is to take cuttings that are approximately 3 to 4” tall (4 to 6 leaves per stem). Any larger and the milkweed will dry out or start to yellow before it is consumed. Again, be sure to inspect and remove any bugs and rinse well or wipe each leaf off with a damp paper towel. Get the cuttings into water as quickly as possible and always try to harvest milkweed early in the morning or late in the evening. Cuttings taken during midday or when the plants are in full sun will often result in wilted cuttings that dry up and die before they can be consumed. Even with the best of handling some stalks of milkweed will simply dry up and be inedible very quickly.

As the season progresses more and more predators find the milkweed. Even beneficial insects such as lady bugs will consume monarch eggs while feasting on aphids. Spiders also eat young cats and unfortunately a young cat may inadvertently consume an egg or even a smaller cat while it eats. Ants that are on the plants to harvest honeydew from aphids will kill small cats and eggs. While a female monarch can lay hundreds of eggs, in the wild the chances of her offspring’s survival is rather slim: about 90% of her eggs will not make it to chrysalis. It is particularly important in August and September to be very diligent when harvesting milkweed to remove all insects before using it for food for captive cats.

A note about Tropical Milkweed (this is planted in the barrels)

Tropical Milkweed is a non-native annual that will not reseed (the seed cannot survive our winter temps). While it is shunned by native plant purists, there are many reasons why we continue to grow it as a food source: it is easy to start from seed each year, it handles being cut for food since it resprouts quickly, it harbors fewer predators and it stays fresher in vases longer than other milkweeds. Seed pods from each year’s plants can be saved and stored for the following spring. Pods are “ready” when they turn brown and begin to split open. Seed inside should be brown. Undeveloped and unusable seed will be white or light tan, it should be discarded. Remove seed from “fluff” and store in an envelope in a cool dark place (inside a desk drawer is fine). We’ll get you started with seeds and instructions for next year’s plants.

One final note: sometimes no matter what we do or the precautions we take a cat or butterfly just won’t make it. While my failure rate over the past 10 years has been minimal, I expect much of that has to do with not only being overly-cautious and careful but also because I raise them in a quiet home environment with minimal handling and disturbance which I expect is not so easily done in a busy, active classroom full of enthusiastic young children. The risk is worth it: the long-term impact of observing butterflies in the classroom could help spawn a new generation of butterfly enthusiasts, conservationists and hopefully a future lepidopterist or two!

After watching a Monarch emerge from its chrysalis, this young enthusiast was able to release it at the Dunbar Memorial Garden
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Germinating Milkweed seed varieties: a home gardener’s perspective

Having been bitten by the “grow it” bug many, many years ago, I consider myself pretty adept at nurturing seeds. Over the years I’ve developed my own way of germinating that’s been highly successful whether the seed is annual flowers or heirloom tomatoes (and lots of others in between).

But then along came milkweed.

Once we started the Dunbar Memorial Garden my focus did a hefty 180 with my efforts almost completely focused on native plants including those of the Asclepias variety. Back in 2007 we planted several stands of native milkweed from Swamp (incarnata) to Whorled (verticillata) to Butterfly (tuberosa) and I knew absolutely nothing about any of them except that they would help the Monarch butterfly population. Back then I was still shrouded in a haze of shock, surrounded by myriad of volunteers, focused on every little distraction and certainly incapable of remembering most of the gardening knowledge I had gained during my life. So, in hindsight, it should have come as no great surprise when after 3 or 4 years we all of a sudden realized our garden no longer had any milkweed except the tuberosa. And thus my obsession with it began.

After much research and time spent dissecting information available on the internet (oh boy there’s a lot, and a lot of it unfounded and misguided), I drew a few conclusions: 1) if you want to keep milkweed in your garden, keep planting it 2) if you use a lot of volunteers in your garden including young folks who don’t know the difference between a dandelion and a newly emerging Swamp Milkweed, expect losses in your population 3) growing milkweed from seed requires some patience and timing and 4) repeat item #1 bearing in mind that most milkweed varieties only live from 4 to 6 years with the possible exception of Tuberosa and Syriaca – the latter can be pretty aggressive and does best with lots of space to do so.

I think it’s a gardener’s habit to never be completely satisfied, to always be plotting and planning what to do “next year” or “this fall” – move such and such in front of so and so, oh how lovely this would look paired with that and etc etc etc. But the funny thing is, at least at the Memorial Garden and with the exception of a few random placements that totally worked, the best groupings of our native plants, our native plants basically did on their own. A lovely false blue indigo appeared beneath the tall branches of the bur oak. Next to that a wild bergamot took root. Then “magically” an ironweed sprouted and together they look better than anything I would have planted together. But I digress, back to milkweed.

When we replaced our “missing” milkweed we purchased plants but I wanted to learn to grow it from seed and then to grow different varieties. That fall mature swamp milkweed seed was raked into the soil then lightly covered with soil, we pressed it in by walking over it then watered it and let it go. The next spring we had about 60 new milkweed plants – I hadn’t bothered counting the seeds probably because I was leery of how well they’d do – but I expect I planted over 100.  If you ever want to get really frustrated, google “germination rate of milkweed seed.”

The next fall I planted “pots” into the ground then filled them with soil and added mature milkweed seed from both the garden and seed purchased online. I sowed swamp, white swamp, showy, green and common. Each pot had a different variety. Because I have (damned) squirrels in my backyard I covered the row of pots with a length of lightweight Agribon shade cloth. In the spring, several swamp milkweeds emerged as well as a nice amount of the white swamp but nothing from the other varieties. I was dismayed which led to more research and so this spring I’ve been experimenting and experimenting some more.

I won’t go into too much detail on all the methods I tried but I will share a brief synopsis of each.

  1. Various seed cold stratified (30 days) then planted in pots of vermiculite with bottom heat (a lamp) and overhead light (shop lights). I had varying success with this method. Annual Tropical (curassavica) milkweed did quite well with a 75 to 80% germination rate.  White Swamp (incarnata) also performed well with about 60% germination. Results for other varieties including Showy, Prairie and Common were very low. Only a few sprouted.
  2. Various seed cold stratified (30 days) then planted into raised beds in a hobby greenhouse. Seeds were planted about 1/2″ deep. Results were absolutely awful, only about 6 plants out of about 60 seeds germinated. On a side note, we had extremes in weather that month with heat, cool, rain and hot sun. I did not attempt to control the temps in the greenhouse with the exception of opening/closing doors and windows.
  3. Various seed cold stratified (except Tropical) placed in small clear plastic containers of water with sealed lids, placed under shop lights with bottom heat (lamp). Tropical milkweed germinated at 100%!!! White Swamp germinated at 40%, nothing else germinated.
  4. Various seed cold MOIST stratified (placed in baggies with damp vermiculite) for 30 days then sown into small pots of damp vermiculite and placed on top of the refrigerator (for bottom heat). For this experiment I used Spider (viridis), Tall Green (hirtella) and Poke (exaltata) milkweed seed from Prairie Moon Nursery. Within a matter of days (!!!) seeds began germinating and after 1 week they are all about 50% germinated. Because the top of my fridge is dark (it’s under a cabinet), today I moved the seedlings under lights and added bottom heat (lamp).

So far my favorite method (at least for starting milkweed indoors) is number 4. I plan to wait a week or so then pot up the seedlings and later this month move them outdoors. Since it is so late in the season (and Kentucky is damn hot in July and August) I may keep them potted and protected growing outdoors until Fall when I’ll move them into the ground. Updates on this method will be forthcoming.

Milkweed seed was mixed with damp vermiculite in a resealable baggie then refrigerated for 30 days
After about 1 week, seeds were moved from the top of the fridge to a grow area under shop lights with a lamp for bottom heat


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Monarch Watch “Milkweed for Restoration Projects”

We are thrilled (as is evident by Jesse’s dads expression) to participate in the Milkweed for Restoration Projects program of Monarch Watch.

These beautiful Whorled Milkweed plants arrived today!

Since 2014 the Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trust has been the key steward for the  Deauville Riparian Buffer Project along Vaughn’s Branch in Cardinal Valley and while we have added milkweed that we propagated at the Dunbar Memorial Garden, this shipment of plants will help us make a real difference for Monarch Butterflies.

Did we tell you we are THRILLED?

A little background on the whys and wherefores of our project. Back in 2001 the city of Lexington purchased a row of houses along Deauville Drive – the area was deemed a floodplain and the houses were removed. The Lexington Urban County Council created a  Greenway Master Plan whose vision is “to create a community-wide system of linkages that will contribute to the connectivity, preservation, protection and enhancement of riparian corridors, floodplain areas, environmentally sensitive areas, biologically diverse natural areas and habitats.” Incentive grants were offered and a variety of local organizations and environmental activists were encouraged to help.

But why the “Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trust” you might ask? Well, we certainly had no designs on becoming involved in riparian buffer restoration but two factors encouraged us to do so: 1) Deauville Drive is part of Jesse’s neighborhood (here in Cardinal Valley) and 2) the Dunbar Memorial Garden – an all native plant garden we helped build in Jesse’s honor – a project he had been involved in to honor the life of another student at his high school.

The garden, now 10 years old, is a constant source of inspiration to us and we have dedicated countless hours to its care and upkeep. In return, that “sacred space” as a friend calls it, has rewarded us with hundreds of baby plants that we in turn sell at our annual plant sale to help fund not only the continued maintenance of the garden but also of the Trusts’ projects, programs, scholarships and awards. It is “sustainability” with a capital S.

And now the natural progression becomes clearer.

The Deauville Drive greenway encompasses about 5 acres of land that we are slowly but surely turning into a native plant habitat. There you will find countless varieties of native trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers – including Milkweed for Monarchs!

Monarch on Rattlesnake Master

The work has been labor-intensive, especially given the amount of invasive nonnative honeysuckle we’ve removed but with help from our volunteers (including students from Dunbar High School and The Learning Center), it is becoming a remarkable place that is good for our environment and the “critters” who call it home.

And this week, thanks to Monarch Watch, we’ll be planting plenty of Asclepias syriaca (Common Milkweed) and Asclepias verticillata (Whorled Milkweed) and posting regularly to document this newest addition to the Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trusts’ repertoire of projects.




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Milkweed for sale at Dunbar Memorial Garden’s 8th annual Native Plant Sale

On Saturday, May 13th the Trust will once again host our annual Native Plant Sale at Dunbar High School.  This will be our 8th sale and most likely our best – over time we’ve learned so much not only about native plants but about propagating, tending, best potting practices and even a little about what Jesse called “shameless self-promotion.”

The Dunbar Memorial Garden is rich with natives, our best “guesstimate” is that we have over 60 different species of plants from trees to shrubs, flowers to grasses and this year we are focusing on two important themes: Monarch Butterflies and native pollinators.

A little about our native Swamp Milkweed – it is home-grown, chemical free, “organic” milkweed: the plants are 2 years old with 2, 3, or 4 stems in each pot. It takes a lot of time, luck, wishful thinking and patience to grow perennial milkweed from seed! Seed was gathered as it matured in the Fall of 2015 then immediately “planted” in a protected area of the garden and lightly mulched with dried shredded leaves. Once it sprouted in the Spring and after developing two true sets of leaves the plants were carefully relocated to give them each plenty of room to develop. Last Fall (in October of 2016) those plants were then carefully lifted from the soil of the garden and potted up in tall, deep pots. The pots were then “planted” in a new protected area and left to over winter. This Spring (thankfully!) all the plants emerged and have been growing strong.  Prior to the plant sale they are inspected then re-potted into larger containers.  They look amazing!

The “very dirty” white pot on the right is the pot-in-ground pot that kept the milkweed safe all winter!

In our next blog post tomorrow, we’ll talk about our seed grown annual Tropical Milkweed – an excellent cutting milkweed for raising Monarch caterpillars in captivity. We’ll have two varieties of that at our Plant Sale on May 13th.

We’ll leave you with a beautiful photo of  Swamp Milkweed in bloom taken from the Dunbar Memorial Garden last summer:


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Follow the Dollar

According to The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (via National Philanthropic Trust), 65% of households give to charity.

Sixty-five percent sounds good, since, according to IRS data, less than a third (32.64%) of all tax returns filed with them in 2010 included itemized deductions, which is where charitable contributions deductions are taken by individuals. If more people are donating than are itemizing their deductions, this means that people don’t just throw money at nonprofits for the sake of tax savings; there must be an element of philanthropy at work.

But how are those dollars contributed put to work? How do we know that the organizations we give to are actually doing with it – for the most part – what we intended?

Most, if not all, states require nonprofits to register with their attorney general’s office.

Secular nonprofits are required to apply with the IRS to gain tax exempt status, and thereafter, most are required to file some type of the federal Form 990 with the IRS every year. The 990 is – while not an income tax return, per se – a document that provides some information about the activities of the nonprofit for the year.

Nonprofits have long been required to make copies of these documents available for public inspection, but in the stone-age prior to the internet, this necessitated either mailing copies out on request, or having those documents available for viewing at their main location during “normal business hours.”

With the internet, it’s become a lot easier to check on how donated dollars are spent. There are several websites – the most well-known are and — that collect tax returns of charities from the IRS, and often summarize the more donor-pertinent data from them and assign a rating to the organization in order to assist donors in making their decisions regarding where to spend their contribution dollars. One of the things that make these sites great is that they often offer users the ability to view a good deal of information about a nonprofit – free of charge! A “guest” user can view basic information about nonprofits and after creating a free account can view the federal Forms 990 filed by the organization.

But there is a downside to some of these rating sites. Because there are so many charitable organizations in existence, the smaller ones are often ignored by the major rating sites. For example, The Jesse Higginbotham Technology Trust, Inc. is not required to file the “long form,” or regular Form 990, annually with the IRS; we can file a Form 990-N, or 990-EZ. For 2011, we did file the long form, but since we are not required to file it, we are not eligible to be rated by Charity Navigator.

As an accounting professional of a couple of decades at this point, until the Trust came into existence, I had no experience in accounting for or any IRS issues for charitable organizations. As recently as a year ago, I recall that GuideStar had a similar policy to CharityNavigator regarding the smaller nonprofits and “ratings”, and in my research for preparing our first financial Form 990, read a how-to book that encouraged small nonprofits to go with the long form, in order to qualify for a rating on that site. A recent perusal of the GuideStar site, however, doesn’t appear to mention the requirement for the long form. This may or may not be due to the higher thresholds – beginning in 2010 – allowing for the shorter-form filing, which allows organizations with $200,000 or less in annual receipts and $500,000 or less in assets to use the EZ version; nonprofits with normal annual receipts of $50,000 or less can simply file the 990-N.

So we could probably file the e-postcard (990-N) indefinitely, unless the IRS changes its rules. Will we? Probably not. While the IRS seems to be making it easier for the small nonprofits – and accountants do not come cheap, you know – we are fortunate in having a board of individuals who are dedicated to assisting their Treasurer in gathering the data needed to present accurate financial information to our donors, the IRS, and anyone else who is interested. We are fortunate in that aspect, because so many worthy causes do not have access to free labor from CPA’s, seasoned bookkeepers, and otherwise well-educated and experienced people.

Jesse believed in helping others by sharing knowledge and we’d like to share some with you. It may seem daunting to someone without an accounting background to review an organizations Federal Form 990 but it’s not THAT difficult. Go to and sign up, sign in and search for the organization you are interested in. Once on a profile page, scroll down until you see “Forms 990 from IRS” (see our red arrow).

Open a current or past Form 990 in pdf and start familiarizing yourself with the layout. Generally you will find “Compensation of Officers, Directors and Highest Compensated Employees” on Page 7 and/or 8. As well, expenses to run an organizations various programs will be listed on page 2. And if you really want an in-depth accounting, you can find “Functional Expenses” on or about Page 10. Depending on the size of the nonprofit, the 990 can range in length from twenty pages upward to several hundred pages. Use the “find” option to search for specific data and don’t be daunted by the volume of information. If you see an organization that raises $230,000 but then spends $100,000 to pay its staff, well, depending on you, you might want to place your dollar elsewhere.

As a donor, we encourage you to register at and thoroughly research the nonprofits you are interested in helping. While you might be surprised at some of the information you find, you should be better able to determine if your hard-earned dollars are being spent in a manner that is in-keeping with your decision to donate. And remember, if a nonprofit can’t tell you how they spend your money, it might be an indicator that you shouldn’t give it to them.


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Take Back the Night

Working against sexual violence has been a passion of mine for years now. Through all the different programs I have participated in, the well known Take Back the Night has always been a favorite. Lexington is hosting our own Take Back the Night this Wednesday, led by the University of Kentucky’s Violence Intervention and Prevention Center.

Take Back the Night - March 27, 2013
Take Back the Night – March 27, 2013

My first Take Back the Night was in Ann Arbor, Michigan while I was an undergrad. I remember two of my initial reactions clearly – it was cold, and it was unsettling to be talking about rape, an issue that has become so stigmatized and politicized, so publicly. But any discomfort I felt went away quickly and I was left with just a feeling of awe. Inspired by the strength of the survivors who spoke out, the friends and family supporting their loved ones, the allies working to end the violence, and the community that came together put together this event – a community that finally did what was right and encouraged a diversity of voices and perspectives to speak out about rape.

Since my first Take Back the Night, I have been determined to continue to work to break the silence, continue to get rid of the stigma, continue to support the voices of survivors, in hopes of creating a community that every day makes it clear that victims and survivors aren’t to be blamed, but instead are to be supported and loved. Take Back the Night is a unique experience, one that is simultaneously heart-breaking and empowering. You stand and listen to how rape has effected the lives of so many people and it is shocking and sad, and frustrating. But you also watch as people come together, you witness people’s strength, and you are inspired to really try and make change.

If there is one event I could recommend, it would be Take Back the Night. VIP’s schedule for Take Back the Night is filled with wonderful parts and you can choose what you wish to participate in. The march starts at 7 PM at three different locations (Patterson Office Tower at UK, 3rd Street Stuff, and Thoroughbred Park). We will meet for the rally at 7:30 at the courthouse plaza, where we will have amazing guest speakers and performers, a speak out, and a candlelight vigil. And finally, there is the after party at 3rd Street Stuff. For more information, check out the VIP center’s website. I hope to see you there.

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Drawing with Tux Paint and spelling “Kangaroo”

Whoa…What a busy day at Mindtriggerz!  One of our new clients came back for his second session on the computers.  Just two more and he will have his own at home.  He has mastered finding the letters on the keyboard and managed to beat me at the connect four game a few times before he had to go home. We can’t wait wait to see him next week.

Another even younger client came back for her second time. She really blew us away learning her alphabet using an animal game. By the end of her session she was able to spell kangaroo by sounding it out!  I’m telling you these kids are amazing.

Then we had a pair of brothers; one in kindergarten and one in middle school. Jerome showed the older brother how he could use the games to work on his math and science skills. They worked on times table, fractions, and even got into some algebra. I worked with the little one and we played lots of animals and matching games, then wrapped up the session playing with the Tux Paint program.

Tux Paint!
Tux Paint!

We also had a client from over a year ago come in needing us to check out their system. We love it when clients come to us when they have issues with their computers. We are more than happy to fix any bugs or replace any parts that are no longer working. After taking a look at it it was decided he needed a whole new computer and he will be getting it next Saturday afternoon.

At the end of the day as an extra bonus we had some parents come in asking about our program. They had seen several of our flyers that were distributed through Cardinal Valley Elementary and decided to check it out. They filled out an application and will be starting their sessions next weekend. That’s 3 more kids to train and one more computer! I can’t wait! Why is next Saturday so far away?

On a personal note I have started the first of 400 hours of field work required for my social work degree at Cardinal Valley Elementary. I have enjoyed working with the wonderful staff in their newly renovated school. Have you seen it? The place looks fantastic. The kids are adorable and I’ve learned a whole mountain of new things about working with children just in the few days I’ve spent observing. I knew I would learn about social work, but I had no idea that I’d learn to be a better volunteer for Mindtriggerz. I just might be the luckiest gal in the world.


Don’t forget to “like” us out on Facebook! 🙂


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