How to Grow Series

Milkweed

You might be asking yourself, “Why would I want to grow milkweed”? It’s not all that attractive and the blooms aren’t that pretty either. It’s always getting eaten up and just looks terrible by the end of the summer. Well the short answer is, “If you don’t grow milkweed, the monarch butterfly will become extinct”. More on Saving Monarch Butterflies can be found here.

Most milkweed varieties prefer to be grown in full sun and in light, airy soils that dry out well between watering. If you happen to notice milkweed in the wild, it is usually along roadsides or ditches and gets no supplemental watering or fertilizing, so it’s very easy to grow.

You might be able to find milkweed plants from small garden centers or plant sales sponsored by local gardening groups. If so, then simply transplant the milkweed seedling into a full sun area that is well drained. Water the plants about once a week, until they get established, which will take about 4-6 weeks. Once you start seeing new growth, you probably won’t need to water the plants unless you are experiencing severe drought.

It might be easier to find milkweed seeds than plants. There are several organizations online that will send you free seeds for the cost of postage. Some good choices are www.saveourmonarchs.org, www.livemonarch.com, www.monarchwatch.org, and www.thebutterflyfarm.com. If there are any gardening groups in your area, you may even be able to share seeds with other members. Once you get milkweed established in your own yard, you will have seeds to share and spread around for years to come.

Milkweed seeds can be a little tricky to get to germinate, but if you follow these simple steps, germination rates will be greatly improved.

  1. Place several milkweed seeds on a moist paper towel and place inside a plastic zip lock bag. Place this bag in your fridge for 3-6 weeks. This cold period is needed for most milkweed varieties to germinate.
  2. Once the milkweed seeds have had a cold period in the fridge, put the seeds in warm water and let them soak for 12-24 hours.
  3. Place moist seed starting mix in small pots and place 2-3 seeds on top of the soil in each pot. Press the seed into the soil and then sprinkle a little potting mix loosely on top of the soil so that they are not covered with more than a 1/4” of soil.
  4. Using a spray bottle full of water, mist the top of each pot to moisten the potting soil. Cover the pots with a clear plastic bag or a cover so that the soil retains moisture and doesn’t dry out before the seeds germinate.
  5. Place the pots in a warm, sunny location so that the soil reaches and maintains 75 degrees F. This is best achieved indoors or in a greenhouse. You can use a grow light or a seed germinating mat to help obtain the appropriate temperature for germination.
  6. Once the seeds have germinated (usually within 7-10 days), you should begin watering the pots from the bottom. This will encourage a strong root system and discourage fungal growth which can kill a young seedling.
  7. If all the seeds germinated in each pot, it is important to thin out the unwanted seedlings so that the strongest one can grow and thrive. I generally take a small pair of scissors and snip off the seedling I don’t want at the soil line. This is better than pulling out the seedling as you could disturb the soil too much and kill the remaining seedling. The seedlings are very fragile at this stage and won’t tolerate having their roots disturbed.
  8. Plants are ready to be transplanted when they are about 4” tall and the roots have begun to fill the pot. Wait until all threat of frost is past. Before transplanting outdoors, you should harden off any seedlings that were grown indoors or in a greenhouse. Learn how to properly harden off seedlings here.
  9. At the end of the growing season, milkweed will produce seed heads and the seeds can either be harvested or allowed to self-sow on their own. You can always transplant the young seedlings in spring if they are not where you want them to be or want to share plants with others. Saving a few seeds at the end of the season can ensure that you can start more plants on your own in case they don’t self-sow. To learn more about how to harvest seeds check this article here.

I hope this article has helped you to establish milkweed in your own garden so that you can help save the monarch butterflies.

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