How to Grow Milkweed for a Butterfly Garden
Tips to Successfully Growing Milkweed
- You should plant your milkweed in an area that receives full sun.
- Plant out of the direct path of foot traffic to protect any baby monarchs that will live there.
- If you’ll be planting them in an area that is very weedy, you should till, mow or harrow the site first to prevent the weeds from out-competing the seedlings.
- Planting in the spring? You may want to put them in your refrigerator inside a sealed plastic bag for 3-6 weeks, or in the freezer for a day or two followed by a day of thawing. This will help trigger the germination process when you plant them by mimicking the winter they didn’t experience in your garden. Or you can skip this process by planting in the fall and letting nature chill the seeds for you. Wait until the danger of frost has passed.
- Planting in the fall? Plant before the ground freezes but after the first killing frost, so they don’t accidentally sprout too soon.
Planting from SeedWhen it’s time to plant, mix the seeds with ten times as much vermiculite, rice hulls or sand to make it easier to broadcast evenly. Loosen the top two inches of the soil where you will be planting. A 1/8 lb kit will cover about 500 square feet. Broadcast the seed mixture, then tamp down the soil. Lightly cover the area with compost or straw, but be careful not to bury the seeds too deeply or they will not sprout. Aim for 1/8 inch depth, and no more than 1/4 inch. You will need to irrigate the seeds for at least four to six weeks while they germinate, and another time or two in the dry season, but they will naturalize once they reseed and take root with the winter rains in subsequent years. You may need to supplement the area with more seeds the next year as your patch gets established. If the site where you planted them gets limited water, or has erosion or weed problems, you may need to plant again in future years as well.
Other Things to Consider About Milkweed
- Some varieties can be invasive. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) can spread through underground rhizomes. So if you have limited space you may want to avoid these varieties.
- Milkweed is poisonous to animals if browsed, so plant it away from areas with livestock or a pet run.
- Milkweed will ooze out a "milk" that can cause eye damage if it finds its way into an eye.
- Monarchs have an easier time finding your milkweed if you plant more than one plant.
How to Collect Seeds from the Milkweed Pods
- Don't collect too early. If you open up the pod and the seeds are light brown or even white, they will not be viable for planting the next season.
- Collect the seeds before the pod opens up. So one way to avoid them bursting open is to put a rubber band around the pod (not wrapped too tight, just loosely).
- You know the pod is ready to collect when you squeeze it and the center seam makes a popping sound.
- You will want to remove the seeds from the floss or fluff. Start from the pointed end, grab that end and pull it out of the pod. Keep holding the center section and knock the seeds off as you hold the floss.
- If the pods have already popped and the fluff is coming out, simply collect it (with the seeds attached), put it into a paper bag with a few pennies. Close and shake the bag. This will separate the seeds from the fluff.
- If you are not planning on planting until the following spring, you can store the dry seeds in a paper bag, plastic bag or jar. Place in the refrigerator until ready for use.
Check out the Monarch Watch website. It has great information on monarchs and how to create a Monarch Waystation. Grow some milkweed and flowers for nectar, and grow organic for life!