Providing milkweed for monarchs

[Continued from Garden center staffers raise, release hundreds of monarchs]

To encourage Natureworks customers to also create monarch butterfly habitats, the store recently welcomed customers to attend an informational workshop on growing milkweed from seed. "If you plant it, they will come!" she said.

For milkweed seeds to be viable, they
need to be harvested after the milkweed
pod has opened on its own.
The key to growing viable milkweed  any type  is to use seeds from milkweed pods that have popped open on their own. St. John warned to not use seeds from green pods because they are not yet ready. (If you are worried about the seeds spreading before you are ready to plant, St. John advised putting a rubber band around the seed pod to keep it closed until you are ready to harvest it.)

One way to grow milkweed is to place the pod outside in late fall, so that the seeds will be exposed to moist stratification. (Basically this is when the seed is cold, then wet, then dries out. This process continues throughout the winter, causing the seed to "wake up" and germinate.) It could take two winters for milkweed to grow this way.

Wherever you decide to plant the milkweed seeds outside, St. John recommends marking the area so baby plants are not accidentally weeded out next spring.

Another way to start the seeds outside is to plant the seeds in trays in late November and December and place them in a protected area, specifically away from cold northwesterly winter winds. (An area next to the shed is one possible area.) Let the leaves land on top of it, as any other overwintering plant would experience. "When it warms again, say April, move the tray to where there's more sun," said St. John.

To start any milkweed seed indoors (end of January/beginning of February in the northeast), you'll need a paper towel and a plastic bag. Moisten the paper towel so it is damp (not soaked) and place your seeds on top. St. John said to roll up the paper towel and place it inside the plastic bag and then keep it refrigerated for 45 to 60 days. After 45 to 60 days have passed, take the plastic bag out of the fridge and plant them in seed containers (St. John recommended cow pots for ease of transport) with seed-starting soil. Some of the seeds may have begun to germinate already. Mix some kelp in, since it helps seeds germinate, according to St. John. And if you want to germinate the seeds even faster, she recommends using a heat mat. (St. John's stratified seeds germinated within five days with a heat mat.) Keep the seedlings indoors until the last frost has passed.

Yet another method of growing milkweed involves the annual variety. However, for those who live in the southern United States, St. John said to chop it down and let it regrow so it doesn't carry over bacteria into the next growing season. (The bacteria can lead to problems for the monarchs.)

"Annual milkweed is good for people who want to do this but only have a deck," she said. 

To make new plants from annual milkweed (before the frost gets it), cut underneath the leaf nodes. But be careful to not get the sap in your eyes. (This applies to all milkweed.) "It will be a hospital trip – you won't be able to see within two to three hours," she said as she cut pieces to root. (It is also important to not let children touch the milkweed sap, if they want to help with the process.) To seal the milkweed cuttings, wash the ends under running water until the sap stops coming out.

Remove any leaves that would be submerged in water, and place the cuttings in water to root. St. John advised to change the water every few days and keep it in a bright area. "After a month you'll start to see little roots," she said.

St. John will also be speaking about nurturing monarchs at the upcoming Northeast Organic Farming Association's (NOFA) conference on Dec. 9.

To learn more, St. John recommends reading "How to Raise Monarch Butterflies" by Carol Pasternak.

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