Text and photos by L Heroux, FWG volunteer
The monarch migration is truly one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, yet it is threatened by habitat loss. . . The need for host plants for larvae and energy sources for adults applies to all monarch and butterfly populations around the world. — MonarchWatch (www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/)
If you’ve never grown anything from seed, growing milkweed is a great way to start. You will develop skills applicable to starting other types of plants, and you could become part of a cross-continental chain of waystations dedicated to sustaining the entire lifecycle of monarch butterflies. The FWG is a registered Monarch Waystation. Your garden could be too!
Excited? Let’s get started!
In the fall, take a walk along an old railway bed, or amble through industrial wastelands, areas being bulldozed for new housing, or your local countryside, looking for common milkweed. Be mindful of your steps, respect nearby vegetation, and only cull a few seeds per pod or a few pods per patch. You don’t need much!
Now toss your seeds into a paper envelope and store it in your cold garage over the winter. If rodents hibernate in your garage, make sure they cannot get to the seeds! No garage? Any other safe, dry, cold place will do. If you forget to collect seeds in the fall, you can go out any time through the winter or very early spring and cull seeds from any dry stalks you can find.
Note: You can increase germination rate by storing your seeds in damp vermiculite for at least 3 months.
You want to start your seeds as early as possible, probably March, or April at the latest.
Get some seed starting mix, moisten it, and think reuse: old egg cartons, various plastic containers that you bought food in, pretty much anything goes! If it doesn’t already have holes in the bottom, make one or two. I like clear plastic egg cartons because I can watch the roots as they develop. I also use the plastic cover as a drip tray. But use your imagination and what you have at hand. No need to buy anything!
Plant the seeds a good inch deep, and thereafter keep the soil consistently moist.
Once your seeds sprout, set them on a windowsill that gets lots of sun. After they have grown a few sets of leaves and have good roots, graduate them to 4” pots (reuse food containers if possible). Then, when weather permits, start setting them outdoors in a sheltered spot (that is, sheltered from direct sun, wind, rain, and squirrels) for a few hours each day. Expand the degree of exposure gradually, depending on the weather and the hardiness of your babies.
Voilà! You’re done! Come the long weekend of May, your brood should be ready to be planted in their designated spots in your Monarch Waystation in-the-making!
I harvested some pods 3 weeks ago. They are split and loaded with seeds. Thanks for the tips on what to do next.
[…] loss in the US has affected monarch populations so I tried to grow some from free seeds. It wasn’t that easy. I managed to get one scraggly plant. But that was all it took. Three years later, I have a patch. […]
Hi got my free seeds today may 20..its not too late to start planting from small container.. and transfer it to the area later when sprouted and rooted good.. Txs
I’m starting this on the last week of May. Hope it’s not too late.
It’s too late to stratify, but if the seeds have already had a couple of months in the cold, then they will germinate. You can also try planting them without cold treatment. The germination rate will be lower, but some seeds will likely grow.
Love milk weed and butterflys.
So frost isnt a issue? Or is this just pertain to United states. Where I live we get frost into early June.
If the seeds are stratified, you can plant them any time. Normally they would be outside where the frost is. The only reason to stratify them inside is to make sure you don’t lose them to some hungry creature or nature moving things around.
I have just harvested some milkweed pods (2) and have put their seeds in a sealed envelope today (Sept 17th 2021) and want to know should they be put in the fride since I do not have access to a garage or outbuilding. Then come March 2022 I put them in the egg carton with starting mix etc. until the long weekend in May or thereafter and plant? I am in Spencerville Ontario.
Yes, we put ours in a refrigerator for 3 months. You’ll get better germination if you mix them with damp vermiculite first (or a damp paper towel) and put them in a ziploc bag. I’m surprised the seeds are ripe this early??
I am assuming the seeds are ripe now since one of the pods popped open at the seam and the other popped easily when pried at the seam. The seeds are dry and a nice chocolate brown colour (not light brown or white). I had no trouble separating the floss from the seeds (floss was dry and easily grabbed at the top). So not to be obtuse but when you say in the fridge for 3 months, do I just leave the seeds in the envelope in a drawer until March rolls around and then put the seeds into a damp vermiculite or damp paper towel and seal the ziploc bag and put them in the frigde until the long weekend in May or a little later. I ask because I would hate to have no result simply because of not following the instructions about them being cold before starting them in the spring. I need very precise steps to follow just to feel confident about trying new things and since I had a disappointing result from my newly planted meadow this spring I am not sure that I will have better luck with milkweed. I am very surprised and pleased to receive any reply to my question in the first place. Thank you so much Sandra.
Great!! From your description, seeds are definitely ripe. I would leave them in a paper envelope for about a month, then mix them with damp vermiculite and seal them in a ziploc bag and put them into the refrigerator. They can be in damp vermiculite for longer than 3 months (that’s just the minimum). I have kept them in the refrigerator for 6 months and they still germinate just fine.
We have a Community Garden in the City of Arlington, TX, I would like to start a Monarch Waystation.
Thank you, Wendy from Spencerville Ontario, for asking your question so precisely, and thank you Sandra for answering Wendy’s question so clearly. I just finished my second season of Monarch raising, having released well over 100 butterflies this year alone…I am now ready to begin growing my own garden of common and swamp milkweed. However, I have absolutely no gardening experience! I live in Thunder Bay, Ontario so we also can have frost up to the end of May.
I have many milkweed seeds from last year that I just found (I had lost the envelope) and I am wondering can they be viable for planting now? Today is July 8th and I am in Ontario Canada around the St. Lawrence River, south of Ottawa, Ontario.
Hi Wendy. I’m a hobby gardener, not an expert, but I would definitely plant them now. Nothing to lose by trying and they have more than two months to grow and get established. FYI, I’m in Ottawa.
I’ve just been given some seeds today, so I’m curious too – is it too late for this year?