Planting Milkweed in Your Home Garden

milkweed and monarch

Milkweed has become a common gardening buzz word these days. Many people have joined the mission to bring back the beloved Monarch Butterfly. Milkweed is the only host plant for the Monarch larvae. The flowers of milkweeds produce pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
There are several kinds of milkweed grown in Iowa. Common (Asclepias syriaca) is most often seen throughout the road ditches. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) and prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) are all native to Iowa and make good choices for growing in the home landscape. Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) is not native but often enjoyed in the home garden and grown as an annual. Read more about each kind to determine which best fits your needs.
Now is the time for the collection of milkweed pods. Mature pods are those that are within a day or two of opening. Squeeze the pods and if they don’t open easily, they are not mature enough. The seeds need to be mature and brown.
Milkweed bugs use their beak to pierce and feed on milkweed seeds, rendering them inviable. Do not collect open pods containing these milkweed bugs.
Dry freshly collected pods in an open area with good air circulation. Once the pods are thoroughly dry, it is time to separate the seeds from the coma – the silk like material attached to the seeds. One way to do this is to strip the seeds and coma from the dried pods into a paper bag. Shake the bag to separate the seeds and then cut a small hole in one corner of the bag bottom. The seeds can be shaken out while the coma remains in the bag to be disposed of without flying all over. Store dried seeds in a cool dry environment.
Milkweed seeds can be sewn directly into the soil in the fall…..October & November are good months. The soil needs to be cool enough that the seeds do not germinate immediately. Scatter seeds and cover with approximately ¼” soil.
Milkweed seeds, like many native plants, need to feel a cold winter before they can germinate. If planting is going to occur in the spring, keep seeds cold until ready to plant. A refrigerator works well, or a spot in the garage or basement can work also.
The seeds can be direct sown in the spring, but transplants seem to have a better success rate. Plant in small pots or trays about 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. Once the danger of frost is past and the plant has 4 leaves, they are ready to go outside.
Seed balls can also be made. Mix equal parts of simple clay kitty litter and sifted compost and add enough water to make “mud”. Mix 2-3 seeds into the center of the ball and let dry. Store your seed ball in a cool location until planting time in the spring. Lay on top of the soil and water well.
Milkweed grows best in sunny location, allowing plenty of room between plants for the roots to spread. When planting milkweeds, choose your site carefully as they are difficult to transplant.
Once you have milkweed growing in your home landscape, you are sure to attract those beloved Monarch butterflies and will soon find yourself gathering little caterpillars, and growing them indoors to insure their survival. But that is topic for another article in the spring!

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