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!
In Ontario, common milkweed is classified as a noxious weed. However, you can grow it in your home garden, if you meet the criteria of the Weed Control Act. Essentially, you must not endanger commercial crops or horticultural nurseries. See www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/faq_weeds_act.htm for full details.
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. See Growing native plants from seed: cold stratification
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!