You’ve probably heard about the plight of the monarch butterfly. For years, monarchs have been struggling to find the plant most vital to their survival: milkweed. As a result of the widespread use of herbicides, milkweed has become scarce along the monarchs’ 2,500-mile migration from Mexico to northern Minnesota. As a result, the monarch population has dropped as much as 90%.

 

Bonnie Juran learned about the critical loss of monarch habitat soon after becoming a master gardener. One of her first projects was establishing a butterfly garden in Marine on St. Croix. Armed with new knowledge about the trees, shrubs, and plants that attract pollinators, Bonnie established a butterfly-friendly garden in her own Lake Elmo yard. Before long, she was tending to monarchs in her very own butterfly house, raising over 600 butterflies one year, and sharing monarch eggs with curious neighbors.

Milkweed can be beautifully integrated into a garden full of pollinator-friendly plants to attract monarchs.

 

As she learned more about the threat herbicides pose to monarchs, Bonnie began teaching classes through Stillwater Community Education. She describes it as “a program to teach gardeners how to support the monarch butterfly one garden at a time.” Classes include “Monarchs, Milkweeds & Miracles” and “Raising Monarchs Responsibly.”

 

Find the right milkweed for your garden

Some gardeners shy away from milkweed because of its tendency to spread. It’s true that Common Milkweed has a long taproot that makes moving the plant difficult once it’s established. However, there are several types of milkweed to choose from, and just as many ways to integrate the plant into your garden.

Swamp milkweed is a cultivar that thrives in the wet soil conditions typical in a garden bed.

 

Here are a few tips from Bonnie:

  • Plant Swamp Milkweed, a plant that tolerates the wet conditions typical in a garden.
  • For container gardening, choose Tropical Milkweed, a variety that thrives in large pots.
  • Improve your odds for success by purchasing plants from a nursery rather than sowing seeds, but make sure that the plants haven’t been treated with neonecotinoids, a harmful insecticide.
  • Plant more than one species of milkweed to increase the likelihood that monarchs will find a refuge in your yard.
This time of year, Bonnie prepares for gardening by winter-sowing milkweed seeds she harvested last fall.

 

 

When to expect monarchs in Minnesota

Monarchs depend on milkweed to lay eggs and nectar plants to feed through their entire migration. Bonnie encourages home gardeners to watch for monarch eggs as soon as milkweed begins to grow. In her own garden, milkweed usually emerges around the end of May, but depending on weather, it’s sometimes June or July before she spots the plant. Once milkweed emerges, she knows monarchs will soon follow.

Monarch eggs are so small that the untrained eye could easily miss them. They appear as small yellow dots about the size of a pinhead that monarchs usually lay atop or beneath milkweed leaves. Monarchs typically lay one or two eggs on a plant, but if they migrate early due to unseasonably warm weather, they might cover a few small plants with eggs.

A single monarch caterpillar can easily eat an entire milkweed plant, which is another reason why it’s so important to plant as much milkweed as possible. Once a butterfly emerges, abundant nectar plants will help to ensure its survival. Plenty of flowers and herbs make wonderful pollinator plants and nectar for monarchs.

While it might feel as though winter will never end, the monarchs are already on the move. The website Journey North maps monarch sightings, contributing to a country-wide map of real-time migration info. Even though it has been a slow spring, you can prepare your garden for the monarchs’ arrival now by winter sowing milkweed seeds.

 

How to winter-sow milkweed seeds

Supplies: white or clear plastic containers (i.e. milk jugs or ice cream buckets), potting soil, rocks, seeds, tape, permanent marker, scissors, spray bottle

Towering husks of last season’s pollinator plants line the path to the front door of Bonnie’s Lake Elmo home.

 

  1. Clean your containers with soapy water.
  2. Punch drainage holes in the bottom of each container. Also, make holes in the lid/top of your container to allow rain and moisture in. If you’re using a milk jug, you can simply remove the cap.
  3. If your container doesn’t have a lid, cut the container around 3/4 of the middle, leaving a small hinge, allowing you to open the top.
  4. Place rocks at the bottom of the container to encourage drainage. Bonnie uses horticultural charcoal.
  5. Scoop potting mix into the container. At least three inches of soil will prevent a plant from becoming root-bound.
  6. Thoroughly wet the potting soil.
  7. Sprinkle your seeds over the potting soil and cover lightly.
  8. Spray the seeds with water to avoid disturbing the soil.
  9. Seal your container tape (clear packing tape works well), or put the lid back on. Label it with the date. Bonnie usually checks her containers for growth after 30 days.
  10. Place your container outside. Look for a spot that will receive moisture and sun.
Winter-sown seeds may show signs of growth after 30 days outdoors. Keep an eye on the containers to make sure the soil stays moist.

Once your plants are outdoors, keep an eye on them to make sure condensation is collecting inside the container. As the weather warms, they’ll need water more frequently. Soon your milkweed seeds will sprout in their mini-greenhouses.

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  1. Butterfly weed seeds could be cultivated the same way. They may take a little longer to emerge from the soil. Once established Butterfly weed prefers a sunny, dry location. They also do not like to be moved.

  2. Would Butterfly Weed seeds be cultivated in the same manner? I’ve had a few spread from the original plant but I can’t seem to get the seeds to take root. Not that I’m doing it very scientifically. In the fall I take the seed pods and try to mush them into my ditches – but clearly that’s not working. Thank you