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If you plant it, They will come.

Are you thinking about planting a ‘Butterfly garden’ this spring? The need for initial planning cannot be stressed enough when it comes to any garden, especially if you are going to propogate Milkweed and plant to attract butterflies.  Here are a few bullet points to make note of before you embark on your project.  

  • Place your butterfly garden in full sun and partial shade
  • Know the sun, water and soil requirements of your plant selections
  • Choose plants that offer a variety of colors, shapes, heights, sizes and growth habits
  • Plant both butterfly host plants and nectar sources

There are a variety of plants that you can choose from to attract butterflies, such as Black-Eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia hirta) Firebush, (Hamelia patens), or Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) to name a few. Milkweed however, should be on the top of your list. Milkweed not only offers a nice variety of color, but it also serves as a nectar source and a host plant. Any butterfly garden project should feature Milkweed, especially if you are looking to attract the regal Monarch butterfly. The Monarch butterfly population has declined an estimated 80 to 90% over the past few decades. As the only host plant for Monarchs, Milkweed is the best plant for concerned gardeners to put into their gardens. To grow Milkweed from seed there is an important process called cold stratification that should be performed to ensure high germination rates of seeds.

Cold stratification is crucial for the germination of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seeds. This process helps to break the seed’s natural dormancy cycle by exposing the seed to winter-like temperatures that help soften or crack its outer casing. Without prolonged exposure to cold temperatures, your Milkweed seed’s ability to germinate is greatly diminished.

How to perform cold stratification in your kitchen refrigerator.

Step 1: Place your Milkweed seeds in a damp paper towel inside a ziplock type bag, and place in your fridge for 4-6 weeks (30 days minimum). Choose a low-traffic place inside your fridge, perhaps taped to the bottom of a shelf or in a vegetable bin, so it won’t get damaged.

Step 2: After a minimum of 30 days it’s time to plant the cold stratified Milkweed seeds. You will experience greater success if you use plastic form flats or pots that are a minimum of 4 inches deep. Fill the flats ¾ of the way with a ‘seed-starter potting soil’ and before placing your seeds, gently sprinkle water to moisten the soil. Water should be able to drain through the flat. Once the soil is damp, place 1-2 cold stratified seeds into each pot. To finish, place ¼ inch of soil on top of the seeds.

Step 3: Gently water the planted seeds to give additional hydration. The best way to water is from the bottom up. Place a flat (1020) tray beneath the pots and add a  ¼ inch of water to the bottom of the tray. Use caution so as not to overwater. Water every other day as needed to keep the soil moist.

Cold-stratified Milkweed seeds should germinate and sprout within 10-15 days after planting. Please note, from the time you begin the stratification process to the first sprouts can take up to 45+ days, so patience is warranted.

Once your Milkweed begins to sprout you’ll need to care for your young plants. During the first few weeks, make sure your Milkweed is either in a sunny window, in a green house, or under a grow light. Milkweed requires lots of sun and warmth to flourish. If you’re using a grow light, make sure to lower the bulb close to the pots, or your seedlings may become leggy as they stretch to find the light.

After your Milkweed becomes established in your seed tray it will be time for transplanting outdoors.  It’s best to transplant Milkweed when the plant is no larger than 3 to 4 inches tall. Milkweed plants often experience some transplant shock and may lose all their leaves. Planting seeds in deep flats of 4 inches or more can buffer transplant shock because the depth allows the tap root room to grow. If your plants lose their leaves DON’T PANIC. Your Milkweed is establishing its roots and will eventually grow leaves again.

Soil moisture and temperature are very important when growing Milkweed. Milkweed does well in open areas with a minimum of 6 hours of full sunlight exposure. Once your seedlings are planted, water them for a few days to get them established. After that, the plants don’t need much supplemental water. Only water if you have an unusual dry spell.

Now you’re on your way to creating a butterfly oasis. With a collection of milkweed supplemented with a few other nectar plants such as a Red Star Hibiscus or Eastern Redbud the garden will be enjoyed not only by butterflies but by you too.

For more information on butterfly gardening, plant types, and which butterflies are attracted by what plants please continue reading here:

9 Comments on “If you plant it, They will come.

  1. Santa Rosa Gardens, a mail-order company in Pensacola, Florida has incarnata and tuberosa. The website is Tell them Louise from the Panhandle Butterfly House sent you. They are a great company.

  2. I have planted 6 varieties of .milkweed from seeds in paper egg cartons after 30 days in the fridge. Germination went well. I have about 20 young seedlings about 3/4 to an inch high. Should I get them out of the cartons and into pots now or wait til they’re bigger? Thanks

    • Hi Dave – I would, as carefully as possible, transplant. Ideally you would want to wait until your plants are roughly 3 inches tall. You may still want to wait with 1/2 of your plants. I just don’t know if your plants will make that size given you germinated in egg cartons. You could also cut the egg cartons apart & just transplant the whole thing. The egg cartons should decompose.

      Good Luck.

  3. I recently purchased a giant milkweed plant. I had never heard of it before. Do monarch caterpillars like it as much as regular milkweed?


    • I have counted as many as 30 monarch (and queen) caterpillars munching happily on my Giant Milkweed. Later I discovered more than 15 spent chrysalis in the cat palm growing beside it.

  4. Hello do Monarch caterpillars eat only milkweeds leave or will they ravage my entire garden?

    • Monarchs caterpillars only eat milkweed, and the butterflies only lay eggs on milkweed.

  5. I’m curious about the cold germination. I’m in zone 10 and the pods are opening. Do I need to do this cold germination process or can I just try to sprout them? Thank you.

    • You certainly can try to sprout them. You will have a far far greater germination rate if you cold stratify the seed first. Its a very simple process that just requires a wee bit of patience.

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