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Starting Milkweed from Seed

Adult male nectars on echinacea

With western Monarch butterfly populations down to critical survival levels, it's more important than ever to help sustain these amazing creatures by growing the only thing their young can eat - milkweed! If you've ever wanted to try starting your own milkweed from seed, you could have scattered seeds in your garden in Fall, hoping that some would emerge in Spring, or you can try starting seeds inside your home to plant when the soil is warmer and the danger of frost has passed.
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Here's what you'll need:'''

  • Seeds, from packets or saved
  • Paper towel
  • Plastic bags

That's it? Yep. Let's get started. It's all about what milkweed needs to germinate. The seeds need to be damp and cold for a good, long time. Then, they need light to germinate .
Dampen a paper towel and place the seeds on the towel. Fold the towel over and place the towel with seeds into a baggie. Place the baggie into your refrigerator! Yes. Remember, you are tricking the seeds into thinking that they are outside lying on the wet ground.

Seeds in moist paper towels

Once you've put them in the fridge, go to your calendar and mark the day that your seeds went into the refrigerator.
Then calculate 6-8 weeks. That means that if you put the seeds in the fridge on the 1st of Feb, you'll be taking them out between March 6th and 21st. Mark that on your calendar so that you don't forget!

In 6-8 weeks we will remove the seeds and gently press them into prepared Seed Starting Mix in small 6-packs. You can get clean and sterile 6-packs at places like Buy-Mart and the Grange in the garden section right now. Why Seed Starting Mix? Simple. It's sterile. Never use garden soil or even potting soil. You do not want to introduce any pathogens to these tiny seedlings.

Seedlings growing in sterile mix


Notice that I said Gently press into the soil. That's the second trick. Milkweed seeds need to have light to germinate.

I put the little guys in their 6-packs on a heated seed mat and give them 16 hours of light a day. How do you do that when there are only 12 hours of daylight? I use full spectrum bulbs suspended over the trays of seeds. My lamps are controlled by a timer so that I don't have to remember to turn them on or off!

In about another 4 weeks, they will be ready to transplant into larger pots before planting. I will send out another Newsletter when it's time to put them into 4 inch pots.
Remember, milkweed is the only plant that is host to Monarch butterflies. That is, it's the only plant a monarch can lay eggs on and have the right nutrients to feed a hungry monarch caterpillar. One caterpillar can go through 1 plant in a few days, so in order to sustain them long enough to mature, be sure and grow 10-20 plants fairly close together.

Monarch caterpillar feeding on milkweed


Monarch feeding on Tuberosa milkweed