Feed the Monarchs! You Can Grow That.

I've spent many hours in the greenhouse this week, dreaming of summer goodies. Drool-inducing heirloom tomatoes, spicy, gorgeous peppers, lush, crisp heads of lettuce...the seeds of dozens of varieties are tucked into their trays of seed-starting mix, cozy on the heat mats, lamps mimicking the missing sun on these wintery, gloomy days.

Still, there's one tray in particular that monopolizes my attention, one that I fret over like a new baby, making certain that it thrives.


Yes, I'm growing a tray of milkweed.

Seventy-two cells, each with at least two seeds, just in case one turns out to be a dud.

That's a lot of milkweed.

When I mentioned to a friend that I'm growing milkweed, she looked at me oddly. "Isn't that a weed?" she asked.

Yes, many people consider native plants an eyesore. But milkweed? Not only are the blooms stunning--but the plant is singlehandedly responsible for supporting a species.

Monarch butterflies.

We've all heard about the tragedy of the monarchs. Vanishing habitats and crazy weather patterns led to a shocking decline of the monarch population, not over dozens of decades--but just within recent years. Peaking in 2006 at a population level occupying 45 acres of forest in Mexico, last year the monarch population overwintering in Mexico only occupied 1.65 acres...perhaps 35 million estimated monarchs remain. A record low. And, according to a New York Times article, it doesn't look good for our beautiful friends. Read more about the monarch decline here and here.

Crucial to the survival of the species is the availability of milkweed. You see, monarch babies are the world's pickiest eaters. The caterpillars only eat milkweed. Granted, there are many, many milkweed varieties, but the plants are often lost as native habitats become corn-rich, ethanol-crop-driven farmland. Plus, with the fabulous technology of genetically engineered crops that resist herbicides, farmers can now blanket-spray their fields, ensuring that their corn isn't harmed--while killing off all of that unsightly milkweed.

No milkweed, no monarchs.

Period. The end.

It seems like the fate of the monarch is sealed.

But, what those little guys don't know is this: there are a whole lot of us, like my friend Benjamin Vogt, who are fighting to save our favorite fluttery friends.

We're planting milkweed. We hope you will, too.

Here's what you need:

Milkweed seeds. Asclepias, to be more specific, the genus of flowers, with dozens of species native to various parts of the country. In South Carolina, for instance, there are 25 different species of milkweed to be found throughout the state, ranging from Asclepias amplexicaulis to Asclepias viridiflora. You can search for the milkweed native to your area here.

However, the real challenge is to find varieties other than the commonly sold Asclepias tuberosa, or the common butterfly weed. I admit, the majority of my seeds are this variety. Still, monarch caterpillars will eat it, so while I hope to grow additional varieties, I started here.

Growing milkweed is pretty simple. You can scatter the seeds in the fall and allow nature to do its job, or you can start them inside, like me, if you want to ensure a high propagation rate. You'll need a good, organic seed starting medium, seed trays or containers (I like biodegradable pots, but you can also upcycle containers or make them from paper towel roles), water, and a liquid organic fertilizer, like diluted fish emulsion. (It smells really bad, so you know it's good stuff.) A light source is also necessary to help grow strong plants.

Start seeds 8 weeks prior to the last frost date for your area to ensure strong plants. Fill a tray or containers with seed starting mix, making sure it's adequately moist--not soggy. Place 1-2 seeds per cell or pot, and cover with 1/4" mix. Mist soil and cover with plastic to keep soil moist. (I use commercial seed trays with a plastic dome lid, but you can also use plastic wrap over the container.) To speed germination, I use heat mats set at 75 degrees F. I also place the trays under lights--mine are "daylight" fluorescent bulbs in shop lights on adjustable chains. As the plant grows, I can adjust the height of the light so the plants don't become leggy, stretching toward a distant light source. Seeds should germinate in 7-10 days. Keep the soil moist but not too wet. Don't allow the soil to dry out. If using trays, bottom watering works well so that young seedlings aren't disturbed. After the plants have their first "true" leaves, water with a diluted fish emulsion fertilizer. (I usually fertilize every 3-4 weeks.)

When the seedlings are 3-6 inches high, it's time to harden them off--get them "toughened up" for their new home outdoors. Each day, place the seedlings outside for a few hours in partial sun, gradually increasing the amount of time they spend outside until eventually they can tolerate full sun. If you move them from sheltered greenhouse or indoor conditions to full sun and wind, your poor babies will succumb to shock. Take your time, and let them get used to the great outdoors. (I usually take about a week for hardening off.)

Select a site with good sun and soil that drains well. After all danger of frost has passed, plant the seedlings 6 to 24 inches apart, depending on the needs of the variety. (Check your seed packet for recommendations.) Keep young seedlings well watered, and mulch to retain moisture. Always, always treat the plants organically. After all, the entire point of planting milkweed is to feed monarch caterpillars, right? They definitely don't like poison-flavored milkweed.

If you want to plant milkweed for a community garden or school, you can find free seeds here.

It's such a small thing, really. What if every gardener--all of us here, but also every gardener we know through garden clubs, Facebook, Twitter, conferences, neighbors--what if we all planted milkweed in our gardens? Could we reverse the damage done to the monarch population?

Probably not.

But what's the other option? Allow one of our most amazing creatures to become extinct?

I don't think that's an option. Do you?

Let's fight the good fight for the monarchs. Let's plant milkweed. You can grow that! Who's with me?

(Here's where you chime in, OK?)