How and When to Harvest Milkweed Seeds

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Milkweed is the sole food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarchs have greatly decreased in population over the years, primarily because of habitat loss. As fields and meadows have given way to parking lots and shopping centers, the places where milkweed grew naturally have started to disappear. Luckily, we as gardeners can play an important role in ensuring that monarchs have plenty of milkweed.

Here in Michigan, there are six types of native milkweed, all of which provide food for monarch caterpillars:

  • swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
  • butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  • whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • tall milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)
  • prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Most of these milkweeds are native throughout the state, with the exception of swamp and prairie milkweeds, which are native only to the southern part of the lower peninsula.

Finding Milkweed to Harvest

Milkweed grows naturally in meadows, fields, and ditches throughout the state. You can identify milkweed in three ways: via its flower, its foliage, and its seed pods. The blossoms range in color from light pink to purple, except in the case of butterfly weed, which has bright orange flowers. The foliage is shiny, alternating up and down the stem, with long, feather-shaped leaves. Depending on which variety of milkweed it is, these leaves may be large or fairly narrow. In any case, when the leaf is snapped, a white sap should be visible; this is what gives “milkweed” its name. Be careful, though — this sap is a skin irritant, and you definitely don’t want to rub it in your eyes!

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As far as the seed pods, they usually start appearing here in Michigan in late summer. At first they are bright green and quite plump. They look like a weird, kind of spiny/bumpy fruit. As the season progresses, they’ll get a bit lighter in color, eventually turning a greenish-yellow. When they’re at this stage, they may start splitting, and that is when you know the seeds are ready to harvest. When you open the pod, the seeds should be dark brown. If they’re green or light brown, they’re not mature yet and won’t sprout when you plant them. I always look for signs of pods splitting, which is nature’s way of telling you that the seeds are ready. You might lose a few seeds this way as they’re blown away by the breeze, but believe me, there are plenty more inside the pod.

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Please note that you should always ask permission before harvesting seeds from private land, and of course seeds should never be removed from state parks or national forests.

How to Harvest and Separate Milkweed Seeds

To harvest the seeds, simply pull the entire seed pod off of the plant. You can actually store it as is in a paper bag until you’re ready to plant, or you can go ahead and clean the seed now to make it easier to store (in a cool place – preferably a refrigerator, which keeps the seed at a constant cool temperature. Milkweed needs a period of cold stratification to germinate; the refrigerator storage will provide that.)

The trickiest part of the entire process of saving milkweed seeds is separating the dark brown seeds from all of the white fluff attached to them. This fluff is essential to the milkweed’s survival. It acts as almost a parachute, and when the wind blows, it carries the milkweed seeds further away because of that fluff attached to it, dispersing the seed over a wider area. But for seed collectors, it can be a bit of a pain.

Here’s how I do it.

Sometimes, especially if you’re just harvesting one pod and it’s begun to split but hasn’t completely exploded yet, you can simply pull the wad of fluff and seeds out, run your fingers down it, and easily separate the seeds that way. The seeds fall into a container or tabletop, and the wad of fluff stays in your hand. That’s what I was able to do for these pods. You can see how they’re all still pretty self-contained below.

milkweed seeds

If you have more than just a pod or two, or you just don’t want to risk making a mess (that fluff goes EVERYWHERE…) try this: open your seed pods and empty them, fluff and all, into a paper bag, small coffee can with a lid, or a jar. Close the container and give the whole thing a good, vigorous shake. You can even add a penny or two to the bag to help agitate the contents even more. What the shaking does is shake the seeds loose from the fluff. The heavier seeds will fall to the bottom of the bag or jar, leaving the lighter fluff at the top. So after a few good shakes, all you have to do is open your container, lift out the ball of fluff that is on top, and in the bottom, you’ll see your cleaned seeds.

(If you have a huge amount of seed to process, check out this contraption from Monarch Watch: a seed separating machine for milkweed.)

Storing Milkweed Seeds

As I mentioned above, it’s best to store milkweed seeds in a cool place, any my preference is the refrigerator. I like to store my seeds in paper envelopes, which are easy to label, or in jars if I have a lot of seed.

What To Do With Extra Seeds

Often, you only really need a seed or two, especially if you have a small garden, while a milkweed pod can yield dozens of seeds. If you find yourself with more seeds than you can use, here are a few ideas:

  • Offer them to gardening friends
  • Contact your local 4-H, garden clubs, or wildlife restoration nonprofits to see if they would like to take some off your hands
  • If you’re involved in any online gardening groups or forums, offer them as part of a seed trade or for a SASE for those who want some.
  • Store them in your fridge or freezer. They’ll keep, stored this way, for a very long time. If you decide you have room for more milkweed plants, you’ll already have cleaned seed on hand.

I hope this has been helpful. There is nothing quite like sitting out in your yard or garden and watching monarch butterflies fluttering around the milkweed you lovingly planted for them. These beautiful creatures need all the help we can give them, and, in exchange, we get flowers plus the joy of seeing them in our garden.

October is Garlic Planting Time!

If you live in Michigan, October is when we usually plant our spring-flowering bulbs, and that includes garlic. I’ve written an entire post with the details about how to grow garlic, but I figured it might be fun to share some step-by-step photos of this year’s garlic planting.

This year, we ordered Red Chinook garlic. It’s a hardneck variety, which is essential here in our cold Michigan climate. One pound of garlic yielded around 60 cloves — if every clove grows into a bulb (or head) of garlic, we’ll have over a head of garlic per week after next year’s harvest.

I might need to plant more.

Most hardneck varieties of garlic provide 5 to 7 cloves per head, so if you don’t use a ton of garlic in your cooking, a pound of garlic should do it for you. We use quite a bit more than that, so I’m thinking of trying to get my hands on another pound of garlic before the month is up.

Buying Garlic for Planting

I usually order my garlic in August or whenever seed catalogs start emailing me that they have garlic available. The earlier you order, the better chance you have of getting the variety you want — certain varieties tend to sell out quickly. So I order in August or September, and then the company ships the garlic at the right time for planting, which is great — you don’t have to worry about storing your garlic before planting and it won’t dry out on you. Once you have your garlic, plant it as soon as you can so it can start getting established in your garden.

If you don’t manage to order in time, or if you, like me, just need more garlic, another good idea is to look at your local farmer’s market or grocer for locally-grown organic garlic. You can plant cloves from this garlic as well, and because it’s local, you already know that it grows well in your area.

Planting Garlic

garden bed preparation for planting garlic

As with all gardening, the most important step is prepping the soil. Here at our new place, we have the exact opposite soil we gardened in for all those years in Detroit. We had heavy clay soil at our old place, and here, our soil is very sandy (Kalkaska sand, to be specific). At our old place, we were always trying to lighten up our soil. Here, our main priority is adding nutrients and moisture retaining materials. The funny thing is that in either situation, you want to add lots and lots of compost.

That stuff is magical. Seriously.

So to this bed, which we just dug last month, we added plenty of compost, composted manure, and peat. Garlic likes well-drained, nutrient-rich soil, so all of that composted manure will be appreciated. To up the nutrients in our sandy soil, I also added a slow-release organic fertilizer to the soil and mixed it in. In this case, I added Espoma Garden-Tone. This bed is dug about a foot deep. Garlic likes deep roots, so it will get off to a good start if you take the time to dig the bed deeply.

head of garlic, garlic bulb, planting garlic

When you receive your planting garlic, it will look just like it does when you buy garlic at the grocery store — in heads (or bulbs).

As an aside, how pretty is that Red Chinook garlic? I just love the color of this variety.

So once you have your bed ready, go ahead and separate these heads into individual cloves.

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A quick note: don’t do this too far in advance. A day or two at most, otherwise the cloves might dry out and they won’t be any good for planting. I always divide my garlic heads right before I’m ready to plant them.

Once you have them divided, it’s time to plant. Dig holes or trenches two to three inches deep. If you have heavy clay, as I did in my old garden, sometimes it’s easier to just dig a long trench, plunk the cloves in, and cover it all over. However, if you have nice, loose soil, it’s very easy to either just poke the cloves into the soil with your fingers, or use a small trowel to pull the soil aside, pop a clove in, and cover it over.

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When you plant garlic, make sure you’re planting it right side up. There’s a root end and stem end. The stem end is pointy, and you want that pointing up.

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I like to set my cloves out into the bed first, so I can make sure I’m getting the spacing right. Garlic should be planted about four inches apart.

What’s Next?

Once you have all of  your garlic planted, it’s a great idea to cover the area with four to six inches of mulch. Autumn leaves work (chop them first with a lawnmower), as does straw or shredded bark. The reason we mulch it is to not only keep the soil moist, but also because in areas where we have issues with the ground freezing and thawing during the season, having the mulch in place helps prevent frost heaving. (Frost heaving happens when the ground freezes and thaws and ends up pushing the bulbs, or even entire plants, right out of the soil. Definitely not what we want!)

And with that, you’re done. Next spring, you’ll start seeing the garlic foliage and scapes popping up in the garden, and then you’ll know you’re only a few months away from harvesting your own home-grown garlic.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions about growing garlic, don’t be shy — go ahead and ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks for reading!

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: October

October Raspberries

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in October:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Plant garlic for harvest next summer.
  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Reduce the numbers of overwintering pests and diseases by cleaning up garden debris.
  • Sow more fall crops directly into your garden, including mesclun, spinach, mache, radishes, and carrots.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Remove summer annuals that may be looking ragged and replace with fall flowers, such as mums, asters, ornamental kale, or pansies.

Perennials

  • October is a great time to dig and divide any perennials that look overgrown to you. To protect against a sudden freeze mulch the newly divided plants heavily with fall leaves. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates to find your frost dates.
  • You can usually get good deals on many plants this month, when garden centers and nurseries start running their “fall planting” sales. As above, make sure you protect these new plants with a thick layer of mulch.

Bulbs

  • You can continue planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, and snowdrops.
  • If squirrels or other wildlife dig up your bulbs, place a section of chicken wire or metal hardware cloth over the area. Pin it down and cover it with mulch. This should protect it from those pesky critters.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

10 Ways to Recycle a Jack O’ Lantern

It’s the day after Halloween. No sign of the Great Pumpkin yet again, and I’m doing my best to resist the 4 huge buckets of candy in the kitchen. Mmmm….Snickers….

The other sign that Halloween has passed us by is the sight of dozens of carved, soggy, perhaps squirrel-chewed Jack O’ Lanterns sitting on the curb. Much like my obsession with leaves, I confess to wanting to give people who throw pumpkins away a good talking-to. Nearly half of all U.S. households carve a pumpkin every year (at least one!) That’s a lot of waste if even some of us just toss them in the garbage. So rather than raving like a lunatic, I’ll post some constructive ideas here, instead.

10 Ideas for Recycling Your Jack O’Lantern

  1. Chop them up (I just use a shovel) and toss them in your compost bin.
  2. If you like squirrels, leave the pumpkin out and let the squirrels devour it.
  3. If you have a worm bin, cut your Jack O’Lantern into smaller pieces and give it to the worms. They LOVE pumpkin, in my experience.
  4. Via my About.com colleague Melissa Mayntz, cut it in half and use it as a bird feeder.
  5. Chop ’em up a little and place them at the bottom of a lasagna garden or new raised bed. (I think just about every raised bed in my garden was started on a foundation of old Jack O’Lanterns and fall leaves.)
  6. If your Jack O’ Lantern is still pretty fresh (not moldy, soft, or smelly – meaning you just carved it in the last day or so) you can turn what’s left into pumpkin puree. Just remove any soft spots, wax or soot from candles. {You can also turn your puree into pumpkin butter — yum!}
  7. Pamper yourself with a pumpkin puree pedicure.
  8. Puree the flesh, and make your own pumpkin body moisturizer.
  9. Bury it. If you’re not starting a new garden bed, you can dig a hole in an existing bed (perhaps you’re planting some trees, shrubs, or perennials anyway?) and place pieces of the pumpkin in the bottom. Instant boost of nitrogen and organic matter!
  10. Science experiment. If you have curious kids, just let the Jack O’ Lantern sit in your yard for as long as you can stand it. Let them note all of the fun, gross things that happen to a pumpkin as it decays: the mold, the sogginess, the eventual collapse into itself. If you think ahead and happen to set your Jack O’ Lantern on top of your compost pile, you won’t have any slimy clean-up to do afterwards!

So, no more Jack O’ Lanterns on the curb after Halloween, right? Right.

Planting and Growing Garlic

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Garlic is a must for many cooks, and the great news is that here in Michigan, it’s actually very easy to grow garlic. It can be tucked just about anywhere in the garden, and, when you grow it yourself, you really get two crops in one. You get the bulbs, which is what most people think of when growing garlic, but you also get the scapes (which are the flower stems) which you can harvest in late spring to early summer. The scapes provide a delicate garlic flavor, and are great in many dishes that would benefit from a bit of garlicky goodness.  Let’s take a look at how to grow perfect garlic here in Michigan.

 

Garlic Types: Hardneck or Softneck?

There are two general types of garlic to choose from: hardneck and softneck. Michigan gardeners will have better success with hardneck varieties.

Hardneck Garlic Varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon)

Hardneck garlic varieties are generally hardier than softneck varieties, making them the best option for Michigan gardeners. They are also the best option if you want to enjoy garlic scapes, because hardnecks are the only type that send up a storng central stem, or scape,  in spring. Hardneck varieties tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but the individual cloves tend to be bigger.

Within the hardneck family, there are nine sub-types of garlics: Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Asiatic, Glazed Purple Stripe, Creole, Middle Eastern, Turban, Rocambole, and Porcelain. The Purple Stripe and Rocambole types are the hardiest, best for gardeners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and other parts of the state with very long, cold winters. Gardeners who live in warmer zones, such as those in southern lower Michgan, can easily grow all of the hardneck types.

 

How and When to Plant Garlic in Michigan

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Here in Michigan, you’ll want to plant your garden in October and November — before the ground freezes hard, but after we start getting cooler temperatures. This will allow the bulbs to start forming roots before we get a deep freeze.

Garlic needs a site in full sun to grow well. To plant garlic, dig holes or furrows six inches apart and three inches deep in loose, well-drained soil. Place individual cloves (separate them – don’t plant entire bulbs of garlic)  in the holes, pointy end up, and cover with soil. Water them in. If you have squirrels or other animals that try digging them up, consider covering the area with chicken wire or wire mesh — the foliage and scapes can still grow  through it, but it will deter wildlife from digging them up.

Spread a six-inch deep layer of organic mulch, such as fall leaves or straw, over the planting area. Within six to eight weeks, shoots might emerge if the weather is warm enough.  This is fine — the plant will stop growing once the soil gets cold, and growth will start up again in the spring.

 

Companion Planting: What to Plant Near Garlic

Garlic is one of those crops that you can plant throughout your garden to help naturally deter pests. It actually accumulates sulfur, which is a naturally-occurring fungicide that will help protect your plants from diseases. Garlic also helps repel insects such as aphids.

Best Companion Plants for Garlic

Garlic helps the plants listed below grow better. Because garlic isn’t overly picky about where it is planted (as long as it is in full sun), it’s easy to tuck it into the garden wherever you have a spare spot. Plant garlic near: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi.

Avoid planting garlic near beans and peas, since it may stunt the growth of both plants.

 

Garlic Pests and Problems

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Garlic really isn’t bothered by many pests or disease issues. Rot can sometimes be a problem; guard against this by providing your garlic with good, well-draining soil. The most common pest is squirrels and other animals, which may dig up the bulbs. Deter them with chicken wire, as mentioned above in the “planting” section.

Another common concern gardeners have is that sometimes the garlic will send up green growth in the fall after planting, when we don’t expect to see any foliage until spring. This is nothing to worry about; growth will halt once the weather cools, and the bulb will send up new green growth in the spring.

 

Growing and Harvesting Garlic

Once you have your garlic planted, there really isn’t much to do. In spring, give the bed a topdressing of compost and/or bloodmeal, then do this again once you see the scapes. Harvest the scapes when they just  begin to curl. When the foliage has turned yellow and dead looking, it’s time to harvest your garlic. Dig it up, and let it cure in a dry place for several days.

How to Make Dill Pickles

We plant several cucumber varieties each year, at least half of which are pickling cucumbers. (An aside: a common source of confusion is what makes a pickling cucumber a pickling cucumber. The simple answer is that they have thinner, bumpier skin — the better to absorb all of that lovely brine!)

Dill pickles are actually really easy to make. Here’s how to do it!

I used this recipe because, as written, it’s good for making a small batch of pickles (three to four pints) but, even better — you can halve everything, and make just a jar or two if you don’t have that many cucumbers on hand.

First, you need to assemble your equipment:

 

pick1You need a boiling water canner (if you don’t have one, a stainless steel stockpot will do. A cotton dishtowel folded and laid inside the pot will help stabilize the jars), pint jars, rings, and new lids. **If you want to forego the boiling water processing all together, you can also make refrigerator pickles with this recipe. If you do that, you can use any clean jar you want, and you don’t have to worry about having a pot to process your jars in. I’ll explain more later.

Not necessary, but it’s also helpful to have jar tongs, a magnetic lid lifter, and a jar funnel.

Fill the big pot so that the surface of the water is two inches higher than the tops of your jars. Place jars and lids in the pot (you can do lids in a separate pot, or the same one as your jars — doesn’t matter) and bring the water to a boil to sterilize everything.

While your jars are sterilizing, it’s time to assemble your ingredients.

 

You’ll need:pick2

  • 2 cups of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water (tap water is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons of salt (pickling or kosher — not iodized table salt)
  • 4 heads of fresh dill, or 4 tsp of dill seeds
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 8 to 10 cucumbers

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and salt, and heat over high. You want to bring this mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your cukes. Cut a bit off of each end, if necessary, to ensure that the pickles will be about an inch shorter than your jar.

 

You can also cut them into halves or quarters if you want.

 

pick4Once your cucumbers are ready and your brine is boiling, it’s time to get ready to add everything to the jars. Remove the jars (carefully!) from the boiling water canner. Add a head of dill and a clove of garlic to each jar.

 

Then, start packing your cukes in. You want to jam them in pretty tightly. This keeps them from floating in the brine.pick6

 

As you can see, my nine cucumbers was only enough for three pints of pickles. That’s fine, it just means I’ll have some brine left over. Once you have them packed in, it’s time to pour the hot brine into the jars. Do this slowly, and use a jar funnel if that makes it easier for you. You want to fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top.

 

pick7Canning:

  1. Use a flat spatula, butter knife, or bamboo skewer, and press the cukes together to try to release any air bubbles trapped in your jar. If you find that the level of the brine has fallen after doing this, top it up to keep your 1/2 inch of headspace.
  2. Wipe the rims of your jars with a clean, damp cloth, set the lids on, and tighten the rings. You don’t have to go crazy tightening it — just finger-tight is good enough. The seal doesn’t come from the rings at all, but from the lid itself being vacuum sealed on as the contents of the jars cool after processing.
  3. Place your jars into your boiling water canner, and process for ten minutes. Lift them out, carefully, and set them on a counter to cool. They’ll be quite warm for a few hours yet.

You’ll start to hear the lids make popping sounds. This means they’re sealing properly. After about an hour, all of your lids should have sealed. If you press on them and they’re solid, they’ve sealed right. If the lid still pops up and down, you don’t have a good seal. You can either re-process the jar in boiling water, or just put them in the fridge and eat them within a month. Properly sealed jars will keep for a year.

 

If you want to do away with the boiling water processing all together, simply add the cukes, dill, and garlic to any jar, pour boiling brine over it, cover, and let it cool down to room temperature. Then put your pickles in the fridge and eat within a month.

pick8As you can see, it’s not difficult. And believe me, the flavor is definitely worth the effort!

 

Pickling Resources:

While this is a basic recipe I found online a few years ago (and it’s great!) my favorite book about pickling and canning right now is Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More. It’s a beautiful book full of well-written recipes that definitely inspired me to try different things in my kitchen. Definitely worth a look.

As you can see from the post, I’m still using traditional canning lids. You may have heard that these types of lids are lined with BPA — this is a concern for many of us, myself included. I do have some reusable, BPA free lids on order, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you’re interested, here is a source that Julia from Snarky Vegan shared with me.

For more pickle-y goodness, please check out this post I wrote for Planet Green: 20 Pickle Recipes to Help You Preserve Summer’s Bounty.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: September

Northern Sea Oats

Northern Sea Oats

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in September:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Deadhead herbs such as basil regularly to keep them productive.
  • Check plants regularly for signs of pest or diseases.
  • Remove any summer veggie plants that are looking ragged or becoming less productive.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Sow more fall crops directly into your garden, including mesclun, spinach, mache, radishes, and carrots.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Fertilize once a week with a diluted (1/4 strength) solution of fish emulsion.
  • Remove summer annuals that may be looking ragged and replace with fall flowers, such as mums, asters, ornamental kale, or pansies.

Perennials

  • September is a great time to dig and divide any perennials that look overgrown to you.
  • You can usually get good deals on many plants this month, when garden centers and nurseries start running their “fall planting” sales.

Bulbs

  • You can start planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, and snowdrops.
  • If squirrels or other wildlife dig up your bulbs, place a section of chicken wire or metal hardware cloth over the area. Pin it down and cover it with mulch. This should protect it from those pesky critters.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.