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.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: July

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

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.
  • At least once this month, feed your vegetable plants with a foliar feed of fish emulsion.
  • Start figuring out what you want to grow for your fall garden. Either start plants (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, etc.) from seed now, or track down a good source of transplants.

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.
  • You can still sow seeds for many annuals, such as zinnias and marigolds, all through July for fall color as well.

Perennials

  • Regular maintenance, such as staking and deadheading, will keep your perennials looking their best.
  • If you haven’t mulched your perennial beds already, this is a good time to do so. It will keep weeds down and reduce how much watering you’ll need to do.

Bulbs

  • If you’re growing tall plants, such as dahlias, stake them as needed.
  • If you still have foliage from spring bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) in your garden, you can remove it once it turns brown.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Prune any spring-flowering shrubs this month.
  • Feed your shrubs with a granulated organic fertilizer, or topdress with some good compost.
  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.
Chive Blossoms in Strainer

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

 

The chives in our garden are blooming now, so it is time to make chive blossom vinegar. We love this vinegar in homemade vinaigrette — it gives it a nice, mild onion flavor and plenty of pretty color. And the chive blossom vinegar is REALLY easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • Chive blossoms — as many as you can harvest. They should be at the just-opened phase for maximum flavor.
  • Vinegar — You can experiment here. White wine vinegar and rice wine vinegar are both good choices. White vinegar also works fine if you don’t have the others on hand.
  • Jars/bottles

 

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

Harvest your blossoms, cutting off the stem just below the flower. Wash them well in some cold water to get rid of any dust or insects. Then dry the blossoms really well. You can either lay them out on a towel and blot them well, or put them in a salad spinner and give them a spin. While you’re drying your blossoms, heat your vinegar on medium heat. You don’t want to boil your vinegar; you just want to warm it up so it draws out more of  the chive blossom flavor.

Once the blossoms are dry and the oil is warm, it’s time to put them together. Pack a jar (a mason jar or other glass jar is perfect) with your blossoms, then pour in enough of the warm vinegar to cover the blossoms.

Add your lid, mark the date down somewhere, and set your jar in a cool, dark place for two weeks.

 

When the two weeks are up, pour your vinegar through a mesh strainer to remove the blossoms. Press the blossoms to get all of the vinegary, chive-y goodness out of them. Then pour the finished vinegar into a jar or bottle. Use the vinegar within six months. You’ll want to store your finished vinegar in a dark place – – leaving it out in the light will result in the vinegar losing its pretty pink/purple color. It will still taste fine, but part of the charm of chive blossom vinegar is that lovely color.

I can’t wait to make some vinaigrette with this!

Great Plants for Michigan Gardens: Bearded Iris

Bearded irises are the stars of my perennial garden in May. Their tall, frilly blooms and strap-like foliage add a perfect upright element to the garden, and they come in such a huge variety of colors that you are unlikely to ever get bored growing them.

Where to Plant Bearded Irises

When planting bearded irises, you’ll either be started with dormant rhizomes or potted plants. Either way, you’ll want to plant your irises at least sixteen to eighteen inches apart to allow for plenty of air circulation. If you’re starting with a plant, simply plant it as deeply as it was growing in its container. If you are starting with a rhizome, you really want to make sure you don’t plant too deeply. Burying the rhizome will result in weak bloom or rot. The best way to plant the rhizome is to form a mound of soil in the planting hole. Set the rhizome on the mound, and arrange the roots around it. Then, backfill the hole, covering the roots, but leaving the rhizome exposed. I know — it looks wrong. Do it anyway. Your irises will thank you later with plenty of blooms!

Bearded irises really grow best in full sun. You’ll get the most numerous, larger blooms if they get at least eight hours of sun per day. However, if you have light or dappled shade, they’ll also grow and bloom well for you. Just as important as the amount of sun, however, is the quality of your soil. Bearded irises prefer fertile, well-drained soil. Lean soil will result in less-than-stupendous blooms, and soil that stays too wet will result in your rhizomes rotting over the winter.

Here in our garden, where clay is dominant (as it is in many Michigan gardens, at least if you’re away from the coasts) we’ve found it necessary to amend the soil before planting the rhizomes. Dig out an area, and mix a good amount of finished compost into the native soil. This will help lighten the soil overall for planting, and, if you side dress with compost regularly, over time the soil will improve a great deal. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid planting bearded irises in any low areas of your property — any place that water collects and sits will just spell rot for your rhizomes.

The best time to plant irises in Michigan is in June through September — this allows the plants to get established before winter.

 

How to Grow Bearded Iris

If you’ve planted your bearded irises in good soil in a sunny spot, there’s not much you need to do, day-to-day, to keep them happy. I side-dress my irises with fresh compost every spring, and deadhead them after they’ve finished blooming in May.

One of the most important things you can do for the health of your bearded irises is to make sure you remove all of the spent leaves and flower stalks after they’ve been killed back in fall. If you leave the foliage attached to the rhizomes, it provides the perfect place for iris borers (more about these vile jerks later) to overwinter.

You’ll also want to divide your bearded irises every three to four years to keep them growing strong. Once you start seeing decreased bloom, it’s time to divide. I’ll have more on how to do that in another post.

 

Bearded Iris Pests and Diseases

If bearded irises have a rep for being a little on the fussy side, it’s not their fault — blame the pests that like to plague them instead. The main one, which I alluded to above, is the iris borer. Here it is, in all its grossness:

 

Photo by: Bob Gutowski, Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License.

Iris borers can absolutely destroy your irises. They start on the leaves, boring their way in, down into the rhizomes, and then back out again. They cause a lot of damage, and the holes they make encourage rot as well. The best way to fight them is to not leave leaves and stems available for them to overwinter in. If you find borers in your rhizomes, you can try to cut them out with a knife, then replant the rhizomes as long as there is at least one “eye” left. You can also soak the rhizomes in a bucket of water — the water will drown the borer, and then you can remove any damaged sections of rhizome, and replant.

Aside from iris borers, bearded irises also contend with a few other pests, though these generally don’t cause as much damage as the borers:

  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Aphids

 

Here in our garden, we have bearded irises planted with shasta daisies, oriental poppies, and alliums, and they bloom together and look wonderful. The shape of their leaves adds a nice, somewhat spiky touch to the garden, so even when they’re not in bloom, they have an impact. And because they come in so many colors and sizes, you can really have a lot of fun coming up with new combinations in your own garden.

 

 

 

Favorite Plants: Bleeding Heart

Bleeding Heart (Lamprocapnos spectabilis, the plant formerly known as Dicentra spectabilis) is one of the highlights of the spring gardening season in our family. Those delicate, dangling pink hearts with their backdrop of ferny foliage are so romantic and old-fashioned looking. I vow every year that I’m going to plant a few more. Hopefully, this year will be the year.

Here are ten tidbits about bleeding heart:

1. Hardy in zones 3 through 9.

2. You can find bleeding hearts that bloom in pink, white, or red.

3. Bleeding heart goes dormant in the heat of summer. The foliage turns yellow and starts to die back. It’s a good idea to have a container or some annuals ready to fill the space once this starts happening, or you’ll have a gap in your garden.

4. You can grow bleeding heart from seed. You need to start with freshly ripened seed, and sow in a cold frame. I’ve also heard of people winter sowing them, but I haven’t tried that yet.

5. Bleeding heart grows best in light shade (sunny mornings and shady afternoons are optimal) but will also grow well in part-shade and even full shade.

6. Bleeding heart prefers evenly moist soil, especially while blooming. In fact, if you keep the soil moist, you’ll extend the bloom period for your bleeding hearts, possibly as late as mid-summer.

7. Bleeding heart rarely, if ever, needs dividing. I’ve had mine for eight years, and it’s still growing strong without division.

8. Mulch your bleeding heart well to help maintain that all-important soil moisture.

9. Bleeding heart is also known as Lady in a Bath, Lyre Flower, or Dutchman’s Trousers.

10. The most common folklore behind the bleeding heart is, of course, a tale of unrequited love. Here is one lovely variation of the story of the bleeding heart, told with parts of the flower itself.

If you’ve got a moist, shady spot in your yard, and a bit of a romantic streak, this may be the perfect plant to add to your garden. And if you have kids, they will love exploring the flowers with you.

 

Best Spring Perennials for Michigan: Bergenia

These gorgeous plants are grown as much for their foliage, which forms a pretty little rosette, and their flowers. Blooming in shades of white, pink, red, and purple, held aloft on sturdy maroon stems, they are a unique addition to the spring garden.

Where to Plant Bergenia:

Bergenia grows best in full sun to partial shade, in moist, rich soil. It is a good idea to plant them in groups of three or more plants for a nice display of color. Plant them 10 to 20 inches apart.

Bergenia looks great at the front of a border or along a walkway. Even when it’s not blooming, the rosettes of shiny green leaves will give you something attractive to look at.

Growing Bergenia:

Bergenia are actually pretty carefree plants. Other than making sure to water properly while they’re getting established, they can be left pretty much on their own. You’ll want to deadhead them after bloom, and divide regularly (see section on propagating Bergenia, below) to keep the plants growing strong. Once established, Bergenia are fairly drought-resistant, though you will want to give them some water (an inch or so per week) during an extended hot, dry spell.

Bergenia Pests and Diseases:

The most common pests you’ll encounter when growing Bergenia are slugs. If you start noticing holes in the foliage, look underneath the leaves and near the soil surface for the slimy pests, and hand-pick regularly to remove them. You can also try sprinkling coffee grounds or crushed eggshells around your plants to deter the slugs.

Propagating Bergenia:

You can start bergenia from seed, but it doesn’t always grow true from seed. It is better to start with plants or (if you’re lucky) rhizome divisions from another gardener.

You can dig and divide Bergenia by cutting and transplanting extra rhizomes in other spots in the garden. When making divisions, just make sure that at least one leaf shoot is attached to each section. Bergenia should be divided every two to three years to maintain the plants’ vigor.

Good Partners for Bergenia:

Ferns and irises both provide nice contrasts to the round, shiny foliage of Bergenia. Other good companions include spring-blooming bulbs such as scilla, snowdrops, or crocus.

How to Grow Amaryllis

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The dramatic blooms of amaryllis (Hippeastrum) add even more beauty to the holiday season, or any time of year. While we traditionally think of amaryllis as a holiday flower, they are really just tropical bulbs that can bloom at any time of year, after a period of dormancy followed by plenty of light and warmth (more on that later). You can find amaryllis in just about any color, from pure white, to dramatic red, and even lime green, depending on your tastes.

Amaryllis are quite easy to grow, and not even all that difficult to get to re-bloom. Amaryllis bulbs grown in containers and maintained properly can live as long as fifteen years.

The first thing you need to do is purchase some good-quality bulbs.

 

Purchasing Amaryllis

Starting in November, you’ll start seeing amaryllis bulbs and kits in nurseries and home centers, and they are very common impulse purchases, providing the opportunity to grow flowers even when the outside world is covered in snow. Usually, you won’t find a ton of variety in your local nursery or big box, so if you want something beyond the typical red or white, you’ll probably want to see what is available through catalogs or online.

The amaryllis kits sold in nurseries and home centers usually come with a plastic pot, a bulb, and a disk of compressed coir, all packaged in a box. You’ll want to try to inspect the bulb before you buy. The bulb should be heavy for its size, firm, and not shriveled. Sometimes the bulbs in the kits are already growing leaves and/or a flower stalk, and that’s fine as long as they look healthy and the bulb feels firm and heavy.

Potting Amaryllis

Once you have your amaryllis bulbs, it’s time to pot them up. There are two options here.

The first method you may want to try is to simply fill a pot or other dish with pebbles and set the amaryllis bulb on top. You’d then fill the container with water, to about an inch below the bulb. The roots will make their way down into the water, but you do not want the bulb itself to sit in water as it will rot.

The other method uses soil or the coir disks that come with amaryllis kits. Moisten you soil (or hydrate the coir disk by pouring warm water over it and letting it sit for at least twenty minutes) and fill the pot about half full with soil. Then place your amaryllis bulb, root end down, onto the soil and fill with more soil, but do NOT bury the bulb. You want at least 1/3 of the bulb, including the “shoulders” and the stem, above the soil. Once the bulb is planted, water it in and let any excess water drain.

Amaryllis bulbs can be planted in groups in larger containers, or one bulb to a 6 to 7 inch pot.

Caring for Amaryllis

Whether you use the pebbles and water method or soil method, once your bulb is potted up, you’ll want to place it in a warm, bright place. Ideally, your bulb should get at least eight hours of light per day, and should be kept around seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Water it when the soil dries out a bit, and be sure to let any excess drain to prevent rotting. The bulb will shoot up leaves and a flower stalk in two to eight weeks after planting,  Once it has started blooming, you can move it to any location; it does not need to stay in bright light, and, in fact, the blooms may last longer out of strong light. So if you want to move your amaryllis around for the holidays, that’s perfectly fine. You do not need to do any fertilizing during its bloom period.

Supporting Amaryllis Stems

The easiest way to support a tall, top-heavy amaryllis stem is to place a thin bamboo or coated metal stake deep into the soil, next to the bulb. Be careful when installing the stake; you don’t want to stab into the bulb. Once the stake is installed you can secure the stem to it with a bit of cotton twine or raffia. You don’t need to tie it tightly. A loose loop around both the stem and the stake will keep the stem supported well.

Caring for Amaryllis After Blooming

(Note: if you are not interested in saving the bulb, and plan on purchasing bulbs new every year, you can just compost your bulb after it is done blooming.)

Once your amaryllis finishes blooming, cut the flower stalk off, about two inches above the top of the bulb. Do NOT cut off the leaves, since the leaves will store food so the bulb can bloom again next year. If you grew your amaryllis bulb in water, you’ll now want to go ahead and pot it up in soil or coir, following the planting instructions above. Place the pot in a warm, bright location, and water when the top inch of soil is dry. Fertilize your amaryllis bulb monthly with a balanced fertilizer, compost tea, or fish emulsion. Once it is warm (consistently above sixty degrees) you can move your amaryllis outdoors for the summer. You can simply grow them in the pots, or plant them, pot and all, in your garden in a sunny area. Amaryllis sort of prefer being a bit pot-bound, so it’s better to leave them in their pots rather than transplanting them. Then, when it’s time to bring them back into the house, simply lift them, pot and all, out of the garden and bring them indoors.

Getting Your Amaryllis to Bloom Again

The whole point of keeping your amaryllis bulb was to get it to bloom again. Decide when you’d like it to bloom again. For example, for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or another holiday. You’ll need to do some planning if you have a particular bloom time in mind. You’ll want to bring the amaryllis indoors, cut the foliage off just above the bulb, and store the bulb in a cool dark place (no cooler than 55 degrees) for eight to ten weeks, without watering. This is dormancy, and is necessary for the bulb to bloom again. After the eight to ten weeks are up, you can give it a good watering, allowing excess water to drain, and move the bulb to a warm, bright location. Do not water the bulb at this point, unless the soil becomes very dry. When new green growth emerges, you can begin watering again when the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch, and the cycle begins all over again.

 

In general, amaryllis are not very demanding. Plenty of light, warmth, and attention to watering, and you’ll be able to grow gorgeous blooms indoors. While keeping them and making them rebloom year after year is a bit more work, it can definitely be worth it for those who are collecting amaryllis or who want to eventually fill their home with these beautiful flowers.