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.

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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.

Time to Sow Onion Seeds

February and early March are the perfect time to sow onion seeds indoors under lights here in Michigan. Growing onions from seeds rather than from sets gives you a lot more varieties to choose from as well as saving you quite a bit of money. Just make sure you choose a long day or and intermediate day variety if you are in zones 5-6.

Long Day Onions

Red Wing, Red Hawk, Bridger, Ailsa Craig, Cortland, Pontiac

Intermediate Day Onions

Walla Walla, Valencia, New York Early, Cabernet

Garden Tip: Make Your Own Seed Tape

Soon, we Michigan gardeners will be stuck indoors, staring forlornly out at our snow or frost-covered gardens. While I’m not in a hurry for that, I know that there are several ways I can keep myself busy, and get my garden off to a good start next spring. One of those ways is to make seed tape. An afternoon or two of work during the winter, and I’ll have perfect, evenly-spaced seeds ready to plant once the time is right.

Supplies:

* Newspaper (black and white, plain newspaper pages) cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch strips, paper towel, or toilet paper
* Flour
* Water
* Seeds
* Ruler

How To Make Seed Tape

1. Make a paste out of flour and water. Start with 1/4 cup of flour, and add water until you have a paste-like consistency. it should easily coat a spoon, not just drip off.

2. Check the instructions on the back of your seed packet (or at the end of this post) to see how far to space seeds apart. Use the ruler, and write marks on your strips of newspaper at the correct intervals.

3. Dab a bit of flour paste onto the marks you wrote.

4. Place a seed (or two, if you’re concerned about whether they’ll germinate or not) into each dab of flour glue.

5. Write the name of the variety on each strip of newspaper.

6. Wait for the flour glue to dry completely, then store your seed tapes in an airtight container, preferably in a cool place until it’s time to plant. The refrigerator works well, as does an unheated garage.

When it’s time to plant, simply place your seed tape in the garden, and cover with soil, 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, depending on what type of seed you’re planting. Water in well, keep it moist, and wait for those first sprouts to show up.
Seed Spacing for Common Herbs, and Vegetables

Space your seeds on the seed tape according to the following general recommendations. You can also find this information on your seed packet.

Herbs:
* Basil: 4 inches
* Chives: 6 inches
* Cilantro: 6 inches
* Dill: 12 inches
* Mint: 12 inches
* Oregano: 6 inches
* Parsley: 6 inches
* Sage: 12 inches
* Thyme: 8 inches

Vegetables:
These are small-seeded vegetables that are commonly sown directly in the garden.

* Arugula: 4 inches
* Asian greens (bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna): 4 inches
* Beets: 3 inches
* Carrots: 3 inches
* Collards: 6 inches
* Kale: 6 inches
* Lettuce: 6 inches
* Mustard greens: 6 inches
* Radishes: 2 inches
* Rapini: 6 inches
* Spinach: 4 inches
* Swiss chard: 6 inches

Seed tapes are an easy way to get your garden planted. Even better, you can make these seed tapes during the winter and early spring, while you’re waiting to get out into your garden. They’re also a great project to do with kids.

I originally wrote this post for Planet Green, and wanted to share the info with my readers here at Gardening in the Mitten. You can view the original post here.

All through October, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite gardening tips. To check out other “31 Days of…” bloggers, check out this post.

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Three Types of Tomatoes, and How to Decide What You Should Grow

It’s easy to see why tomatoes have so many fans: not only are they delicious, but they are also visually stunning, with a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. But did you know that there are actually different types of tomatoes, and that some are better suited to certain types of dishes than others? The three basic types of tomatoes are slicers, paste tomatoes, and cherry-type tomatoes. Here’s what you need to know about each.

Slicers

These are the tomatoes that you eat, apple-style, right in the garden warmed from the summer sun. They are superior for slicing for sandwiches and burgers, or chopping into a salad. They tend to be juicier than paste tomatoes, and are therefore much better for fresh eating.

While people generally think of “beefsteak” type tomatoes when they think of slicers, that is only one type of slicer. Slicing tomatoes come in many different sizes and colors, not to mention flavors. Some wonderful slicers include:

Brandywine
Cherokee Purple
Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato
Aunt Ruby’s German Green
Black Krim
Japanese Black Trifele
Pineapple
Persimmon
Uncle Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

These tend to be indeterminate varieties, though some varieties, such as Sub-Arctic Plenty and Celebrity, are determinate, and therefore better suited to small gardens.

Paste Tomatoes

“Paste tomato” is somewhat of a misnomer, because there is so much more you can do with these types of tomatoes than make tomato paste or sauce! Besides the requisite sauces, you can make fresh salsas, ketchup, tomato juice and dried tomatoes. In general, these tomatoes are “fleshier” than slicers, with less juice and gel and thicker walls. Some of the most popular paste tomatoes are:

Roma
San Marzano
Polish Linguisa
Hungarian Italian
Italian Red Pear
Opalka
Principe Borghese

These are almost always determinate tomatoes, making it easy to harvest and sauce or can all at once.

Cherry-Type Tomatoes

One thing you can say for almost any cherry-type tomato (which includes not only cherry tomatoes, but currants, pear, and grape tomatoes)is that they are prolific. These tomatoes are excellent for eating raw in salads, or just popped into your mouth as a snack. Cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminate, and will produce lovely little snacks for you until the plants are killed by frost. Some favorite cherry-type tomatoes are:

Sungold
Chadwick Cherry
Yellow Pear
Juliet Grape
Red Currant
Super Sweet 100
Sweet Million
Tiny Tim

If you only choose one of each type of tomato, it’s safe to say you’ll be able to fill just about any tomato-related need you may have.

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: March

If you are a Michigan gardener, March is the time to start seeds for prime gardening season. The vast majority of vegetable and herb seeds can be started indoors this month and the list of seeds that can be sown outside is growing. March is also the time to finalize those plans for a successful vegetable and flower gardening season.

It’s Time to Start Seeds!

Indoors

    • Broccoli – March 17 – 31
    • Brussels Sprouts – March 17 – 31
    • Cabbage – March 3 – March 31
    • Cauliflower –  March 17 – 31
    • Celery – March 1 – March 10
    • Chard – March 1 – March 17
    • Eggplant – March 17 – 31
    • Kale – March 3 – 17
    • Leeks – March 1 – March 10
    • Lettuce – March 10 – 24
    • Peppers – March 31 – April 14
    • Scallion – March 1 – March 17
    • Tomato – March 10 – April 7

Outdoors – as soon as the soil is not too soggy

    Note: All (with the exception of potato) can be started indoors throughout March.

    • Arugala
    • Beet
    • Carrot
    • Mache
    • Parsnip
    • Peas
    • Potato
    • Radish
    • Turnip

Make Your Own Seed Packets Using Post-It Notes

I enjoy trading seeds, and rather than buy little baggies or coin envelopes, I prefer to make my own seed packets. I usually make mine out of old garden magazine or seed catalog pages, but I love this idea that I came across thanks to Red White & Grew over on Pinterest. Two Post-It notes, some tape, and in under a minute, you’ve got a perfect little seed envelope. Take a look: