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!

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.

Michigan Gardening To Do List for May

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Planting time is here! We made it through another long, cold winter, Michigan!

Now, it’s time to get growing.

 

It’s time to get those transplants outside and time for more direct sowing in the garden. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast and those night time temps. A late freeze can zap your young plants, ruining all of your hard work. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates page to find the average date of the last frost in your area.

Be sure to harden off your transplants by setting them outdoors during the day and bringing them back inside at night for a week or two before you intend to plant them. And keep an eye on the soil moisture to ensure that your transplants do not wilt.

Also, now is a great time to plan out any succession planting you want to do this year. Johnny’s Select Seeds has an excellent succession planting calculator to help you plan ahead and stay on track.

Here is a quick list of sowing dates for many common vegetables:

Sow Indoors

  • Corn – Through May 21 (This usually does better sown directly into the garden, but if you’re trying to get a jump on your planting, you can certainly give it a try. Just try not to disturb the roots too much during transplanting.)
  • Cucumber – Through May 21
  • Melons – May 1 – May 21
  •  Pumpkins – Through May 21

Sow Outdoors

All of the following cool season crops can be sown outdoors during the month of May. Warmer season crops like cucumbers, melons, squash, and tomatoes can be direct sown toward the end of May (or early June) after soil temps rise a bit and the danger of frost passes.

  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuces
  • Mustard Greens
  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Turnips
  •  

Book Review: Mother Earth News Almanac

240x4009780760349854(Note: I received this book for free from Quarto Publishing Group. However, all opinions here are mine. This post also contains affiliate links.)

The original Mother Earth News Almanac was published in the 1970s and, in addition to being a bestseller, it was one of those books that gardeners and homesteaders referred to again and again. It has been out of print for many years, however. Luckily, the folks over at Mother Earth News decided to update the original almanac and release it, and the result is the Mother Earth News Almanac: A Guide Through the Seasons.

First off, I have to say that any gardening book that is organized according to the seasons gains an automatic thumbs-up from me. It just seems the most logical, when gardening and homesteading are, by their very nature, activities that are dependent on trying to do the right things in the right seasons. So we’re already off to a good start.

This is not one of those books that gives you a list of vegetables and then tells you how to grow them — there are many of those books out there already, and I’ve written a couple of them. They’re very useful, and everyone who wants to grow their own food should have a book like that around. But that’s not what you’ll find in the Mother Earth News Almanac. It’s more of a lifestyle book, encompassing the “how-tos” of growing preserving, and cooking food, raising animals, living sustainably, and living well.

It’s the kind of book that gives you tips for actually LIVING. Wondering what it means when a recipe says to “scald the milk?” The Almanac tells you what that means and how to do it. Want to identify the insect pests in your garden and find a natural way to deal with them? Or are you interested in saving money, or foraging for wild foods, or raising goats? That’s what’s in this book: tips to help you live the homesteading lifestyle, no matter what that looks like. It can be in an apartment or on 100 acres; in the city or in the country. What it’s about is taking control of your life and how you choose to live it, and that can be by growing a garden, brewing your own beer, raising hogs, or simply making your own kneepads for working in the garden.

This book is not flashy. The artwork is simple, with a homespun feeling that just perfectly fits the contents of the book. I can see myself relaxing and flipping through the Almanac for years to come, maybe finding new project ideas depending on my mood and the season.

I should also mention the informative tables in the back of the Almanac. I am a lover of tables. They’re just so efficient and useful, and there are several of them in this book. Here are just a few of them:

  • Measurement conversions
  • Gestation table for common livestock
  • Scientific names for household chemicals
  • Garden pests and how to control them
  • Birdhouse sizes for different bird species
  • Food storage help
  • Botanical names for common fruits and vegetables
  • Planting charts to help plan your garden

If you’re interested in living a more sustainable, natural lifestyle, and you are a DIYer at heart, you’ll love this book. If you like the idea of having a project to work on, or finding a better way to accomplish an everyday task, this is for you. If you just want to know how to grow plants or design a garden, there are books out there that will better suit your needs. But if, like me, you’re always ready for a new project, you’ll love flipping through the Mother Earth News Almanac and finding even more ways to live your life more sustainably, mindfully, and frugally.

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

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: January

amaryllisJanuary. The holidays are over, and a long, cold Michigan winter stretches before us. While some of us embrace winter, some of us are chomping at the bit to get back out into the garden.

The good news for those of us who are counting down the days until spring is that we can start growing several vegetables, herbs, and annuals indoors from seed this month. Below is a list of what you can start sowing now, depending on your approximate last spring frost date.

If your last spring frost is between April 15th and May 1st:
Herbs and Veggies:

  • Onions
  • Parsley
Annuals:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Lisianthus
  • Viola
If your last spring frost is between May 1st and May 15th:
Vegetables and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • Delphiniums
If your last spring frost is between May 15th and June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.
If your last spring frost is after June 1st:
Vegetable and Herbs:

  • None yet.
Annuals:

  • None yet.

So, there’s not a ton going on yet, but spring will be in full swing before we know it. This is a good time to gather any seeds and seed-starting supplies you need so you’ll be ready to go when the time is right.