Without beneficial insects and their ability to aid in plant pollination, 90 percent of all flowering plant species might disappear. Thirty percent of all plants in the world would not exist if it weren’t for pollinators. Your vegetable garden wouldn’t be as productive. We all need to do what we can to provide a beneficial habitat for them on our property. Pollinators are insects and other animals that move pollen from one flower to the next, fertilizing it and allowing it to reproduce via seed. Butterflies, bees, birds, bats, other insects, and even ants are some of the many pollinators that are so important. What can you and I do to help?
Also known as Butterfly Milkweed, this plant attracts the beautiful Monarch Butterfly that flyby in the summer. Milkweed is common to grasslands and dry prairies from Maine to South Dakota and from the desert southwest to Florida and California, Monarchs are an excellent pollinator and certainly worth attracting. Monarchs lay their eggs almost exclusively on Milkweed flowers but collect nectar from many flowers and flowering vegetables. Other factors that are essential for the Monarch butterfly to survive are landscape gardens where they can find nectar (food) in the flowers and the forests in central Mexico (Michoacán) and in some of the northern California coastal forests that they shelter in for the winter. Today their estimated count had gone down from millions 20 years ago to about 28,000 because of deforestation and the relentless roadside eradication of “weeds” and commercial agricultural field spraying of herbicides. Butterfly Milkweed should be planted along perimeter fence lines where it can run wild (and it will run wild) and in prairie type or xeriscape (dry) gardens. Once established, it needs very little water.
How to Grow Milkweed from Seed
You can collect the seed from the flower pods as they begin to open or find them online. It is best to plant perennial Milkweed in late autumn as the seeds need a three-month cold stratification period. The seed will germinate and sprout the following spring.
If you collect the seeds of warm weather milkweed, start seeds inside and plant when the soil is warm. You can speed up the growing process, by placing the seeds in moist soil in a container and put it in the refrigerator for 3-4 weeks. Plant the sprouted seeds in pots with drainage, mist them lightly every few days, for about 4-6 weeks before planting outside in May. They should have two sets of leaves when they get transplanted to two feet apart in their permanent site. Milkweed grows from 4-6 feet tall with flowers that run from pink to purple to orange and bloom from June to August.
How to Water Milkweed
Drip irrigation can provide the best way to water Milkweed. Use drip irrigation if you are growing a long row of plants. Run ½” Emitter Tubing down the row of plants the emitter tubing will give water off at the same rate from the beginning to the end of the line. In shorter rows or beds, ¼” Soaker Dripline works very well. I recommend using a battery timer on your faucet to get the water to go on at precise intervals all summer long.
The roots/rhizomes of the plant will fill in the space between the plants. You don’t have to provide them with great garden soil as they can tolerate poor soils. In year two, they will begin to spread out aggressively and fill in the row and the surrounding area. Therefore, I recommend planting them away from your planned flower beds. Milkweed will only need to be watered occasionally as they prefer dry soil. The plants are deer resistant too as the leaves taste bitter to animals.
Butterflies that lay their eggs on Milkweed will appreciate a nearby water source like a saucer, birdbath, or small pond. If you check the plants regularly, you’ll see all the phases of the life cycle of a Monarch in a single year from the eggs hatching in the Milkweed turning into tiny caterpillars and then the caterpillars transforming into butterflies.
Don’t ever use pesticides to kill destructive insects as these chemicals will also kill butterflies. Once your garden is chemical free, it will have a good balance of beneficial and predatory insects and the birds will then have a great source of insects to consume.
Bees are another essential part of our properties, farms, and urban areas as they pollinate from flower to flower. Many of the bee species, especially the American Bumble Bee and the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee are also suffering from an alarming population decline. There are three things that bumblebees need to thrive: Flowers from which to gather pollen and nectar, a place to nest, and a shelter for the winter.
A diversity of flowers will attract bees because of their nectar and pollen. The website High Country Gardens www.highcountrygardens.com has a Butterfly and Bee-Friendly flower collection that will keep your garden buzzing with pollinators. Flowers such as Orange Butterfly Weed, English Lavender, Goldenrod, Asters, Purple Coneflower, Veronica Spicata, and Echinacea. You can also visit Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center www.xerces.org/lbj for more ideas.
Maintaining a variety of habitat features is essential as well. Bees nest in abandoned holes in the ground often made by squirrels, mice, or rats but sometimes they nest in empty bird houses, bird nests, hollow logs, dead trees, compost piles, long tufts of wild grasses, or under rocks. In winter, bees will nest in wood piles, leaf litter, sheds, rock walls, or even loose soil. Keeping large areas of your yard unmowed or untilled until April or May will provide secure nesting sites for queen bees as the nesting sites for small mammals will become nesting sites for the bees the following year. When you mow in the Fall, keep your mower blades on the highest level, so you don’t disturb the overwintering queens. I recommend you check out www.xerces.org/bumblebees/guidelines for more information on how you can do your part in supporting pollinators.
Top Pollinator Plants and Insects They Attract
- Salvias (Bees)
- Bush Clematis (Hummingbirds, butterflies)
- Coneflower (Songbird, bees, butterflies)
- Daylilies (Butterflies, hummingbirds)
- Phlox (Butterflies, hummingbirds)
- False Sunflower (Songbirds, butterflies)
- Lantana (Birds, butterflies, bees)
- Buddleia (Butterflies)
- Hibiscus (Hummingbirds, bumble bees)
- Hydrangea (Bees)
- Hypericum (Bees)
- Honeysuckle (Hummingbirds, Bumblebees)
- Fennel (Bees)
- Monarda (Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds)
- Thyme (Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds)
- Poppy (Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds)
- Dill (Butterflies, bees, hummingbirds)
- Trailing Rosemary (Bees)
I will continue to eat and grow organically. It’s the way people have grown food for thousands of years and provides all the nutrition we need and the taste we crave.