Living Acres

Easy as Growing Weeds: Establishing Milkweed for Monarchs

August 24, 2016

Plant milkweed in sunny areas alongside high production agriculutre. Use gloves such as the black ones seen here to transplant common milkweed plants.

Growing weeds, as you surely know, couldn’t be easier. So if you’re thinking about creating a milkweed refuge for monarch butterflies on your land, you’ll be glad to learn that maintaining the plants is as easy as, well, growing weeds. Monarchs, those stained-glass windows on wings, are graceful pollinators that rely on common milkweed both for their feeding and reproduction sites. In fact, milkweed is the only plant they will lay their eggs on.

After overwintering in Mexico, monarchs begin their journey north to Canada in early spring – but not before an extended summer honeymoon in the Corn Belt to begin their families. That’s when they have to contend with our agricultural success.
We’ve been very successful at eradicating weeds, especially in the north-central United States. Which happens to be the same region where two or three generations of butterflies usually procreate in the summer.

The resulting habitat loss has been a factor in the reduced monarch population, leading some to call for their addition to the endangered species list. It’s also spurred many farmers – the original stewards of the land – to create milkweed communities that can help sustain the butterflies’ numbers.  

It’s a worthy effort that may be easier than you think.

  1. Pick a sunny spot
    The first thing to do when establishing a milkweed refuge is to scope out a plot of land that’s apart from your planted acreage. Pick a spot that gets at least six hours of daily sun.
  2. Select seeds, seedlings or root segments
    Next, decide whether to plant seeds, seedling plants or root buds. For a quick and vigorous start, we recommend starting with root segments from mature plants. It’s the sturdiest option and will quickly get your plantings off to a strong start. And if you’re establishing milkweeds in small patches, space them about 3 feet apart.
  3. Include other nectar sources
    Monarchs benefit from diverse nectar sources, so consider adding other flowering plants to the area while you’re planting milkweed.
  4. Don’t fertilize, rarely water – just relax and watch the (milk)weeds grow!
    Check occasionally for pest insects like aphids, which can delay the spread of milkweed population. But there’s no need to fertilize.

And don’t apply a herbicide for the first year of growth. For competing vegetation, occasional mowing or tillage is fine. But once milkweed plants have been established for a year, they can usually withstand some competition.

Then stand back and watch the milkweeds grow. You’ll find that very little watering is needed, except in extremely dry conditions. The plants go dormant in the winter and will come back reliably year after year.

With very little effort, you’ll soon raise a healthy community of milkweed. Individual milkweed plants are fast growers and can easily produce 50 plants in two or three years, populating an area of 10 feet in diameter – and inviting scores of monarchs.

By now, most monarchs have begun their southern migration, bound for winter roosting sites. But if you’ve created a milkweed refuge and happen to spy some late-summer lingerers, go ahead and take some of credit.

You’ve made such a welcoming sanctuary that your summer guests are reluctant to leave.


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