How to Grow Milkweed
Milkweed are beautiful American wildflowers and delightful garden plants. Fragrant clusters of flowers are a magnet for butterflies and pollinators. Four species of native milkweed are found in most states: the Whorled Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Swamp Milkweeds, and Butterfly Weed. They will thrive in a wide range of garden and meadow habitats from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains, including southern Canada. Plant milkweed in your meadow or garden to provide much-needed habitat and food for monarch butterflies, bees, and other beneficial insects. Follow our guide to learn how to planting and growing healthy milkweed.
When & Where To Plant Milkweed
Light: Young Milkweed plants need plenty of diffuse light as they grow. Plant in full sun locations.
Soil: There is a Milkweed variety for every landscape.
- Common Milkweed grows well in average garden soil.
- Swamp Milkweed, as its name implies, will do best in a moist environment, making it great for wet meadows or rain gardens.
- Tropical Milkweed performs beautifully in hot, humid conditions, and can be grown as an annual in the north.
- Butterfly Weed and Whorled Milkweed grows best in dry conditions.
Spacing: Milkweed establish large, deep root systems and prefer not to be transplanted.
- Butterfly Weed, Whorled Milkweed, and Common Milkweed should all be spaced about 18” apart.
- Swamp Milkweed eventually matures to forms clumps up to 36" across. You can plant them closer and then thin the plants as they grow in, or, plant Swamp Milkweed and its cultivars between 30” and 36” apart.
Planting Time: Milkweed plants can be planted in spring or fall. In spring, your milkweed plants will likely arrive in a dormant state, with no green leaves above the soil line. This is perfectly normal! At this stage in your milkweed's growth, all of the energy is being focused on developing a strong root system. After you plant your milkweed, you should see it 'wake up' as the soil warms and should begin to see leaves form - often, milkweed can be slow to wake up from dormancy compared to other perennials in your garden. Be sure not to overwater while they are dormant.
Fall planting in fall gives your plants a chance to establish themselves before winter. In areas with cold winters, this perennial plant will return in late spring.
Growing Milkweed From Seed: To start milkweed from seed, the easiest way is to emulate Mother Nature and plant them in the fall. If you really want to start your seeds in the spring, first you must break their dormancy with cold stratification, which we cover in our guide for starting milkweed from seed.
Learn More: How To Germinate and Grow Milkweed Seeds.
How To Plant Milkweed: Step-By-Step Instructions
Start with healthy plants that have developed root systems.
Prepare a planting hole that's twice as deep and twize as wide as the root ball of your milkweed plant. When planting multiple plants, you can amend the soil for each planting hole, or amend the whole bed before planting.
If the roots are clinging to the sides of the pot, you can "rough up" the roots to encourage outward growth.
Plant your lmilkweed with the top of the root ball even with the soil line. Backfill soil around the plant and press firmly all around.
Water well to compress the soil and remove an air pockets.
How To Care For Milkweed Plants
Growth habit: Most milkweed species are clump-forming. Common Milkweed is a single stemmed variety.
Staking: Milkweed plants have sturdy stems - no staking needed.
Watering: Swamp Milkweed varieties need either a naturally moist environment or regular watering. Whorled and Common Milkweeds, as well as Butterfly Weed, are suited to a dry environment.
Fertilizing: Milkweed does not require fertilization. This native plant performs well in poor soils.
Mulching: You may mulch milkweed with leaf litter or fine-chopped bark mulch if you're trying to control weeds. Dry-soil loving milkweeds, like Butterfly Weed, may not appreciate the water retaining qualities of mulch.
Trimming & Pruning: None needed.
End of Season Milkweed Care
Dividing & Transplanting: All Milkweed, and swamp milkweed in particular, develop a deep tap-root, so we do not recommend dividing or transplanting milkweed plants once they've been established in your garden or meadow.
Milkweed will naturally reseed and spread over time. You can harvest the seeds to plant them where you'd like. If you want to prevent volunteer seedlings a garden setting, remove or secure all seed pods in early fall, before they split open and spread their seeds. Learn More: Managing Asclepias Plants - How To Harvest Seeds And Control Spreading
Pests & Disease: Typically there are no serious pests or diseases that affect mature milkweed. In certain situations, aphids or whitefly can overrun your milkweed plants. Use a jet of water to hose them off. When you spray, be sure to avoid any clusters of Monarch eggs that are growing on the affected plants. Move any Monarch larvae that have already hatched to a clean place before spraying.
Learn More About Milkweed
Monarchs & Milkweed
The leaves of all milkweed species are the host plant for the caterpillars of beautiful American monarch butterflies - meaning milkweed leaves are the ONLY food that they can eat to survive. However, because of widespread pesticide use and the destruction of meadows across the country, wild-growing milkweeds are disappearing in places where these butterflies breed. This has led to a nearly 90% decline in monarch populations over the last 2 decades! Looking ahead, if we don't replenish these lost milkweeds, Monarch butterflies will vanish from the American landscape forever. Fortunately, you can plant milkweed to help support your local monarch butterfly and pollinator population!
Milkweeds are irresisible pollinator plants. In addition to Monarch butterflies, they will attract bees, other butterflies and moths, and a variety of other benefical bugs. To learn more about milkweed plants and which variety is best for your garden, read our guide!
Additional Milkweed resources mentioned in the article:
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