Making Space: Monarchs and Milkweed

By now, you’ve probably read about the dire situation for Monarchs. Maybe you’ve wondered what you could do to help ensure that 20, 30, 40 years from now we will continue to marvel at the annual migration these beautiful butterflies make?

5 years ago I made a commitment to allow milkweed to grow in my garden wherever it happened to pop up as one small way I could help. As you probably already know if you have a garden, milkweed doesn’t always choose the most convenient spots to take hold. Common Milkweed is a big plant. It often reaches 3 feet tall and seems to like the margins – the front of flower borders and gardens that are really much too small for them. It can take a shift in thinking to be comfortable with the aesthetics.

Tall milkweed near the front of a flower bed
This well-established clump chose a better spot near the back of the bed, but still flops over into the walkway from time to time

I think you’ll agree that if we weigh helping an endangered species against having a perfect garden, the endangered species should win.

Where I may have to make an exception to my rule of never pulling milkweed is in the veggie garden. What started as one small plant has become a huge colony in one of my raised beds. This is the bed I’ve been using for salad greens and snap peas, so when the greens are growing in early summer the milkweed does not get in the way. By late summer, when the weather is too hot for growing salad greens or peas easily, the bed is taken over by milkweeds and sunflowers (planted by the birds, since my birdfeeder is close to the bed). This system has worked out well so far, giving me something from the garden in early summer and the wildlife in our yard something in late summer. The balance is starting to tip, though, and the day is coming when I will not have enough space to grow my early season veggies here. I think I will need to thin the milkweed next summer.

This raised bed has a mix of milkweed, sunflowers, and gourds this time of year. In early summer, it holds lettuce and snap peas. Can you see the monarchs?

I’m under no delusion that my milkweed is enough to save the monarchs, but it is one small thing I can do to make things a little easier for them. My house is in between Glacial Drumlin School, which has larger patches of milkweed, and McCarthy Park, with its acres and acres of prairie. I like to think of it as a stepping stone that helps monarchs and other wildlife move between the areas that hold food and shelter for them. If enough of my neighbors recognize that their yards can be a critical piece in helping the other species that call our community home, imagine what we can do! And how about you? Can you make your own space a stepping stone for monarchs? Could you commit to leaving milkweed grow where it will?

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