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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Milkweed Flowers
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House Digest: Most U.S. gardeners already know that planting milkweed is one of the best ways to attract monarch butterflies to your garden and help local populations thrive. What if you have the space in your beds or on your balcony but don't have the funds to buy new plants each year? You have options. For one, several monarch-dedicated organizations give away free seeds and seedlings, including Live Monarch, Save Our Monarchs, and Monarchs and More. Depending on where you live, your local government or gardening groups may organize periodic giveaways. You can also save your own seeds seasonally or get a handful from green-thumbed neighbors.

Live Monarch is a non-profit, grassroots monarch butterfly preservation organization based in Georgia. It's been running for over 20 years and offers free common, showy, swamp, butterfly, and narrow-leaved milkweed seeds to families that can't afford to donate. If you're unsure which variety is best for your area, the organization has a handy map you can consult. Brad Grimm, a California-based monarch enthusiast and milkweed cultivator, gives away free milkweed seed packets — Speciosa for the western U.S.A. and Syriaca for the eastern U.S.A. — via an online order form on his website, Grow Milkweed Plants. School educators and Scout leaders can enroll in Save Our Monarchs' Pollinator Garden Program to receive a free seed mix containing, among many other native flowering plants, ​​common and butterfly milkweed. (You have to pay $1 to $4 for postage and handling.)

Go local

In 2023, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Pollinator Habitat Program gave away an incredible 779,601 red and common milkweed seed packets as part of Project Milkweed. With supplies exhausted, Tennesseans will have to wait until June 2024 (National Pollinator Week) to nab free seeds once again. Are you a Cook County resident? Take an online pledge to help save the monarch butterfly, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and Illinois Monarch Project will give you a free packet of milkweed seeds. If you live — and garden — in South Carolina, the South Carolina Wildlife Federation (SCWF) will send one packet of native milkweed seeds to your household. Put in your request for a 2024 delivery by completing the online form on the SCWF website.

Hyper-local places to get milkweed seeds include seed exchanges, like the annual events run by Wild Ones chapters around the country, and local gardening and wildlife preservation group giveaways. For example, for one month in 2021, Friends of South Pasadena Nature Park gave away native California milkweed seeds to visitors at the South Pasadena Farmers' Market. In 2020, students at Kate Starr Kellogg Elementary in Chicago collected seeds from the milkweed plants in their school garden to share with their local community for free.

Collecting milkweed seeds from wild plants is also a fun, family-friendly, and, most importantly, free activity. Harvest the unopened or partially open seed pods from spent (brown, dry, and dead-looking) plants between spring and early winter. Open the pods, grasping the pappi — the fluffy tails of the seeds — at the base and pulling them out together. Take off the exposed seeds and put them in a sealable container. Pick over the seeds, discarding those damaged by mold, disease, or pests. The best time of year to sow milkweed seeds for a bountiful butterfly garden is winter when you sow the seeds of varieties that need stratification, or spring. Wild seed collection has the benefit of ensuring the plants in your garden are native to your region. They'll be hardier and more likely to self-seed once the plants mature, giving you volunteer plants (new-generation milkweed seedlings) for future seasons.

If you end up with more seeds than you need (it's likely) and you harvested wild seeds, consider donating them to Monarch Watch. This University of Kansas non-profit grows seedlings for educational and restoration projects. Can't be bothered with seeds? Monarch Watch also gives away free milkweed plugs to schools and large restoration projects, and the Monarchs and More Western Habitat Program has opened its 2024 registration for seedling supply to landowners. Home gardeners should look local. For example, those in Ann Arbor, Michigan, can get plants from Nebraska Monarchs and the Native Plant Expo & Marketplace 2024's Milkweed Giveaway.

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Established in 1889, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) is an award-winning, special purpose government agency responsible for wastewater treatment and stormwater management in Cook County, Illinois.


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