Seniors Learn About Milkweed Seed Sowing With Fenway Garden Society

Though it’s still hat-and-glove season, Elizabeth Bertolozzi of the Fenway Garden Society said it’s time to start thinking about the butterflies that will flutter around the Victory Gardens this summer.

Last year, the Fenway Victory Gardens received a grant from the Boston Planning and Development Agency to build the first public butterfly garden in the City of Boston. Bertolozzi said that there are currently a number of plans that are being looked over, and the Garden Society is “thinking about how to roll it out and complete it before the end of August,” she said. Bertolozzi said that the number one thing to do to prepare for the butterflies is to plant milkweed, as monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants.

In an effort to bring the larger Fenway community into the process, Bertolozzi showed seniors at the Peterborough Senior Center on Tuesday how to plant milkweed winter sow jugs, which are a kind of terrarium made inside a milk jug that will help the milkweed seeds germinate. She said it is important to plant the milkweed now, as it has to go through a period of cold moist ratification. This means that the seeds must go through a period of alternating freezing and warming so that the outside layer of seed breaks down, making it easier to germinate in the spring. Bertolozzi said that there is almost 100-percent germination rate with this method.

Bertolozzi said that she would be planing swamp milkweed, which is native to this area. She harvested milkweed pods in her garden last year and saved the seeds to plant this year.

At the senior center, Bertolozzi demonstrated for the seniors how she plants the seeds inside milk jugs. She said that the jugs need to be left out all winter long, and she will begin to see germination right around Marathon Monday. The seniors were actively engaged in the presentation, asking Bertolozzi questions about the process, the butterflies, and sharing their own experiences

To make a milkweed winter sow jug, Bertolozzi took the top off of a milk jug, and cut it on three sides. She took a screwdriver and poked fairly large holes in the bottom of the jug. She then took 10 toilet-paper tubes and made four cuts in the bottom of each, and folded the flaps down so the tubes were closed on the bottom. She placed the tubes in the base of the open milk jug, and filled each tube almost to the top with soil. Then she planted three seeds in each roll and put a little more soil on top. The jug was then sealed with duct tape—Bertolozzi’s aptly had butterflies on it—so it will create a terrarium environment. She will then spray the tubes with water through the hole in the top of the jug.

Then—“forget about it,” Bertolozzi said. “Don’t brush off the snow,”  and don’t water it again after the initial spray. The jug will be able to take care of itself until the sprouts are big enough to be transplanted in the spring.

She said the benefit of sowing these seeds in milk jugs is that a garden space is not needed. She said they can be set in a window box, on a rooftop, or on a patio, and can be grown without worrying that someone is going to take them.

When it’s warmer out and the seeds have sprouted, Bertolozzi said that the plants have to have two sets of two leaves before they can be replanted. She said that one month after the seeds have sprouted, the duct tape can be taken off and the jugs opened. 

She said that while new milkweed plants can produce some flowers their first year, there will be a lot more the second year. 

She also provided the seniors with some information about monarch butterflies, which are wintering in the mountains of Mexico right now. She said that in order to make their way back north in September and October, they typically migrate in different generations. “From egg to butterfly, monarchs take 30 days,” she said.

“When temperatures start to warm up, they will start to head north, reach a certain point, lay their eggs, and then die,” Bertolozzi said. Monarch eggs will turn into caterpillars that eat the milkweed. Then the butterfly forms and emerges. It will continue further north towards Canada, and the last generation of butterflies will make the entire trip back to Mexico. These butterflies will live for six months, while the other monarchs typically only live about two months. She added that this process differs slightly every year.

Bertolozzi said that the milk jugs will produce about 30 seedlings each, which she likes to pass along to other gardeners for their gardens. She added that the jugs are “a great way to start a patch of milkweed,” and though it might seem a long way away, there will be a number of beautiful butterflies flittering around Fenway before you know it.

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