My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Milkweed Project

I usually see life as a glass half full.  That was not the case when the core that lets me turn the key and start my car failed and I had to get it to a dealer to have it fixed. That cost about $900 including a tow to Bangor, Maine,  about 75 miles away.  Then I had to wait until my boss was heading  from the refuge, which he only does once or twice a week.  The first time, he had to leave before I was finished with my course on driving off-road vehicles.  So I was even more bummed out about not having a car. 

Finally I was able to catch a ride with him and go retrieve my car.  Steve is a fascinating person as he started life as a biologist and also has a very quick mind.  In the course of our conversation, I mentioned how I love to grow plants.  He said that maybe I was the person to start a milkweed project.  He wanted to grow a lot of milkweed and then plant it on the refuge.  At that point, I got real excited and was kind of glad I had had car trouble, since I would get to grow plants. 

Monarch butterflies go just a little past Maine into southern Canada, but they have been disappearing from Maine for the last decade.  Maine is asking people to grow milkweed, the ONLY genus of plants that the caterpillars can feed on, to help bring back habitat for them. And milkweeds are also VERY important to native bees, another species I'm passionate about saving. So I was REALLY excited to get to be in on this project.  And I LOVE the perfume of common milkweed so I want to be around LOTS of it. 

 I started researching how to do start milkweed.   We had some seeds collected last year which needed to be cleaned of their floss, and stratified - soaked in water overnight, then mixed with a dampened mix of perlite and vermiculite and refrigerated for two to four weeks. Then the seeds needed to be started in trays before being transplanted into five inch pots to accommodate their extensive root system. 

I found sources for the planting cells plus trays, vermiculite, compost, and perlite.  Steve rapidly got it all ordered and I bought 35 dishpans to use as seed starting trays.  He also decided to buy 1000 seeds each of common milkweed and swamp milkweed. I conned an intern into cleaning the collected seeds - we have a homemade cage that we can crank around.  It has rocks in it which nock off the little parachutes and leave the seeds behind.  (The floss falls out through the screen.) These gave us several thousand more seeds. 

We were starting this project a few months late so I pushed the seeds along, only stratifying them for two weeks, and then transplanting them when only a few of them had true leaves.  I had so many seeds, that I planted some directly into the ground before stratifying, and others after stratifying, after I filled up all my bins with seeds. 

The dishpan planting trays of milkweed seeds plus views of my garden

The next problem was that I had maybe 6000 seeds that sprouted but we could only afford to raise 2000 plants in cells. So we decided to plant the rest of the seedlings directly into the ground.  I had potting mix left over, so I decided to add a little of it around each little transplant. Then I transplanted seeds for many days.  But even with help from the YCC kids on a day and a half and help for a few hours from various staff members and two volunteers - all the way from Israel - I still had some plants still in their sprouting trays. 

I got seven flats of forty cells from the first dishpan of seedlings - ended up using nine of the thirty-five to transplant to the cells

The first day, the YCC kids helped me, we had several of them absent. But I think we were five or six and were using those little weeders to build our holds in clay soil.  It was REALLY hard to get the clay to break up enough for us to cover the seedlings.   I think we all planted less than one hundred seedlings each. 

Michael had landscaping experience and preworked his plot  

Daniel concentrating on getting a hole made

Then watering his plot

Our watering system - that's a collapsible watering tank in the back of the truck - we fill it with a fire hose

The second time the YCC kids helped, we had the full crew and I had found a MUCH easier place to plant to seeds - along a newly worked ditch where the planting cover failed. 

Another day - another site and several new workers so I'm explaining the setup - each pair of bins is a planting station - one has the seedlings, and one potting mix 

I'm demonstrating how to carefully loosen the mix around the seedlings and then carefully separate them as they are growing in clumps and we have to tease their roots apart without breaking them or touching the roots

I'm demonstrating how to hold the seedling by ONLY the leaves and what a good root system looks like - with so many seedlings, we don't transplant plants with poor roots

We are planting in a ditch that needs cover and which is at the end of the meadow around headquarters they used trowels and the weeders here 

Christina, a summer worker and two ladies from Israel helped me one morning

No, that's clover, NOT milkweed. The milkweed is that tiny little green stem just above the index finger - it will take about a week before it gets over planting shock and starts growing 

I'm writing this blog on Friday, July 29.  I planned to plant seeds for a few hours last night and most of the day today as well as most of the day tomorrow.  But we had a big long rain last evening so everything is too wet to attempt to plant until later today. An I'm going off for a week of play with two of my daughters, starting Sunday, so  about a thousand of my babies are going to die because they aren't in growing medium. 

Last week, I started planning my next two steps in this  project - to get places ready in which to transplant the seeds and to arrange for help to get them in the ground. I planned it all out, with possible dates, and got Steve's approval.  So we are having a work day August 21 and grilling hot dogs and providing a hot dog lunch to planting volunteers. So far, we have put out more posters than we need people as I think we can plant with about thirty helpers. 

You are invited too! - I'll provide lodging to the first out of town volunteer!

Next week, the refuge staff will first mow and then till lots of  little patches within the big meadow around the Refuge Headquarters.  They will also lay out a hose system so we can water each patch.  I plan to give the plots LOTS of water, to (hopefully) make dormant seeds think it's spring and sprout.  Then we'll till one more time just before the work day to murder them all. 

Hopefully we'll get enough people out for planting.  If not, we plan on me planting them over the course of the following week, then making sure they have enough water to grow fast until around September 10.  Then I'll let them start to go dormant so they will survive winter.

Then I'll be holding my breath that these little guys will get big enough to harden off before frost - which I expect near October 1st this year.  And I'll have to beg for reports on the fate of them next summer.  But I hope they look like this next July and August. These pictures are from plants already growing and blooming on the refuge.  Several species of bees were VERY excited about them. 

A tricolored bumblebee feeding on milkweed

I'm not sure of this species of bee?  but I have only seen them on milkweed

If this is a bee, it's really long and skinny - but there were LOTS of them in the milkweed patch

I've had a great time growing the little guys.  And my now my glass is again half full.  

My swamp milkweed is growing faster than is the common milkweed - this picture on July30

 I'll post another blog on our work day.  And stay tuned for my play week with my daughters - through Maine's Bold Coast, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. I'll be playing with my youngest daughter when this blog comes out.