Planting Seeds in Spring

Most native milkweed seeds and many native flower seeds need cold moist stratification to germinate successfully. After the recommended days of cold moist stratification are done, you can direct sow the seeds outside in the spring after the last frost under a very light amount of soil or you can start them in containers with soil.

The last frost date for an area is the day a region usually has its last frost. You can type in the phrase “last frost date by zip” and discover sites where you can find the last frost date for your specific zip code. You can also click here to find out the last frost date for your area:

Below are ten steps to starting seeds indoor (or outdoors) in containers.

Step 1: Prepare the Seed-starting Soil Mix

You need a seed starting mix for germinating seeds in containers. It’s possible to make your own seed starting mix or purchase a commercially prepared seed soil mix. The soil should be sterile to decrease the risk of bacteria interrupting your germinating rates. I recommend using a soil mix that contains mycorrhizae which helps the roots absorb nutrients and helps prevent fungus.

Soil mix that contains mycorrhizae helps to promote root growth, increase nutrient and water uptake, and helps grow larger plants.

Step 2: Dampen Seed Mix and Plant the Seeds

Put the soil mix into a bucket and put water into it and mix it well. You do not want it to be too wet but wet enough to keep seeds moist. I recommend pots, cups, or containers that are at least 4 inches deep to accommodate root growth.  You can also purchase seed trays. Sow the seeds by scattering them on the soil surface 1/4 inch apart, and then lightly cover with additional soil mix, coconut coir, or peat moss. Gently mist the surface with water to dampen the additional soil mix that has been added.

Step 3: Cover for Humidity

Covering the seeds will protect them, maintain moisture levels, and create the perfect environment for those seeds to get a great start. Covering the seeds increases the humidity, which is essential for high germination rates. Cover the pots with clear plastic wrap or a plastic dome that fits over the seed-starting tray. This creates a greenhouse effect and speeds germination. I make my own seed tray by using the aluminum baking trays with plastic covers that I purchase at the dollar stores.

You can purchase commercially made seed starting trays or make your own from aluminum baking pans. Rotisserie chicken or salad containers can be used to make mini greenhouse to start seeds.

Step 4: Keep the Seeds Warm

Once temperatures reach over 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) outdoors the germination process will begin. For indoor growing the temperature should be kept around 75-80 degrees F (24-27 degrees C) for optimal growth. If starting the seeds inside place the containers near a window. You can use grow lights to keep the seeds warm, and some gardeners prefer to use heat mats especially designed for seed trays.

If starting seeds indoors, I place the seed trays on heating mats in front of a window.

Step 5: Keep Soil Moist.

After you dampen the seed starting mix when planting the seeds, use a spray bottle or misting hose to keep the soil evenly moistened. Most seeds fail to germinate because the seeds are allowed to dry out.

Step 6: Uncover the Seedlings Once They Germinate

Seeds will typically germinate in 7-20 days. Once they germinate you can remove the cover. It’s very important to uncover the seedlings and expose them to light once they germinate, otherwise they will rapidly become straggly, with overly long, thin stems.

Once the seeds start to germinate remove the lid to allow air flow.

Step 7: Transplant the Seedlings to Individual Pots

Once seedlings have grown a few pairs of “true leaves” and are big enough to handle without damage, they can be transplanted into larger individual pots with potting soil. Be sure to fill the cups almost to the top to give the roots plenty of room to grow.

These Arizona milkweed (Asclepias angustifolia) seedlings are ready to be transplanted into individual containers because they have developed true leaves (second set that follows first cotyledon leaves). Click here to learn how difference between a seedling’s cotyledon and true leaves, and how you can use the leaves to tell when the plant is ready to be transplanted.

Step 8: Keep Transplanted Seedlings Out of Direct Sunlight While They Establish Roots

If seedlings are placed outside,  keep them out of direct sunlight (but not in a dark or overly shaded spot) for a week until the roots grow into the new soil and have a better chance of absorbing moisture. In dull, overcast weather, you don’t need to do this.

These Aquatic milkweed (Asclepius perennis) seedlings have been transplanted into larger cups and placed on a shelf on the porch outside.

Step 9: Harden Off Seedings

If plants have been grown inside need to be “hardened off” or slowly acclimated to the outdoors over a period of about seven to 10 days. Gradually introduce them to direct sunlight, dry air, and cold nights so that they don’t suffer shock from the sudden change in growing conditions.

Step 10: Plant Young Plants

Once plants have reached the stage where their roots are starting to emerge from the bottom of the pot, they can be planted out to their final location in your garden.

You can protect the young milkweed plants by covering them with wire basket purchased at dollar stores.

Diagnosing Seedling Problems

Leggy seedlings are the result of insufficient light after germination.
Solution: Move seedlings grown indoors as close as possible to a window as soon as they sprout.

Seedlings that are shriveled or toppled over is seen in cold, wet conditions that cause a damping off disease. Pathogens kill or weaken seeds pre-germination (or shortly afterwards).
Solution: Try to provide adequate light, heat and ventilation and avoid overwatering.

You can find these native milkweed seeds to purchase at My Butterfly Lady’s Etsy Shop.



Monarchs in Texas

The annual migration of Monarch Butterflies is one of the most impressive phenomena in the natural world. Every spring, vast numbers of monarch butterflies undertake a multi-generational journey from their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico to temperate areas of the United States thousands of miles to the north where they will summer, and then return back to Mexico in the fall. This incredible yearly pilgrimage is under threat from habitat destruction, which has drastically reduced the population of migrants in recent decades.

Texas is an extremely critical state for these migrating monarchs because it is situated between the principal breeding grounds in the north and the overwintering areas in Mexico. Early each March, monarchs begin arriving from their overwintering grounds in Mexico seeking milkweed to lay their eggs.

Planting native milkweeds in Texas is critical to help support the monarchs arriving from their overwintering grounds in Mexico. It is vital that they find milkweed to lay their eggs before they die. The caterpillars will be the first of several new generations of monarchs that repopulate the eastern half of the United States and Canada.

Zizotes and Antelope Horn are some of the first milkweed to wake up in early spring, making them important species for first generation monarchs in Texas. Click here to purchase seeds.

But milkweed is not the only plant these migrating monarchs seek. Adult monarch butterflies seek nectar from other native plants, too, which provide energy to the adult butterflies and help to fuel their flight.

Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, bloom early in the spring, and provide nectar for migrating monarchs. Photo by Alla Avery WFAA Dallas.

Here are some of the early blooming native flowers in Texas that help monarchs fuel their migration through the state.

Cowpen Daisies grow along the roadsides in Texas and bloom from spring until fall. They are an easy native annual to grow from seed. Click here to purchase seeds.
These early purple blooms will add color to the garden until fall. Click here to purchase seeds.
Native to most of the United States, Indian Blanket is a showy annual or short-lived perennial boasting daisy-like flower heads. Click here to purchase seeds.
Lance-leaf Coreopsis plants are one of the easiest plants to grow in the Butterfly Garden. Click here to purchase seeds.
Coneflowers are an important source of nectar for spring and fall migrating monarch. Click here to purchase seeds.

We can help these iconic insects by planting milkweed and native flowers along their migrating path. 


Ladybird Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Monarch Population Status

Spread the word with this t-shirt. Click here to purchase.

What is OE?

OE is the abbreviation for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (pronounced O-free-us-sis-tus electra-sceer-rah). It is a protozoan parasite that infects Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Queens (Danaus gilippus), and Soldiers (Danaus eresimus).

Educational sign found at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas.

OE can weaken caterpillars and cripple adult butterflies. Only rarely will OE kill a caterpillar, chrysalis, or butterfly. A parasite that is 100% dependent upon its host for its own life cannot kill the host or it will kill itself. OE is a master at keeping itself going through life cycle after life cycle in nature.

Life Cycle & Transmission of OE

The life cycle of OE is closely related to the life cycle of the monarch butterfly because OE can only reproduce inside the insect’s body. Infected females pass on the parasite to their offspring when they lay eggs by scattering dormant spores on their eggs and the surrounding milkweed. When a caterpillar hatches, it not only eats its egg shell and the milkweed, but also unintentionally consumes the OE spores.

Once eaten, the dormant spores move into the caterpillar’s midgut. During digestion, the spores break open and release the parasites, which move into the intestinal wall to the hypoderm. Here, OE reproduces asexually, meaning each OE parent cell divides in two new cells. This happens many times, greatly increasing the number of parasites.

Most of the damage done to the butterfly happens during the chrysalis stage. During this time, the OE parasite goes through sexual reproduction, further increasing the number of parasites in the monarch. About three days before the adult emerges from the pupa, spores will begin to form, which allow OE to survive outside of the monarch’s body. The spores can be seen as dark patches that appear through the integument (outside layer) of the pupa.

Infected adults emerge covered with spores. Once butterflies are infected, they do not recover. By the time adults emerge with parasite spores, all physical damage by the OE parasites has been done – the parasites do not grow or reproduce on the adults. The spores are inactive or dormant until they are eaten by another caterpillar. (Project Monarch Health

Signs of OE Infection

  • Dark spots or blotches on the pupa: The spots are replicating spores, and ​​they mostly form on the abdomen (but they can also form on the eyes, antennae, and wing veins).
  • Deformed, crumpled wings: Adults that are heavily infected with OE are weak and often have difficulty emerging from the chrysalis. Some monarchs die before emerging. Others emerge, but are too weak to cling to the pupal case. They fall to the ground before fully expanding their wings. These severely deformed monarchs do not survive long.
  • Smaller size: Even if the infection is only mild, these butterflies typically weigh less and have shorter forewing lengths than a healthy butterfly. Parasites also damage the cuticle, or outside layer of the monarch’s abdomen. This damage causes the butterfly to dry out and lose weight faster than normal. This is especially a problem if there is a shortage of nectar or water.
  • Decreased flight endurance: Studies have shown that monarchs infected with OE cannot fly as far or as long as healthy butterflies. Often, infected monarchs die during the migration to Mexico simply because they don’t have the endurance.

Testing for OE

On adult butterflies, O.E. spores are dormant and reside on the outside of the body, usually the butterfly’s abdomen. You can’t see these dormant spores without observing a sample of the butterflies abdominal scales through a microscope.

The OE spores are smaller and darker than the scales and are shaped like a football. (Source: Sander Lower, Sarah & Altizer, Sonia & Roode, Jacobus & Davis, Andrew. (2013). Genetic Factors and Host Traits Predict Spore Morphology for a Butterfly Pathogen. Insects.

Important Facts

  • OE infects Monarchs in all North American populations of Monarch butterflies.
  • The eastern migratory Monarchs have the lowest infection rate. Less than 8% of these butterflies are heavily infected with OE.
  • More Monarchs have OE west of the Rocky Mountains. About 30% of the western migratory population is heavily infected with OE.
  • The highest rate of OE in North America occurs in the nonmigratory Monarchs of South Florida. More than 70% of these Monarchs have OE infections.
  • Only caterpillars can contract the disease but cannot give the disease to another caterpillar.
  • Chrysalises have OE just under the cuticle (skin/hypoderm). It cannot contract or spread OE. The spores are inside the chrysalis.
  • Between infections, OE survives as spores that are resistant to extreme environmental conditions.
  • It has since been found in all other Monarch populations worldwide. Because of this world wide range, all indications are that this parasite has co-evolved with Monarchs.



What is Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is a method of starting seeds outdoors in winter. This is generally done with seeds that require a period of cold stratification. The method takes advantage of natural temperatures, rather than artificially refrigerating seeds.

When Do You Winter Sow

Winter sowing starts on or after the Winter Solstice. January and February are best times to winter sow native milkweed seeds and native perennial seeds.

What Can You Winter Sow

Any seeds that typically need to go through a cold stratification such as native milkweed seeds and native perennial seeds. As a rule of thumb, if a plant is hardy in your garden you can plant its seed in winter.

Most native milkweed seeds need to be cold stratified. Click here to purchase native milkweed seeds:
Many of the native perennials need to be cold stratified. Click here to purchase seeds:

Advantages of Winter Sowing

How to Winter Sow

  1. Choose the container. Anything that is translucent enough to allow light to pass through and that can be made to have drainage holes, a lid, and a ventilation holes can be used for winter sowing. Options include, but are not limited to, plastic jugs, water or soda bottles, take out containers, disposable foil pans with plastic covers, clamshell containers, disposable beverage cups, plastic tubs, and plastic totes. You can use any container for winter sowing as long as it can hold AT least 3”-4” of potting soil.
  2. Fill the bottom portion of your container with 3-4″ of potting soil that has been moistened.
  3. Broadcast the seeds over the soil.
  4. Slightly cover the seeds with garden coir or soil.
  5. Water your newly sowed seeds. I recommend using a spray bottle.
  6. Cover the container. Make sure the cover has holes for ventilation. If using a milk jug or plastic bottle remove the cap. Secure the cover to the container with Duct tape or Poly tape
  7. Label the containers. Use a waterproof marker such as a plant marker and label of the type of seed you planted. You can also a place plant marker inside the container.
  8. Set the containers outside on a flat surface, such as a patio or deck so they are exposed to the elements. Don’t leave them under an overhang. The point is to let them get exposed to the rain, snow, and sun.
  9. Sit back and relax!
  10. Once the weather is warmer and your seeds have germinated you can remove the duct tape and the top portion of the container. Leave them open until you’re ready to transplant into your garden.
  11. Water as needed to keep the soil moist.
  12. Transplant the seedlings when seedlings have become established and have developed true leaves.

More Resources:


Encounter With a Black Witch

I just had an unexpected encounter with a black witch moth. I was outside working in the garden when it startled me and flew up to me and around my head. At first I thought it was a bat because it flies just like a bat. But bats generally do not fly during the day. As it flew away towards the oak tree I realized it was a large black moth.

Female moths can attain a wingspan of 24 cm. The dorsal surfaces of their wings are mottled brown with hints of iridescent purple and pink, and, in females, crossed by a white bar. The diagnostic marking is a small spot on each forewing shaped like a number nine or a comma.  Photo by Charles J. Sharp, from Sharp Photography.

The moth, Ascalapha odorata, commonly known as the black witch, is a large bat-shaped, dark-colored nocturnal moth, normally ranging from the southern United States to Brazil. Ascalapha odorata is also migratory into Canada and most states of United States. It is the largest noctuoid in the continental United States.(

I have to be honest, this encounter spooked me somewhat, one, because the flight pattern was so unusual, and second, I am aware of the tradition in many cultures that an encounter with this moth means impending death or misfortune. (In Spanish, the black witch is known as “mariposa de la muerte”.) It also doesn’t help that it is so close to Halloween.

The males are somewhat smaller, reaching 12 cm in width, darker in color and lacking the white bar crossing the wings. Photo by Charles J. Sharp, from Sharp Photography.

I decided to do some research and found out that black witch moths have also been credited with bringing good fortune. In the Bahamas the moth is known as the money moth, and if you see a black witch moth, the hope is that you’ll gain riches. And in south Texas, where I live, the black witch moth might be the prelude winning the lottery.

I am off to buy a lottery ticket!