Fall's a great time to set the stage to make next year better for monarchs, by gathering and sowing milkweed seed to feed monarch caterpillars next summer.
The easiest, and most reliable way to propagate milkweed is to mimic what happens in nature: plant it right away in the fall. Milkweed seed needs to have a long period of cold, called “stratification”, in order to germinate. Gather the seeds from pods that have opened, but haven't cracked yet. Carefully separate the seeds from the floss, and plant the seed in the soil you've prepared. Milkweed seed shouldn't be planted too deep; you only need to cover it with a very fine layer of soil. Gently water the seeds, and then make sure the soil doesn't dry out too much before winter. In the spring, the seed should start growing to feed monarch caterpillars, and will also support dozens of other native insect species.
One thing to remember is that it's generally illegal to collect seed from public land, and you need permission from the owners if you gather seed on private land. If you don't have access to your own personal milkweed plants, the Xerces Society has a seed finder where you can locate suppliers who offer seed for the types of milkweed that grow in your area.
If you can't find milkweed seed to plant, filling your yard and other natural spaces with native plants is just as important to monarch butterflies. Milkweed leaves feed the caterpillars, but the adults, who migrate miles every day, depend on nectar from any flower they can find.
Right now, for example, beautiful blooming goldenrod plants are supporting the adult butterflies who are heading south to Mexico. Goldenrod has a bad reputation as a nasty allergen-producing plant, but in fact ragweed is the actual culprit, a sad case of mistaken identity. Goldenrod pollen is too heavy to get airborne, and doesn't affect allergies. But goldenrod nectar and pollen do feed lots of insects, and goldenrod seed will be ready in a few weeks to gather and sow. If goldenrod doesn't do the trick for you, PlantNative has a directory you can use to find other native wildflowers to plant in your region.
Time will tell how well monarch butterflies fared this year. Once the butterflies settle into their winter roosts in Mexico, scientists will start measuring the acreage they cover to estimate how many butterflies returned to the mountains. Hopefully, we get some good news. But the monarchs aren't out of the woods yet. It will take quite a few more good years before their population grows beyond vulnerability. In the meantime, monarch butterflies depend on every scrap of habitat, every milkweed plant and nectar-producing wildflower we can provide. Fingers crossed that next year is a good one too.
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.