For gardeners feeling restless for the return of spring, Brittany Schaller, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District of Will County, has a solution.

“Winter sowing offers a way to kick-start gardens when the winter cold is making people wish to get out into the garden,” Schaller said. “It offers a way to give plants a nice start.”

To help people get started, she’ll be hosting a program, “Winter Sowing for Monarchs,” from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, at Plum Creek Nature Center, 27064 Dutton Road in Crete Township.

Schaller will lead a hands-on demonstration focusing on early cultivation of common milkweed, a host plant of monarch butterflies. She’ll also talk about the butterfly’s migration from Mexico to Canada, its life cycle, and why it’s so important to support monarchs in Illinois.

Illinois, the “Prairie State,” made the monarch its state insect in 1975. That’s because the state lies directly within the butterfly’s migratory pathway and plays a major role in the creature’s life cycle.

Brittany Schaller, intuitive naturalist at Plum Creek Nature Center in Will County, holds a monarch butterfly back in the warm season. She will offer a hands-on demonstration on how to sow plants in winter to attract butterflies next week at the center in Crete Township.

Among the state’s better known prairie plants is common milkweed. Monarchs not only feed on nectar from common milkweed blossoms which bloom in large pink clusters, they also lay their tiny eggs on the underside of the plant’s broad leaves. The monarch’s black, white and yellow ringed caterpillars also eat common milkweed leaves, then form jewel-like chrysalides, which hang from those leaves.

Dotted with tiny specks of gold, the light green casings eventually turn dark. From these, fully mature orange and black butterflies emerge.

Schaller decided to combine a workshop about monarchs and winter sowing, she said, “because it’s something gardeners can be doing now to get ready for spring, and monarchs are a poster child for native plants and sustainable gardening practices.”

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Other native plant candidates for winter sowing, Schaller said, include bee balm, coneflower, goldenrod, blazing star, phlox and lobelia.

For the workshop, Schaller will supply common milkweed seeds harvested from her home garden in Homer Glen, as well as seeds provided by family and friends. Participants will be instructed on how to modify clean plastic milk jugs to create outdoor plant containers.

“A hungry critter can eat seedlings, so our greenhouses will keep the plants safe,” Schaller said. “Plus, they offer a great way to keep plants organized and labeled in our gardens.”

Schaller has tried this method of milkweed cultivation at home, transplanting seedlings to smaller cups. “I’ve shared hundreds of common milkweed plants with friends and family,” she said. “Milkweed plants have extra-long roots, which is a great feature of native plants, but we’ll be removing them from the containers before then.”

Plenty of nonnative plant seeds are appropriate for winter sowing, as well. These include plants such as lavender, catnip, sage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, said Schaller, whose home garden contains two raised vegetable beds and a variety of native plants.

There is a $5 fee to participate in the workshop, which covers materials. Registration is due by Feb. 6 at https://www.reconnectwithnature.org/news-events/event-calendar/winter-sowing-for-monarchs/ or 708-946-2216.

Susan DeGrane is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.

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