Fall Monarchs & Seed Head Harvests with Kids

Fall in Texas has arrived – along with the monarchs.

For our family, fall in Texas means returning monarchs and seed head harvests with the kids. Its the time of year when life reawakens. Life has been dormant after buckling down from the summer heat and dry, cracked earth. Its sparkle returns as temperatures moderate, and fall rains come in forms of either extreme storms, or slow and steady mists. Our bush sunflower (Simsia calva) extends its low growing stalks and grows bountiful buds, along with our mist flower (Conoclinium greggii). The blooms welcome the passing butterflies and bees.

Monarch sipping nectar from fall mist flower blooms.
Monarch sipping nectar from a fall mist flower bloom.

As these changes arrive, my kids now anticipate the arrival of the monarchs and queens. These travelers flutter over rooftops and down alleyways to find our tiny patch of nectar. With this, the idea of “migration” carries awe and respect. To think! Contemplate the distance traveled by these tiny beings. They are a miraculous use of intuition, nectar and tiny wings, reaching those high cloud forests of Central Mexico.

Did you know the monarch’s Mexican home is a World Heritage UNESCO site?

The 56,259 ha biosphere lies within rugged forested mountains about 100 km northwest of Mexico City. Every autumn, millions, perhaps a billion, butterflies from wide areas of North America return to the site and cluster on small areas of the forest reserve, colouring its trees orange and literally bending their branches under their collective weight. In the spring, these butterflies begin an 8 month migration that takes them all the way to Eastern Canada and back, during which time four successive generations are born and die. How they find their way back to their overwintering site remains a mystery.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

In other words, watching these butterflies grace our garden on their critical pathway through our state is a phenomenon that gives me butterflies every time. I hope my children can continue to share these moments with their kids, and generations after. But what can we do to help that?

Critical monarch habitat in the U.S. and Texas is being lost every day. What can we do to help our kids promote this beautiful life cycle?

Check out this Monarchs feature on Greensourcedfw.org.

Fall is a time for harvest with the kids. Finding seed heads for Monarchs…

Spring, summer and fall flowers offer up their dried up seed heads (some taking more time than others). Now is the time to point out that process to your kids. My three littles go out in the garden and inspect each flower to see how it’s progressing. Is it still soft and green? Or is the stem brown and withered, the head dry enough to fall off the plant?

Most importantly, show your littles how important it is to let the plant grow as nature intended. If we cut the flowers too early, the seeds can’t form and prepare for the next season. The butterflies won’t have another generation of plants to return to.

Fall monarchs and seed head harvests with kids: for our garden, the school, local library, neighbors, and beyond.

My daughters were most excited about our seed head collection. Firstly, it gave them a chance to get in the dirt. Kids love dirt. Secondly they love being granted authority on what is “ready” and what is not. Mostly, they love sharing!

A bush sunflower seed head harvest with my kid from fall blooms.  These flowers mature quickly!
Bush sunflower seed heads picked by my daughter.

We collected seed heads from what was available, packaging them up in envelopes. The girls enjoyed labeling them and designating… School garden? Auntie’s? Seed library? School?

Fire wheel (gaillardia) seed heads harvested from summer blooms.
“Indian blanket” or gaillardia seed heads from summer blooms.
Fall parsley seeds harvested by the girls for sharing.  This is a great winter plant and black swallowtail larval food.
Seed packet prepared for sharing.

We are also in the process of growing bountiful fennel seedlings, for it is fall in Texas. Fall here is planting time, especially for those plants looking to establish deep roots over many months that can survive the brutality of the next Texas summer. Our fennel has done that fabulously, and I look forward to seeing how its babies fair. (It is a favorite larval food for our black swallowtail butterfly visitors.)

Waiting for maturing seed heads to harvest with the kids.
Fennel freshly trimmed of seed heads allowed to dry in the summer heat. The kids have been tasting them often.
See the newly formed seeds?
Seedlings for sharing - baby fennel.  Looking forward to saving seed heads from these littles ones in the future.
Bountiful fennel seedlings for sharing. My daughters’ favorite!

So get out in the garden, grow some natives for your local critters (and wayfarers), and teach your kids how to save those seeds!

Are you planting milkweed native to your state?

Back to that topic of fall monarchs and seed harvests with kids. Did you know that monarchs migrating through Texas really prefer two types of milkweed native to our state? Rather than battling the elements trying to make other varieties of milkweed survive, why not try these two types. You’ll be a true supporter of your local monarch migration! (And saving yourself a bit of sweat and tears.)

Antelope Horn, Asclepias asperula

Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridis 

For appropriate spring blooms, put seeds down directly onto the ground in late summer to fall, rather than trying to struggle with seed germination on your own. They very much prefer to grow their own, wild way.

Conversation starter with the kids: “Imagine you were a milkweed seed making its way to the ground…how would you start?

Attempts to grow milkweed seedlings in a greenhouse setting usually result in mold and rotting of the roots. And native varieties require a length of time to establish very deep tap roots in soil. In other words you just won’t find many successful seedlings at your local nursery.

And on the benefits of Clay Soil!

As for our area and what you’ll typically find – leave that clay soil! Tap roots prefer it. Check out this article by natives gardener Benjamin Vogt.

And a few garden extras, including a baby spiny lizard. My kids love spotting and cooing over the little one amongst the foliage.

Sante Fe peppers!
Looking forward to harvesting these “seed heads!” Ha ha! My kids? Not so much.
Looks like we’ve got ourselves a new resident. Possibly a juvenile Texas Spiny Lizard? The kids are DELIGHTED.
Keeping our tiny bit of yard wild.


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