Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Easy Way to Start Seeds - Winter Sow Them!

I am, admittedly, a lazy gardener.  I don't have a lot of extra time on my hands with two young kids, so if there's an easier way to do things, I'm all about it!  That is why I was so excited to find out about winter sowing a few years back.

the blossom of Nasturtium 'Empress of India', winter sown
Winter sowing is a method of starting your seeds outside in winter in what is essentially little greenhouses made out of recycled containers such as milk jugs and plastic salad containers.  You let Mother Nature do the germinating. No lights, no heat mats, no nicking or refrigerating of seeds needed and less problems with damping off?  Count me in!

Winter sown seeds sprouting outside in a recycled juice container
So what type of seeds can you winter sow?  The best ones are perennials and cold hardy annuals.  Many vegetable and herb seeds can even be winter sown to give them a head start.  Winter sowing is especially great for those seeds that need moist stratification - being outside provides the seeds with the cycles of freezing and thawing that many perennials need to break dormancy and germinate.

winter sowed Balloon flower
For more information on what type of seeds do well with winter sowing, you can go to WinterSown.org, which has lists of seeds that can be winter sown.   Though winter sowing has been around for ages, Trudi Davidoff, who created WinterSown, really refined this technique and started the website as a great resource for gardeners.

So how do you winter sow seeds?

1. Cut clean milk jugs or juice bottles in half.  You can also use plastic containers such as salad boxes, just make sure to cut holes in the top for ventilation.  (You don't want to cook your seeds.)


2. Cut holes in the bottom for drainage.  (I use a screwdriver or a big nail to puncture holes.)


3.  Fill the bottom with about 2 to 4 inches of dirt (use a light mixture that drains well).  Water it well, and then let it drain.

4.  Sow your seeds.  Plant them at the required depth, or if they need light to germinate, just gently press them into the soil.

5.  Duct tape the top back on, and label.  (I label them in a couple places, as even permanent marker can fade over time.)


6.  Put outside in a sheltered spot.  Check on them occasionally to see if they need more water, especially after the seeds germinate and the seedlings start to grow.  As the seedlings get bigger, cut bigger holes in the top or crack the top a little bit to finish hardening them off.

Look at those roots!  These plants want out!
7.  Once the seedlings get big enough, transplant them where you want them!  Make sure to protect from frost if needed.

One of my Lanceleaf Coreopsis plants I winter sowed.
(I moved before I got to see them bloom, sadly.)
I've had a great germination rate with winter sowing.  The main problems I have run into was when I used too heavy of a soil (retained too much water) or used containers with too many holes (those berry containers will just dry right out!)  For a lot more great info about winter sowing, as well as a lot of answers to FAQ's, WinterSown.org and GetBusyGardening.com are two good resources.

winter sown Candytuft
Happy Gardening!


28 comments:

  1. winter sowing is like "taming the wild".....

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    1. Ha, I think most of gardening involves 'taming the wild'!

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  2. An informative post and good idea. It gives you something to do in winter, is economical and gives satisfying results. Very nice!

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    1. It is so economical and easy. Growing seeds indoors takes so much more fussing!

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  3. I've heard of this, but have never tried it. Now I'm intrigued! Sounds easier than all the other methods of starting seeds, too - something I'm not very good at. Maybe this will give me more success. Thanks for the links - I'm going to investigate this further!

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    1. You should definitely try it. It is so much easier than starting seeds indoors. Once I tried it, I was hooked!

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  4. I have seen this but never tried it...perhaps next winter will be the perfect time as I will have more time to check it out...

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    1. Yeah, I usually save up my milk jugs and other plastic containers during the fall, and then after Christmas start planting my seeds. It is nice to get a head start on the garden in winter!

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  5. I have never seen this before. Great idea, and it looks very easy!

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    1. I was so thrilled when I found out about it, as it is such a great idea, and so economical! And I previously never started those seeds that require refrigeration and such - now they are easy.

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  6. I keep thinking I'll do this and I just don't. But it certainly makes a lot of sense. I did try fall seed planting this year, though. I scattered several types of native plant seeds in certain spots in my garden. Can't wait to see the results. Looks like you've had success with winter sowing!

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    1. I've heard about that, too. What do you cover them with? I'm afraid the wildlife would make off with all my seeds, with my luck! I'm definitely interested to hear how it works for you. I hope you get a lot of seedlings!

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  7. I took a class on this a few years back but never did try it. I have a hard time finding milk containers that are opaque and will let in light. I wonder if winter sowing will make the plants one grows hardier?

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    1. Interesting, that's all they seem to sell up here. Juice bottles and plastic salad containers work pretty well, too. I have heard that winter sowing does make plants hardier, though I don't have any scientific evidence for that. It might be like how you are supposed to run your hands over tomato plants that are grown indoors to simulate wind, and that is supposed to make them stronger. They have more exposure to the elements!

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  8. I'm so glad you posted this! I have been saving 2 liter soda bottles for this purpose, and it's good to know what seeds are good candidates. I've got 2 mini greenhouses, but a lot more seeds than that to sow this year. I can't wait to get started :)

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    1. Yeah, when I started winter sowing, I realized I'd better start saving up containers early for all my seeds! I have a big shelf in the garage full of milk jugs and juice bottles that I've been saving since fall :)

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  9. I see you are planning for butterflies and hummingbirds with your seedlings. I have done winter seeding, but have run out of space. Now I am eliminating seedlings rather than adding them. Ha. We just had a woman give this presentation at our garden club. I was not there, but the ladies said it was a good demonstration.

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    1. Ha, I didn't notice that before, but I do like to plant flowers that will attract the butterflies, birds, and bees! Now that I'm back to square 1 with my garden, I have a good amount of space to fill. I need to find someone who wants to get rid of some seedlings! :)

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  10. I've tried winter sowing in the past with mixed results. Your suggestions for which seeds to plant are good ones, Indie; I've found that the perennials that need cold stratification work the best. Also, you have to be careful when it warms up not only to keep them watered, but to make sure they get some air when the sun is hotter. I've been so stir-crazy lately I've been thinking about doing some winter sowing, too--maybe that should be on the agenda for today!

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    1. True, I usually keep my seedlings in a partially shady spot. Also by the time spring rolls around the duct tape is falling off the containers anyway and it's time to start cracking the lids! I've been getting a little stir-crazy here, too. I'm ready to get outside and garden!

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  11. Really good information for those wishing to get the hardy annuals of to a good start.. As you say it wont work with those semi hardy annuals which enthusiast use for Summer bedding schemes.

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    1. Yeah, those are better started inside. I guess you could probably start them outside a few weeks before the last frost date, if you didn't have the room or light setup to start them indoors - you'd just have to be careful and take them back in if there's a cold snap.

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  12. Great tutorial, Indie. I've done this before with varying degrees of success. As you say, some plants are more amenable to this than others. I wonder how it will work now that you are farther north? I know it can be done - just wondering if the plants that it succeeds with will be different.

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    1. Good question! What is perennial down South is not necessarily perennial up here, so it might affect what seeds you would want to use winter sowing for.

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  13. Wonderful idea for starting seeds early. I start seeds too, but not until April in the greenhouse. These are tips I will surely try. There's nothing like having seedlings to make you feel spring is close.

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    1. And it's nice to be able to do a bit of gardening early! It makes me a little less stir crazy to be able to order some seeds and plant them even though there's snow outside!

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  14. Tell Southern Meadows to go snoop through her neighbor's recycle bin. I have no shame... It's clear that you tried this while you were still in the south but has it worked up in the frozen tundra with all that snow?

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  15. Dear Indie,
    I love the balloon flower. That is really pretty!

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