Winter-Sowing 101

December 28, 2010

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, I start my summer garden in January, using a neat trick called “Winter-Sowing.” Winter-sowing is an outdoor method of seed germination (invented by Trudi Davidoff) which requires just two things: miniature greenhouses (made from recycled milk jugs) and Mother Nature. You can winter-sow your way to a beautiful garden, too…for pennies. Here’s how:

Make a Greenhouse. You can make a greenhouse from any container you like, so long as light can penetrate its walls. Like other winter-sowers, I use recyclables, including gallon-size milk- or water- jugs, and 2-Litre soda-pop bottles. With jugs and bottles, use a pen-knife to cut around the middle, almost all the way through. The uncut half-inch or so will serve as a hinge.

Next, punch out drainage holes in the bottom. A Phillips screwdriver, heated over a flame at the stove, will facilitate the hole-punching job. Punch out also a few holes along the top portion of the container. These extra holes increase air-ventilation. Ventilation, of course, is the key to preventing excess heat from building up in the greenhouse, and baking the seeds to death. If there is a cap on your jug or bottle, remove it. More details for making a miniature greenhouse.

Select the Right Soil. It is essential to use a soil mix that drains well, and has a light, fluffy consistency. Pour the soil, preferably to a depth of 3 to 4 inches, into the bottom half of your container. Then moisten the soil thoroughly and let it drain.

Sow the Seeds . Sow your seeds on the soil surface, and then cover them with more soil, when necessary, to achieve the proper planting depth. Gently pat the mix down, so that seeds and soil make good contact. Then replace the lid, and secure it with a strip of duct tape, as illustrated.

If you live in a cold climate, as I do, plant your perennial and hardy annual seeds first. Should these sprout during a weird warm-spell in winter, they will not be harmed. Wait until March to plant your tender annuals. More details here: What to Winter-Sow…& When.

Remember to Label! For each sowing, indicate with a permanent marker (or a paint-pen) the seed variety and date sown. Do not omit this step, for there is nothing worse than finding, in spring, dozens of miniature greenhouses brimming with seedlings, and not knowing what they are!

Bring the Greenhouse Outdoors. Your greenhouse, once planted and labeled, is ready to brave the outdoor elements. Select a location that is safe from strong wind, but where sun, rain and snow will be freely admitted. My assorted greenhouses go on the patio table, out of the reach of Lily the Beagle who would otherwise knock them over. For further protection from tipping, I place them in a large plastic box, with drainage holes melted in the bottom.

Relax. Now sit back and let Mother Nature do her thing. As the weather chills and warms, your seeds will freeze and thaw. These natural actions loosen the seed-coatings. This is why advance soaking or nicking of hard-shelled seeds, such as Morning Glories and Sweet Peas, is not necessary when you winter-sow.

At the first kiss of spring, but while nights are still freezing, seedlings will begin to emerge. Now is the time to check for water. Open the tops, and if the soil appears dry, moisten thoroughly but gently, so as not to disturb tender root systems. Then close the tops again. On warm, sunny days, I open the tops for hours at a time, and let the seedlings enjoy the fresh spring air. The tops, of course, are closed at dusk.

I can’t tell you how advantageous winter-sowing can be. Last year I produced an entire garden’s-worth of perennials this way (far too many, in fact), without the need for light-systems, heating devices, or fancy seed-starting kits. And, unlike windowsill-germinated seedlings, which more often than not are frail and spindly, winter-sown seeds grow up to be strong, sturdy plants, completely prepared for glorious careers in the open garden.

If I were you, I’d give winter-sowing a try. Honestly, it’s the easiest, most cost-effective way to achieve a beautiful garden.

Don’t miss a beat at A Garden for the House…sign up for Kevin’s weekly newsletter!

Related Posts:
What to Winter-Sow…& When
How to Turn a Milk-Jug into a Greenhouse
Perennials Which Require Cold-Stratification
Winter-Sow Your Veggies & Flowering Annuals
Transplanting Winter-Sown Seedlings

Comments

  1. Carol says:

    Holy cow! What a way to erase the winter blahs! I've never been able to successfully grow seedlings on my windowsills. Lord knows I've tried. But they always got too big too soon, or grew tall and lanky, and then died before it was warm enough here to plant them out. Winter sowing sounds like a plan that I can manage.

  2. Eric says:

    When can I plant my tomato seeds? I'm in the same zone as you.

  3. Tom says:

    I'll have to try this. After buying poorly grown, half-dead zinnas and snaps (at no discount) from Samascott's last year, I'm determined to grow all of my own summer plants from seed.

    When, exactly, should I plant my annuals in mini greenhouses? I'm thinking zinnas, snapdragons, marigolds and the like.

  4. Tom says:

    Forgot to say that I'm in zone 5.

  5. Carol – yes, wintersowing is a good way to get an authentic sense of spring! Give it a try!

    Eric – wait until late March or early April to start your tomatoes.

    Welcome, Tom! Snap dragons are hardy annuals, and very slow to germinate. I would start them the first week in February. As for zinnias and marigolds, winter-sow these in March. They are quick to sprout, and will probably start blooming in their greenhouses in early May. However, wait until Memorial day to give them permanent positions in the garden.

  6. Erin says:

    I want to drink all my milk and soda!! I cant wait for spring…..

  7. Erin – winter-sow some delphinium seeds today, and trust me…it WILL feel like spring!

  8. Sharon says:

    Kevin, where are you finding seeds at this time of the year?

  9. Sharon – you can find seeds at almost any garden center in January. They should be stamped for the current year.

  10. Janet G. Metzger says:

    This looks like it might solve a lot of problems. Thank you for the step-by-step instructions.

    Also, over Christmas I did put herbs and plants in the kitchen window, including an African violet. You are absolutely right–the plant in the window is differnt from the plant in the room. It brought so much life and warmth to the house. Thank you, again, for all the encouragement.

    Neighbors brought me cut flowers last week, 1-2 days after the Christmas decorations were down (and when I was concerned about how to keep the house feeling lovely). Those flowers wilted today, BUT, with the snow on the ground there are green bulb shoots peeking out of the ground. Spring, indeed, is on her way!

    Thank you for all the lovely photos which got me through the winter. And also for the tips about planting. It sounds like I should start vegetables and stuff in March winter sowing rather than in the little pots. Nothing grew last year except for the green beans. Maybe this year I will get more…..

  11. Lisa Campagna says:

    Good Morning Kevin,

    Wow! I am very excited about this one. I think that even I can handle this and plan to start a couple with kids on Monday. They will make great year end gifts for the teachers.

    Have a great day!
    Lisa

  12. Janet – Glad you're going to try winter-sowing this season. It really works!

    Lisa – Great idea, get the kids involved! And, if I were a teacher, I'd be delighted to receive, in spring, a little “greenhouse” of seedlings. Let us know how your project goes!

  13. aNNE SCHOMAKER says:

    MY WINDOW GARDEN IS MAGNIFICENT RIGHT NOW. THE AFRICAN VIOLETS ARE IN FULL BLOOM AND MY ORCHIDS HAVE BUDS READY TO OPEN. I CAN SIT AT MY COMPUTER, GLANCE AS MY BLOOMS, AND SEE SNOW COVERED GROUND OUTSIDE MY WINDOW. HOW DIVINE. I TOO AM ANXIOUS TO BEGIN WINTER SEEDING FOR SUMMER FLOWERS. I REMEMBER YOUR OTHER IDEA AND WOULD SUGGEST TO EVERYONE, KEEP SCENTED CUT FLOWERS ON YOUR BEDROOM NIGHT TABLE FOR THE AROMA AND BEAUTY IT CREATES.

  14. Anne – so glad your window garden brings you great joy. Mine does, too.

    If you can, let us know which summer flowers you are going to winter-sow.

  15. Here I go… better late than never. I have pansies, cosmos, geranium pinto salmon and hollyhocks to sew.

  16. Lisa B says:

    Can I use this method with herbs?

  17. Lisa B – Yes, you can definitely winter-sow herbs. I've successfully sown thyme (including the creeping-type), basil and flat-leaved parsley using this method.

  18. erin says:

    Ahhh, this is my favorite part about winter… I can't wait for spring. Do you have a list of plants on what to sow and when? I harvested some seeds from a few plants last year.

  19. Erin – ditto on that “favorite part about winter” thing. Winter-sowing makes me thing it's spring already.

    The most important seeds to sow right now are those which require cold stratification.

  20. Holy cow how cool is this!

    I can't wait to gather some milk containers and begin.

  21. Queen of the Click – Beware…Winter-sowing is highly addictive!

    I planted at least 24 containers last winter, and in the spring, to my delight (or horror) EVERYTHING had sprouted. Everything that is, except the delphiniums (I think the seeds were old).

  22. Dana says:

    Dear Kevin, your Winter-Sowing 101 Tutorial is so charming that I cannot resist trying it for the first time on a pack of dwarf sweet peas seeds. I hope that this spring you will add a sequel to it showing the greenhouse graduation ceremony. That is to say, when and how do you plant the seedlings in the garden? How big do they need to be before they are ready to be planted? When do you do that? Best regards, Dana

  23. Dana – What a great suggestion. I did, in fact, photograph the transplanting-process last spring, and then forgot to publish the pictures. I shall correct this soon, lest I forget (again).

  24. Anonymous says:

    What an amazing concept! Can one start most vegetables in this way? Now to find some milk jugs . . . Oh & what if the temperatures fluctuate to -30 and 5 continually?

  25. Anonymous – welcome to A Garden for the House, and also to the wonderful world of winter-sowing!

    You can start all of your hardy vegetables now (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, swiss chard, spinach, etc.). For these will tolerate frost after they germinate. Wait until March to winter-sow tender vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, etc.). Otherwise you'll have to cover their milk jugs with a blanket should frost threaten after germination.

    Of course any perennial or annual which is hardy in your region (or which reseeds itself) can be winter-sown now. It doesn't matter if temperatures fluctuate. In fact, most of these seeds require such fluctuating temps in order to germinate.

    Feel free to ask other questions as they occur to you — I'm here to help! You might enjoy reading my other winter-sowing articles, too.

  26. Terri says:

    The quickest way I found to punch the holes is a soldering iron. It very quickly did all my holes so I was ready to plant. Thanks for the great idea.

  27. Terri – soldering iron…excellent. I don't have one, however, so its the red-hot screwdriver for me!

  28. ksb says:

    I tried a couple of these last year – some took, some didn’t – what guide should I use to know when to sow different seeds as the winter progresses?, do some plants not take well to this process (aren’t as hardy?)
    Love the smplicity of this
    Thanks v much

  29. ksb – As a rule of thumb, I plant all of my perennials (plants which are hardy in my zone) any time between Dec. 15 and Feb. 15. I wait until about 8 weeks before the last predicted frost to sow my tender annuals and veggies.

    All seeds can survive freezing. When seeds fail, it is either because they were not viable to begin with, or they were from tender annuals, which are not frost-tolerant. A zinnia, for instance, can be winter-sown. But if it sprouts during an odd warm-spell in late February, it will certainly be killed off by an early March freeze.

    You needn’t worry about hardy annuals (sweet peas, spinach, etc.) and perennials. These merely yawn in the face of frost.

  30. Donna says:

    I’m going to give this a shot! I’ve been using that little pellet system to start my seeds the last couple of years, and I hate how they take over my house! This sounds great.
    I’m going to drill my drainage holes. Quick and easy.
    I, too, want to know how and when to transplant the seedlings. Do you transplant them into individual pots at some point? Please let me know…..

  31. Donna – One of the great benefits to winter-sowing is that you never, ever, have to pot the individual seedlings. Here are the directions for transplanting winter-sown seedlings into the open garden.

  32. This is a fabulous site. I plan to return to glean. Thank you.

  33. Welcome, Becky. Have fun!

  34. Nicole says:

    I just found your site and LOVE it! I tried starting my garden from seed last year and didn’t have much success. I live in Zone 4 and started my pepper and tomato seeds indoors in March, but they never grew big enough to produce anything! They stayed small after I planted them in my garden-should I start them earlier in the year or maybe try your outdoor greenhouse idea in March?

  35. Welcome, Nicole. I’m delighted that you found this site. So many factors could have contributed to your pepper plant’s poor performance. Since you started your pepper plant indoors, could it have been root-bound when you planted it out? If roots aren’t loosened, the plant may survive — begrudgingly — but its growth will be slow or stunted . Other factors which lead to success with peppers are full, blazing sun and consistently-high heat.

    In any event, try winter-sowing your peppers in March. They won’t germinate until the soil reaches around 70 degrees, but the seedlings will be strong. Ditto for tomatoes.

    If you’re in the mood to plant something right now, go ahead and winter-sow your flowering perennials and herbs. Most benefit from the freeze/thaw cycles of winter.

  36. Karen says:

    Kevin — I soaked fresh pumpkin seeds to save for this year and some have sprouted. Can I use this method or should I sow them inside? Thanks for the great website!

  37. Karen – Glad you like this site! I always direct-sow my pumpkin and other heat-loving squash seeds in late May or early June. They sprout so quickly and grow so rapidly that one probably doesn’t gain anything by giving them an advance start indoors or out.

  38. That’s so exciting! I was just about to start building a greenhouse, but I am going to try this method first. Gardening in January, here I come.

  39. Marie-Helene Attwood – Welcome to A Garden for the House. Winter-sowing is fun-fun-fun. Hope you’ll stay in touch.

  40. Kristen says:

    I live in Bemidji, MN…zone 3. Anything I can do to get ahead would be great since we have such a short growing season! Do you have any idea how I could adapt this method to my zone? (ie when to start winter sowing)

  41. Heather Schlerf says:

    I am jumping on the bandwagon late with my winter-sowing but I just discovered your site and I think it is a great idea. I am a Master Gardener from Keene NH ….Zone 5a microclimate !!
    I also run a Garden Club at one of the Elementary Schools that I work at in in Keene and I am going to be using this with the kids to do the annuals and definitely tomatoes !! To date I have sewn Lupines, Foxglove, Redbor Kale, Butterfly Flower, Agastache, Verbena and Delphinium ( that one will be a miracle – I never have any luck at all). I also hybridize and collect Daylillies and will use this method at some point as an experiment. I am waiting for another wave of milk jugs to plan my next move. It is a great way to get inspired for the 2012 gardening season and BEYOND !!!

  42. Kristen – Welcome. You can sow perennials which are hardy your zone anytime in winter. Hold off on veggies and other annuals until about 8 weeks before you’d normally transplant such seedlings to the open garden. Kale, spinach, peas and other frosty-hardy veggies can be sown even earlier. And have fun!

    Heather Schlerf – Nice to meet you. Delphs have been the ONLY seeds which have failed my winter-sowing efforts! Seems the seeds need to be fresh — and in January they certainly are not.

    Winter-sowing is a GREAT way to get kids into gardening. It is SO much fun to peek into the top of a milk or water jug and find sprouts there!

    Concerning milk jugs, you can always acquire more this way.

  43. Gloria J. B. says:

    I just found your page and even though it is late I’m anxious to try at least something. I like others have tried window starts with little or no success so I’m off the patio to get my garden going. Yea!!!

  44. Gloria J.B. – Thanks for stopping by. I think you will love this method of acquiring strong, healthy plants…for pennies! Hope to see you soon again.

  45. So trying this! My seedlings with the “lamp” does not seem to be doing well – the spinach, and lettuce anyway! The forget me notes and basil seem to be fine!

  46. mayumi says:

    i am usually doing well untill the hardening part and i think this will solve my problem and mu house will have no more fungus gnuts, thank you for sharing : )

  47. Jen R says:

    How big do you let the plants get in the jugs? I would be worried about disturbing the roots.
    This sounds like a great way to get tougher seedlings. I started mine inside this year in peat pellets, and I think they just weren’t tough enough to face the real elements. I think the only seedlings I have that are going to be a success are all the ones I sewed directly in the soil.

    I’m in Albuquerque which is a tough climate because it gets so chilly at night up until May. I think I might need to leave my seeds in the jugs pretty late to protect them from frost. Thoughts?

  48. Jen R – Some years I’ve let my winter-sown seedlings get fairly large in their milk-jug greenhouses. As you can see in the photo up top, my lupine was good-sized before I transplanted it.

    In any event, don’t worry so much about roots. Winter-sown seedlings are extremely durable. I’ve mangled roots at transplanting time and not once has a seedling died from the trauma. Be sure to read my article Transplanting Winter-Sown Seedlings.

  49. Amanda says:

    Great idea! The only kind of milk jugs I can find are yellow. Will those work? I live in zone 7 (Western NC ) is January a good time to start?

  50. Nina McClain says:

    I have a question. I picked up a bunch of the large seedling starters at the end of this season for about a $1. Do you think those, along with the plastic hood it comes with, would hold up? Or should I wait to use those on starting later seedlings inside? I’ve never done winter sowing, plus this was my first year gardening. I could use all the help I can get!

  51. Hi Amanda – If you can’t find clear milk jugs in your region, you can always use clear, gallon-size water jugs instead.

    Hi Nina – I know the seed-starting set-up you are referring to. It’s a terrific gadget for starting seeds indoors. But It’s really not suitable for winter-sowing. Better to use gallon-size milk or water jugs.

  52. Fred says:

    We have a recycle center here with various plastic jugs from milk to sweet tea (HEHEHE) I suggest connecting with the center and sharing the concept to recycle as many jugs as they will give you. Then you don’t have to slowly build up your inventory. They may let you have as many as possible. I am going to share this site on my facebook page (1500) Friends will instantly see this great resouce and I thank you for it ! ~ Fred eodpaws@ yahoo.com

  53. JanetMSD says:

    This is the perfect solution to my narrow windowsills and wide overhang. I am in Zone 4b. Any suggestions about when to plant the seeds.

  54. Ellen says:

    I am going to get some dirt to start my winter planting. What kind do you recommend? Also, how many seeds can you plant in one container? Love this idea.

  55. Sage says:

    I put out my “greenhouses” this week. So far I planted Brussels sprouts, fava beans, some tomatoes, cauliflower and I live in zone 6a. It’s OK that the dirt is all frozen right now, right? I’m worried that the soil is not wet enough for them to germinate. When I checked today it was all frozen. We are experiencing a thaw the next couple of days but just wanted to make sure everything will be OK.
    Also, I did start some peas but never heard of transplanting peas until this site. It is OK to transplant peas, right?
    I was also wondering if it is too early to plant tomatoes and peppers, etc ? What averae temps should I be experiencing before I put them out?
    Thanks so much.

  56. obviously like your website but you have to take a
    look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts.

    Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very bothersome to tell the truth on the other hand I will
    certainly come again again.

  57. Greenhouse Plans – I’m a terrible speller. Even with spell-check. Please forgive me.

  58. lisa kurtz says:

    I so want to try this!! I was just wondering though how u transplant the plants into your garden when its time….do u just pull the plants apart? It doesn’t hurt the roots wen u do that?

  59. N/A says:

    We stumbled over here different web address and thought I should check things out.
    I like what I see so now i’m following you. Look forward to looking into your web page yet again.

  60. Randee says:

    I think Greenhouse will make a deal to tolerate your misspellings if you can tolerate his lack of punctuation!

    This is such a great idea. I love it. Also, it’s simple…I like simple. I like it a lot.

  61. Vanessa says:

    Hi, Kevin. My husband just cut our jugs tonight and inventoried our seeds. We are ready to plant soon!

    We are very concerned about how to transplant these, but the link for that subject is no longer available. Can you advise, please?

    Also loving your English cream scones…they look divine!

    Thanks much!

  62. Kathy says:

    Kevin, I’m so excited to try WS! I put in my order for seeds this week and can’t wait to get started. I initially was going to buy one of those expensive seed starting light w/shelving kits, but think I will give this a try instead (I’m in zone 7a).

    I have two questions:

    *Can I use other milky plastic containers (like shallow storage bins) instead of milk jugs? I don’t have any milk jugs but know I can buy some clear/milky storage bins (4 – 6 inches deep) at Target.

    *What potting soil mix are you using?

    Thanks so much! I’m going to get started as soon as my seeds get here.

  63. The wood from fallen trees and limbs can be ground to use as free
    mulch. (Actually you can hire any contractor within your vicinity.
    When homes, buildings, bridges, and roadways are demolished, the resultant
    rubble can be broken down and transformed into new aggregate materials, with proper equipment.

  64. DianthusGirl says:

    This will be my third winter doing winter sowing in Minnesota, thanks to this website and info from Trudi Davidoff’s site. I love the results from this method – healthy plants, not spindly. My winter sown plants are ok to hang out in their milk cartons until I am ready to plant them. I also like not having seed trays in my house, or fretting over them. I have had great luck with dianthus, zinnias, zuchini, basil, alyssium, purple statice…anything is worth a try. It may seem a bit crazy to put a whole seed packet in one milk carton, but the plants can be gently pulled apart.

  65. Brenda says:

    Hello,

    Just want to say thank you soooo much. This is my first try at winter sowing and my seedlings are doing very well. I have broccolli, spinach, lettuce, and a few others. So exciting after a cold and long winter. I am in long island ny zone 7. Thanks again and happy gardening.

  66. Valerie says:

    After years of starting and babysitting seeds I have a new solution. I create a mini bed at the bottom of the mother plants in the garden and plant the mother plant seeds at her feet and mark the area.
    Then in the spring when ready to transplant I lift the seedlings out in put them where I would like that variety. It is mother natured only controlled. No fuss or caretaking. I have filled my gardens this way.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] cool idea for milk jugs, is to use them as greenhouses. Please visit this blog for all the [...]

  2. [...] This year we are using our milk jugs to start our vegetable garden, a great idea I got from A Garden for the House. [...]

  3. [...] *Lisa’s farm photos are exquisite. *Winter citrus is here! *A thrifty, low-fi means of creating mini-greenhouses outdoors (thanks to Meri for the [...]

  4. [...] January, I’ll be trying out this neat Milk Jug Greenhouse method to start my perennials from seed this January. I’m pretty sure we will be staying a second [...]

  5. [...] See detailed instructions with pictures. [...]

  6. [...] has got to be the easy way I have ever seen to grow your own plants.  Check out this website http://www.agardenforthehouse.com/2010/12/winter-sowing-101/  for details on how to setup your own winter seed sowing. And send me pics of your setup. I will [...]

  7. [...] in the meantime, I have followed a suggestion from here and have done some winter sowing and prepared these mini greenhouses. They are simple to make, just [...]

  8. [...] Milk Jug Mini Greenhouses: These mini greenhouses in gallon jugs can prove [...]

  9. [...] http://www.agardenforthehouse.com/2010/12/winter-sowing-101/ Home Vegetable Gardening -a Complete and Practical Guide to the Planting and Care of All Vegetables, Fruits and Berries Worth Growing for Home Use Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening Yard Butler GKS-2 Garden Kneeler and Seat Gardman R700 5-Shelf Steel Frame Greenhouse Esschert Design Victorian Greenhouse – large Related Posts [...]

  10. [...] on Pinterest called winter-sowing. I had never heard of it before. After reading the blog post on A Garden for the House it seemed to make a lot on sense though. So I figured I would give it a try this [...]

Speak Your Mind

*