Winter-Sowing 101

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.

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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


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

  3. 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. 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. 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. 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!

  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:


  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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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@

  53. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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
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  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. 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. 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.

  67. Kathy Tripp says:

    You can go to *For directions, a list of what you can winter sow..they will even send you Free Seeds. I’ve been doing this the past couple of years…works great, *I’ve got 65 milk jugs out in my garden spot..just waiting for Spring. =} Thanks Kevin

  68. I am excited to start my winter sowing this week! First…is there a need to soak seeds at all? I plan on sowing creeping thyme, oregano and cilantro this week. Mid-March, I plan on sowing Basil and Parsley. I am located in Central New York. Thanks!!

  69. I see you order seeds from Thompson & Morgan. Do they have a US outlet? If not, what kind of import fee do you have to pay?

  70. Janine McCaw says:

    Huh. What do you know! I see green shoots popping up in my first “redneck” greenhouse filled with foxglove. Yes, it’s spring here in Vancouver.

  71. Stephanie says:

    Unfortunately my milk jug gardens were more high-maintenance that I was hoping for, but I’m pretty sure it’s because we live in Central Oregon where it rains very little and this year we barely had any rain or snow. I had to go out and water them frequently, which was hard to do through the little opening on top and most of them dried up. After the first failed set, I modified my milk jug garden by planting the seeds in our raised beds and covering the seeds with milk jugs with the bottoms cut out so it’s easier to just water the entire milk jug garden at once instead of trying to pour water down the tops. So far I’ve had great success. Just a tip in case anybody else out there lives in a climate with little rain/snowfall.

  72. Kevin, thank you for teaching us how to winter sow. I have never done it before but plan to this year. I have a question. I have impatient growing in planters in my yard. I would like to use their seeds to winter sow them. Can you please tell me where they are located on the flower? I cannot for the life of me figure it out. Thank you in advance, Linda.

  73. Shannon says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I am just coming upon this post, and I am excited, if not late to the party. 🙂 I am expanding my gardening at school and want to try planting right away in the fall, instead of it always being a springtime thing. I have curriculum with lupine planned (Miss Rumphius) and want to use your milk jug greenhouses outside for those, having them sprout in spring. Any other suggestions for “surefire” perennials for Maine to start this way? I hope to help students have a small plant sale in the spring and donate proceeds to charity. Also, I would love to plant a few vegetables in September to grow in our greenhouse; do you have suggestions for short-season crops that we could harvest in December? Thank you so much for any insight you can offer!

  74. I am researching the winter sowing idea and am very excited to try it this year. I live in northern Idaho so an early start really helps! My question is, how many seeds do you put per milk jug for good growth and healthy plants given they all will sprout? Lets take petunias for an example. Thanks

  75. Jennifer Castner says:

    Am I right in assuming that my lovely collection of white opaque milk jugs are not going to work, and that I need to use the ones that are semi-clear? Have to switch from organic to non-organic milk to do that! Hmmm, maybe I’ll see if I can swap with anyone around here.

  76. I am ready to start this project today. Are verbena, petunias, and geraniums considered “hardy”? I live in Wisconsin and I want to start these as a birthday gift for my aging mother!

  77. How many seeds should be planted in each container?

  78. Very interesting! I have seeded a lot of vegetable plants, but not many flowers. I’m definitely going to try it in 2017. Too late this year. Thank you for the instructions and great information! I will actually put it on my calendar for next year to do it, and print out this information. I’m thinking that I will put my milk jugs on my long porch and fasten them to the spindles of the rail using string through the jug handles. Thanks again!!

  79. A few questions if you don’t mind, please?
    1. At what point do you separate them into individual plants? I’m just assuming that you do, before planted into ground…
    2. Must be that they tolerate being separate from each other just fine, otherwise you couldn’t seed them so closely?
    3. How large are the containers you replant them into, if you do transplant before moving to their final destination?
    4. And do you still keep them outside after separating?
    Thanks in advance!!

  80. Hi Therese – No need to pot the seedlings. Transplant them into the open garden as described in this post: How To Transplant Winter-Sown Seedlings


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