Transplanting Winter-Sown Seedlings

I wrote this article in April, 2011. So please forgive the awful photography. I’m repeating the piece on the front page because several readers have asked me to. Enjoy!

GOT MILK-JUGS? I certainly do! Twenty-four of them, all filled with annuals and perennials achieved from last January’s winter-sowing efforts. It’s time to give some of these naturally hardened-off seedlings permanent positions in the open garden. Here are three techniques I use for separating and transplanting the youngsters, along with a tip for releasing them from their milk-jug greenhouse all in one clump:

Taffee Technique (for large growers which were thinly-sown, like Pyrethrum, Lupin, Delphinium, Tomatoes, etc.)

First, release the young plants from their milk-jug greenhouse: cut a flap in the side of the venue, as pictured above. Then tilt the container. Out will come soil and plants, all in one clump.

Next, separate the plants by pulling them apart, as if you were stretching taffee. Pull gently; the goal is to sever roots as little as possible. Should you mangle several roots, don’t despair! Winter-sown seedlings are itching to grow, and will recover from the trauma with lightning speed. I’m speaking from experience here.

Now plant the individual seedlings, according to the spacing and light requirements indicated on the seed packet. (You did save your seed packets, right?)

Brownie Technique (for thickly-sown seedlings). Tiny plants like Creeping thyme (above), which have been thickly-sown, are best separated in clusters. To do this, remove seedlings and soil as described earlier. Then, with a knife, slice through the soil lengthwise and across, as if you were cutting up a pan of brownies. Plant the clusters as is.

“Hunk-o-Seedlings” Technique. Trudi Davidoff suggested this method of transplanting, which is ideal for large, thickly-sown growers, such as Evening Primrose. Proceed as for the Brownie Technique, but after you’ve planted them out, pinch off unwanted seedlings as they grow in order to achieve suitable spacing.

As you can see from the photo above, I’ve got miles of transplanting ahead of me. But I can hardly complain. These perennial splendors were so easily achieved, and their care over winter was non-existent. To read more about winter-sowing, be sure to click the links below.

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

Related Posts:
Winter-Sowing 101
Making a Greenhouse & Sowing Seeds
What to Winter-Sow…& When


  1. Kevin, I also have lots of winter sown seedlings. The hollyhocks were planted out last week, but I still have to plant my coreopsis, cosmos, penstemon, lavender, zinnias, marigolds, and more. Frankly, I don't have room for everything. I'm hoping to give my extra plants to neighbors.

  2. Have you calculated how much your perennials would cost if you had to buy them from a nursery?

  3. Kevin, that “flap” idea is terrific. I was wondering how I'd get the seedlings out of a milk jug without turning the whole thing upside down.

    By the way, your lupins look very healthy, and very eager to be transplanted!

  4. I enthusiastically planted 18 containers in March. I could use some of that gusto now that everything has to be planted! If there is one thing I learned from the experience, it's to not over sow. Limit 6 seeds per container.

    I must have 100 'Victoria' blue salvias in a single gallon-size water jug!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello Kevin,
    I could (and do!) spend hours reading your blog – thanks so much for all the wonderful tips. I am a first time gardner and have winter-sown many herbs and leafy greens that I intend to cultivate in containers. I am in zone 6a and have heard people say that transplant time is usually Memorial Day weekend.

    I am very afraid of thinning – could you give me some advice on when to thin (as they grow? or not until we transplant?) – I am worried the plants won't mature properly as I broadcasted the seeds in the greenhouses and now have a disorganized gaggle of seedlings. Also – how would we know if the plants are getting too big for their containers? Or would they?

    Thanks so much,

  6. Lily – nice to meet you. In zone 6-a, you can transplant your herbs and leafy greens now.

    As for thinning, fear not! Just pinch with your fingers or cut with scissors the stems of unwanted seedlings. (Never pull out plants to thin them; this can damage nearby seedlings.) You can thin winter-sown seedlings as they emerge, or wait until transplanting-time.

    You'll know plants are getting too big for their mini-greenhouses when they require water every day (or twice a day!). If your plants look anything like mine in the photos up top, it's definitely time to get them into their permanent quarters.

  7. Kevin, I tried your suggestion about how to get the seedlings out of the milk jug and what an easier way! Thanks! Okay, do you have a suggestion for sowing those tiny seeds that almost look like dust? Portulaca is one of those that you can even see where the seeds are landing, they're so fine. Next year, I think I'll buy the portulaca starter plants at the garden center. I remember another flower seed was so tiny; I made a note of it so I will know next year not to get it or learn between now and then, the secret of sowing those tiny, fine, dustlike seeds. I think I read where somebody suggested mixing them with fine sand..sand doesn't come in small size bags that I know of. I think I read somewhere about putting them in an old s&p shaker and sprinkle them out that way. I'm going to add a medicine dropper to my list of supplies next year plus a pr. of tweezers. Really love your blogspot. You make everything seem so simple.

  8. Betty – I agree with you — dust-like seeds are a pain to work with. I just sprinkle them as best I can over the soil mix, and that's that. They germinate without any soil to cover them.

    Of course, they require considerable thinning after germination!

  9. Hi Kevin! So glad I found your blog today. Are you zone 5? My back steps are covered with milk cartons. Winter sowing is so much fun- especially with kids since the winters are so long here in Central New York. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Have a great day-


  10. Topiary Lady – what a lovely blog you have.

    I'm probably a little south of you, in zone 5-b.

    Have fun with your winter-sowing projects. I hope everything has sprouted for you.

  11. Kevin, please help! My tomato seedlings, now only 2-3 inches tall transplanted into the bed, are having little green aphid-looking creatures (maybe they are aphids) on the back of the leaves. They are eating the leaves because all the tiny leaves have holes. I have never seen this affliction before in the last two seasons. What are they? And how can I get rid of them? Thanks!

  12. Yaxue – Your tomato seedlings have probably been attacked by flea beetles. From reports I’ve read, coffee grinds (brewed or not), will quickly and effectively thwart these pests. Just buy a big can of cheap, ground coffee. Then sprinkle it over the tomato leaves and at the base of the plants.

    Also – be sure to keep your plants watered! Stressed plants are always more susceptible to insect damage.

  13. I’ve been busy transplanting and sharing! It is so exciting to see these baby plants happy in their new homes, growing stronger daily.

    Not everything germinated, the jug labeled alissium didn’t flourish, but the jug labeled something else has blossoming alissium in it! Obviously I’ll need to be more careful as I process planting next year!

    I haven’t completed planting everything yet. Such an exciting process!

  14. My seedlings aren’t anywhere near that big! 🙁
    I’m in zone 5b… many of them don’t have true leaves yet. So I need to wait until they do, right?

  15. Deb – Very exciting! Like you, I usually end up with enough winter-sown plants to furnish an entire neighborhood.

    Terri – Some plants are slow to get going. But they will grow. Wait until after the first true leaves appear (and then some) before transplanting.

  16. Just introduced to your site today..I know I am going to be reading and trying lots of new things and I’ve been gardening for 30 years!!

  17. Nice to meet you, Cathy!

  18. Kevin,

    Just found your blog. Very fun to read, indeed. I’m no stranger to the world of gardening, so your tips are quite fascinating.

    Most coffee houses will donate their used coffee grounds if you just ask.

    Happy Harvesting.
    Anna “the lemon lady”

  19. Welcome, Anna. Glad you like the tips here. I certainly appreciate all the good work that YOU are doing!

  20. This is my first year of WS. I did a lot of reading and research before venturing on. One of the mistakes I made was not using enough dirt in the containers. Some of the plants I have transplanted were very root bound. I won’t make that mistake again. tAnother problem I had was our miserable winter and spring winds. Next year I will be building some klind of protection for the containers. We live on the open prarie with little protection… For half of the containers: I made small newspaper pots and then put the pots in the containers. This worked the best, all I had to do then was carefully lift out each pot and plant pot and all. I put dirt all around the little pots so there was plenty of dirt in between the pots, not just in the little pots themselves.)

  21. Hi all:^)
    I am in zone 3, northern minnesota. Will this winter sowing work in my brrr zone? THANKS


  22. Thank you!!

  23. Kevin,
    this is my first year WS, and my 17 milk jugs are just starting to sprout so this info was very helpful. I wasn’t quite sure what the next step looked like! Thank you.
    Do you think that the coffee grounds trick will work on bean plants with flea beetles?

  24. Greta Peck says:

    Hi Kevin

    I love your website and have been so excited about trying the “Winter Sowing”, well I finally did it! I hope it’s not too late. I am in Northern Michigan, Traverse City actually. I sowed 2 weeks ago. I put the milk jugs against a south facing wood fence and covered them with snow. It has been pretty consistently cold and snowing since then.

    It really helped my attitude…..spring, hope and all that! Just seemed really optimistic to plant something! Thanks again! Greta

  25. Cara Montague says:

    Hi Kevin,

    I started a round of seeds a week ago in flats, and now I’ve found your blog. Your milk jugs seem like a much easier method for next year. Do you have some good rules of thumb to use when I am thinking about how thickly to sow different kinds of seeds?



  26. The return of spring to zone 7b has completely inspired me. I’ve cleaned and augmented soil in my vegetable beds and have trasplanted the following wintersown seedlings: snow peas, mesclun lettuce, radish and turnip. To keep the birds away I’ve put up netting and have made mild noise makers out of aluminum pie pans, string, and long sticks. Grow, little plants, grow!

    I think I’ve officially attained crazy plant lady status 🙂

  27. Jasmin – Well, I hope you’ll wear the title with pride!

  28. Hi Kevin,
    I was so excited to find your website! My grandmother would have loved this idea. She planted huge tomato gardens when I was a kid with my dad. The spent tons of money on the plants. But she had the land and made her own compost! Well this is my first year sewing in milk jugs. I am in zone 5-6 Kansas City. (I read we are now a 6 due to warmer winters.) I have tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, carrots and pansies seeds.
    I have 3 questions: First, I have 5 jugs but two of them are white-ish. Can I use these or should I stick to the ones that are more opaque?
    Second, Also it seems as though I am starting late. It’s now April 4th! Can the plant the seeds listed above in the jugs and will they be OK to transplant in my garden later.
    And finally… can the zones change like that? Is Kansas City now a 6? Thank you in advance.
    I can wait to here back to get started with my own kids!

  29. Hi Ann – In 2012, the USDA updated its plant hardiness zone map to reflect warmer winters observed over the past 30 years. It is probably already out of date!

    To answer your questions:
    First, if you can see your finger through the walls of your white milk jugs, then the jugs are suitable for winter-sowing purposes. Otherwise, best to use the more transparent types of jugs (gallon-size water jugs are usually clear).

    Next, early- or even late-April is a suitable time to plant the seeds you mentioned. Keep in mind that tomatoes and peppers won’t germinate until the soil temperature in the jugs reaches approx. 70 degrees.

    Have fun with your project!

  30. I am celebrating today !! I finally have delphiniums sprouting in my WSed jugs !!! Despite the fact that the temps are in the 30s today and we are having a nasty sleet and freezing rain storm that totally made my day. If things would just warm up I think there will be an explosion of new sprouts as we have had a week of good rains.

  31. I planted a few jugs back the end of January when I heard about this method. I am in 5b, and now wonder since nothing has come up, did I plant them too early. (sweet pepper, cornflower, salvia, plus a few others. I put them on the north side of the house, should I move them to west side of house? or any other suggestions? I have watered them a bit

  32. Hi!

    New to this space on the internet, and INTRIGUED!

    I live in Sweden and absolutely LOVE this idea which I might actually try, despite being a little late. We don’t have the same milk jugs that you guys have (ours are tetra cartons) but I’m sure there are things I can subsitute them for.

    I don’t have a garden, but plan to grow as much as my little south facing balcony will allow. I have already sown seeds which are sprouting very well indoors but am now worried that the little lovelies will not survive the shock of moving outdoors (still some weeks to go before this happens though, we’re still skirting the 0-line (Celsius)).

    I might try Winter-sowing now, it’ll be interesting to see if they grow and if the WS plants will turn out to be stronger/better than the indoors ones or not!

  33. Hi Mary – Here in zone 5-b, I winter-sow (“spring-sow”?) sweet peppers in March or even April. They are heat-lovers.

    Welcome, Anna. I have always found that winter-sown seedlings are stronger than indoor-sown seedlings. And no “hardening off” required. Have fun with your project!

  34. I did this with the jugs for the first time, I planted 15 jugs, and I did this in February and March and I do not have one single plant coming up yet! I just cannot figure out what went wrong?
    I planted…green peppers, tomato, lettuce, and some different flowers, which I do not recall at the moment, but none are even peeking through.

    Any suggestions would be great. I am in eastern Wisconsin

  35. Margo DePolo says:

    This is my 2nd year following you, and doing winter sowing. I sowed all my jugs wuth seeds I collected from my flowers & veggies last year, and even some exotic grasses. Great success again! Thank you KLJ for all your hard work, enthusiasm and for reading my garden’s mind! Zone 5b

  36. I did 8 milk jugs, 15 plastic deli take out flats with the seed planting w/ vermiculite soil in late January. I am in zone 5b. I had seed left over so I threw them in 5 large pots….18 inches across…sitting on the patio with potting soil in from previous years. I had not used them last year and I did pull some weeds out of them a few times last summer. I had a large plastic paint drop protection in the garage I cut up and punched holes in and put over the top of each and tied them down with string. The results are the pots w/ the potting soil plants are now 5 times larger than the ones in the other two containers. Rough count, I have well over 100 plants to figure out what to do with. Total cost was about $15 for the 9 different packs of perennial seeds. I have 3 neighbors that started theirs a month after mine when they found out what I had done. My wife started the edible plantings for the veggie garden 3 weeks ago and is using the tp tube/paper towel tube for ease of transferring. They are all about 3-4 inches high already.

  37. I attended a seed planting seminar yesterday and now have a tip for those of us having a hard time planting seeds that are as tiny as dust…mix with sugar to make everything more visible! The sugar will not affect the seed or soil in any way and is more contrasting to the soil than sand.

  38. Great planting tips from you and your readers! I’ve been sowing perennial seed for many years and have never used plastic milk jugs. I sow in small pots and use a clear humidity dome to cover an entire tray of pots. I usually sow over 100 pots a year! This time of the growing year is so exciting!!

  39. Kevin – I planted my milk jug greenhouses today in Zone 8a. I am wondering if leaving the jugs in my house at 68-70 degrees might help with getting the germination started – especially for cold hardy vegetables. I would then move the jugs outside after 7-10 days. Would this accelerate the process or would letting mother nature take her course in the outside colder temperatures be the best course? This is my first year at this project and am wondering if bottom watering the jugs by putting them in a partially filled pan of water every few days would be an effective way to keep the plant moist?



  40. Zone 5b. This is my first year doing the winter sowing. Could anyone please tell me when is the best time to plant Tomatoes & Peppers. Should I plant them now and just leave them to grow when they are ready? I really enjoy reading all of the comments & ideas from readers. I have used many of them. It would make adapting to their ideas a lot easier if all contributors would include their “Zone” in their comments.

  41. Hi Dan – You’ll have stronger seedlings (and later, plants) if you let the seeds germinate outdoors.

    Gladys – You are in the same zone as me. I follow this planting schedule: What to Winter-Sow…& When.

  42. Haven’t tried it, but something to consider would be to plant seedlings in six or nine-cell packs for even easier transplanting.

  43. This is a fantastic article! I have been living in Georgia for over 10 years and am always ready to start my garden in January. We usually get a cold snap in February but otherwise it is very mild here. We are in northern Georgia. I am going to start this project TODAY!! Thanks for the great idea.

Speak Your Mind