THE WINTER SOLSTICE, which this year arrives on December 21, is my cue to start collecting milk and water jugs. Why? Because it is in these free recyclables that I winter-sow my summer garden. Who else is a fan of this fascinating method of outdoor seed-germination?
Although my “to-sow” list of seeds is far from complete, I’ll certainly plant more Russell hybrid lupins. Pictured up top is the crop I winter-sowed in January, 2009. These produced a few late blooms their first summer in my Serpentine Garden. But the following year they put on a show that was utterly breathtaking, as dozens and dozens of colorful spires emerged from the plants. And I achieved this beauty for less than $2.00!
I will also winter-sow more Primula japonica. This “Candelabra Primrose” brings late-spring color to my Woodland Garden.
Heirloom tomatoes are on my December-January winter-sowing roster, too. True, the seeds won’t sprout until the soil temperature reaches about 70 degrees. But they will sprout, and they will produce all the fruit I need for Classic Tomato Pie.
I hope your mouth is watering right about now.
Not sure how to winter-sow? Read these links:
How to Turn a Milk Jug into a Greenhouse
Perennials Which Require Cold-Stratification
Now, I’d love to know who’s planning to winter-sow their summer garden this year. Have you already gathered the recyclables you’ll turn into greenhouses? Any inkling as to what you’ll plant? Any winter-sowing success (or disaster) stories you’d like to share?
Whoa. I just asked you four questions. Please forgive me for being so…nosy.
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What to Winter-Sow…& When
The “Chocolate Flower” Berlandiera lyrata
Plant Propagation: Layering
Donna B. says
Oh Kevin… sadly… my winter sowing experience is abysmal at best… /sadface
Mainly because I’m a more of a ‘plant it and forget it’ type of person. You think this method would be great for me, right? For bouts of time during the crucial early spring-time the plants did not receive ample water, and most times they got tipped over by either the wind [because they weighed nothing] or from my backyard squirrel looking for the places that he hid is stashes of food!
The good thing is that I had way too many spinach plants from it all [resilient little things!] and the melons were great, alas from the flowers I only got four Lupines~ I’ll have to pay more attention this time… and make a better watering situation…
[I didn’t have the shallow container to let them sit in – so I was just pouring water into the jugs, therefore throwing the poor seedlings around…]
But I won’t give up! I still have all of the jugs from last year!!!
and maybe I’ll sacrifice a storage container lid to use as a watering vessel…
[and re-read your walkthroughs for a refresher… >D]
I’ve collected my jugs and my seeds, and now, I sit looking doubtfully at them! I’m still not sure I’m convinced that it will actually work……..
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Donna B – Your squirrel needs a good scolding! Maybe you can pick up a few “under bed” styrene storage containers — odd-lot stores usually have them — and melt or drill drainage holes in the bottom. The containers will keep the jugs from blowing about, or from being ravaged by curious critters. One container will hold 6 gallon-size jugs.
Sarah – Go for it! Winter-sowing really works!
Annie B says
I’ve gathered the jugs. Need a container for them still. I’m going to give it a try. I don’t do well starting seeds indoors…they’re always spindly. How was your talk?
Is it necessary to use the large holding container if I have a nice raised bed to contin them Kevin? I would sure like to try this since I’ve never had much luck with indoor seeding and have yet to build a greenhouse. I have a nice sunny south bed that is 3′ wide and I can place a board to close off an end so they’ll be snug as a bug but it won’t hold water. Is this an issue? We don’t get snow for more than a few days and then it melts off…not sure what else the containers purpose might be except to hold them in place?
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Hi Annie B – My talk at the New York Botanical Garden was great fun! Thanks for asking.
Hi Meeri – You can certainly set your miniature greenhouses atop a raised bed. I set mine in large holding-containers just to keep them tidy and to protect them from strong wind. Bracing the jugs with a board will work as well. As for snow…it is not a requirement for winter-sowing.
To anyone doubting this method of seed sowing …have no fear !!! It really works. Oh maybe you have a jug or 2 that fails to sprout but I had way more success than I ever expected and you WILL have to give plants away to your friends. The plants thrive using this method.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Heather – You are right — I always end up with waaaay too many plants. And all of them so easily achieved.
I can testify as well that winter sowing works. I had oregano, cosmos, thyme and sage sown this way. They all grew well.
Diane from Boston says
I am definitely going to give it a try! I’m gathering 2-liter soda bottles and gallon milk jugs. I plan to pick up a couple of milk crates to put everything in. Ordering seeds soon! Yahoo!
Diane from Boston says
Kevin, can I try winter-sowing eggplant seed at the same time as tomatoes (probably first week of April in Boston)?
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
David – Thanks for sharing your winter-sowing success story. And isn’t it fun to do a spring activity during the dregs of winter?
Diane from Boston – I like your idea of using milk crates to keep the mini greenhouses organized. Yes to sowing eggplant seeds the first week in April. Have fun!
I have tons of milk jugs and can hardly wait to get started! I am good with plants and I was thrilled to find your greenhouse suggestion. Wish me luck! So hoping to have many plants for my new house and many to sell as well for the spring. We all need to make a few dollars now and then and this will hopefully bring many $$$ to me as well as give buyers something beautiful to plant in their own yards without having to pay “big” store prices!
Kevin, I discovered winter sowing just last summer and started collecting milk jugs right away, as well as planning my perfect perrenials to sow. I finally narrowed my list to about thirty, plus about 10 heirloom tomatoes. I’m a glutton for punishment, but I have lots of bed space to fill and there were so many lovable beauties to embrace. As you can see I’m super excited about my first w.s. adventure. Thanks for the big part you played in inspiring me!
Here are a few of my favorites:
Lupin, Morello Cherry
Columbine, Long-Spurred Yellow
Poppy, Flore Pleno
Poppy, Princess Victoria Louise
Delphinium, Butterfly Blue
. . . . . How to even choose some favorites? But lots of Columbine, Campanula, fox gloves, Platycodon, Poppies, and Lupins.
I’ve been collecting gallon-sized water jugs all summer and fall, and now have maybe 20 out in our shed. I’m psyched to get started on this, and am ordering seeds this week. I’ll be planting many types of flowers – perennial and annual, heirloom veggies, some grasses and Lord knows what else. We have squirrels as well, but I plan on putting some plastic sheeting over the top of the holding container (love the milk crate idea someone had) to discourage the little brats. I am hoping this will work for me, as it’s my first attempt at winter sowing.
My partner got an assortment of heirloom herb and veggie seeds for free from an organic gardener online, and our garden next year here in SW WA will include flowers along with kales, lettuces, peppers, tomatoes and squashes from that collection. We have 20 jugs saved up and we’re really excited to try this method. Thanks for the inspiration, Kevin!
I’ve been winter sowing for years. I always start my tomatoes this way. I saw my seeds every year to so the cost is ver littl.( I do sneak in a few ordered new heirloom every year) I grow mostly herbs these days and start most of them this way. my lupines were winter sowed ,I did have amazing success with that but I love what I do get!!! All this chatting about winter sowing makes me think of rosé cuttings as soon as the winter sowing is spouting the rose cutting are ready to be planted!!!
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Jeneen – Good luck!
Cosette – Great list. I winter-sowed lots of columbine one year — every seed germinated.
Devon – If you place your jugs in a shallow box (such as I use) or a milk crate, it is unlikely that squirrels will upset your plantings. Avoid covering the containers in any way. Rain, sleet, and snow must be able to enter the jugs. Have fun!
This year will be year number 4 for wintersowing. I have done a variety of flowers, herbs and vegetables. My biggest surprise when I first started was learning that I will not get my plants any ooner but that the plants I do get are much hardier. Once I got over my visions of tomatoes in May, then I was all on board! I usually call on friends and family to save their milk jugs and by the time April rolls around and the snow is melting, my wintersowing “garden” takes on the look of a recycling center!
I am ready to try winter sowing for the first time. Am wondering if I should start in March instead of January due to the very mild winter we are having here in Oklahoma. In the garden now are Chamomile that self started this November and Calendula that is still blooming. Any ideas?
Kevin: I’m desperate to sow Shiseido peppers as my indoor experience with them last year was a disaster. Do you think March will be the time to start those, or should I try earlier.? Thanks for the great advice!
I collected a lot of jugs already and am all ready to winter sow. We live in Canada, just north of Seattle, so pretty mild climate. Kevin you say the plants in the jugs do need the snow and rain, so I assume I should not place them into the greenhouse then?
I plan on winter sew herbs, veggies as well as lots and lots of flowers. We live on acreage so lots of room for nice gardens once we cleared the invasive blackberries . Does anybody have some experience with raspberries? I would love to have raspberry plants but every time I try they die, I don’t know why 🙁
Denise in Colorado says
You have inspired me to give this method a try! I used the little plastic trays with individual plants last winter in a window of my porch and nothing came up… Very disappointing! So I’ll give this a try instead! I don’t drink milk but I have AZ green tea jugs that I think would work. Thanks for inspiration right before 12-21-12! Gardeners always have Spring to look forward to! 🙂
I am SO ready! I have all my jugs and seeds, and even a few new ones to try from an online seed share. I am excited to try this method for the first time.
Diane Kratz says
Have my porting soil, jugs, looking for seeds now! Plastic trays too as well I guess. I can’t wait to start. Looking forward to your pointers to keep me and my plants on track, Kevin!
This is such a genius idea. I found your blog last march and immediately set about starting seeds this way. Even though it was a little late I still had sucess with Lupine, penstromen, marigolds and foxglove. Only the marigolds bloomed last summer but since the rest are perennials I’m waiting impatiently for this spring to see them blooming. I also told my mother about this method and have been saving milk jugs for the both of us and am ready for this winter.
I just moved this week so my wintersowing is getting started Monday! I have a great list of seeds. Last year I did two projects one at work and one at home. The one at home was mostly a failure. The one at work thrived. I used a clear storage container and cups with a clear lid and holes that worked great. At home I had almost no space and the small containers I used didn’t provide enough light and dried out way to fast.
Susan in MI says
Plan on doing this and already have 17 emptied out and washed milk and water jugs that didn’t need washing. Thanks to you, Kevin, this is GOING to work. Yikes! Forgot about potting soil and hope I can find what I need. Of course the seed catalogs are Non-Monsanto so at least that evil corporation will get no money from me.
Rev. Allorrah Be says
I really like this idea, Kevin! I tried seeds last year but didn’t have a clue what I was doing; I got no results, either! But I Am inspired to try this. I assume somewhere on your site you give instructions about how to prepare the jugs, then the soil, etc.? I haven’t had much chance to explore this whole place!
Thank you for this great idea; pray I can make it work as well as others have!
Rev. Allorrah Be
Circles of Light MInistries
Angelique Lloyd says
Since I’m having gardening withdrawal by this time of year, I am SO excited about starting a winter sowing project. I always save plastic gallon jugs from milk and water for filler for my large outdoor containers, so I have plenty to use and I plan to grow LOTS of basil, tomatoes, annual vinca, alyssum, celosia, ….just to start 🙂
Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says
I have 10 jugs collected already. They are plastic half gallon milk jugs, all uniform. Husband is successfully trained to stop short of squashing them for the recycling bin.
I also have a stash of soil inside the attached garage where it will stay unfrozen until I need it to fill the jugs. I like to mix my own compost with the soil for the jugs.
Last year’s extensive collection of varieties were mostly failures in the winter jugs. I believe the intensely warm late winter and early spring caused too much repeated drying out. All my Lupines germinated then all of them died. Many seeds showed no response and I was greatly discouraged. The best performer was the tall Summer Phlox in colors of pink and magenta. Almost as good and for the second year in a row was Great Blue Lobelia. Both types of seeds came from my own colonies of these plants. These successes made up for the other losses. Lots of them bloomed in their first summer, too.
I have not decided which types of seeds to try in 2013. There is a big box full of my seed harvests from fall 2012. A good snowy day is needed to send me to that serene task of choosing future winter jug varieties.
Your trackback mentioned at the end of these comments is my friend Aimee in Brooklyn! Wow.
Margo DePolo says
I am up to my jugular in milk jugs for winter sowing. I am very excited and happy to have been reading you for a year now. I collected my seeds all season and I am ready to sow. You continue to inspire me and I thank you:).
Over & out from Zone 5B, northern Mercer County, PA.
With family and the winter rush, I needed this gentle reminder to get going on this new version of winter seed starting. Very exciting stuff! Thanks for your post and that beautiful photo of your Lupines. I now have a good idea of which seed varieties I’ll try this year.
Ugh… we do not drink or use dairy milk so I am polling all of my work friends with kids to see if they have these containers. Any other ideas other than the milk bottles that would work? I cannot wait to try this winter sowing method, I will try veggies, herbs and flowers!! Thank you for the inspiration.
Ihve all the containers- I’m ready to go.
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Kate – Visit your local recycling station — they will have all the gallon-size milk and water containers you need.
I’m really excited about winter-sowing again this year too! I have 20 spring water jugs reserved and plan to start preparing them soon. My first order of seeds just arrived from Thompson & Morgan. I’m attempting to germinate a few primula’s, nepeta and astrantia major for my woodland garden. I also found what looks to be a very promising on-line seed purveyor called Gardens North from Nova Scotia. They specialize in Native and Exotic seeds. I’ve ordered a bunch of seeds from them as well. I had relatively good success trying it for the first time last winter. I grew dwarf Jacobs ladder, blackberry lily, alpine columbine and Malva. This year I plan on constructing a “plunge bed” in the woods for transplanting my seedling plants for the first year. Good luck everyone!
Been waiting for Dec 21 to start thinking about gardening. I love winter sowing. It gets me through to he spring. The plants are much heartier that in indoor flats and no hardening off. I’ve had great success. I’m doing it with some friends this year. Next year I am going to do this as a winter party/project with my kids and their friends to tach them about the plant cycle. Happy sowing!
Heather schlerf says
Where do you get your Japanese primrose seeds?? I am sure you wrote about it but I could not find a source. They are my ultimate favorite woodland flower and I have a hard time getting them to reseed here in NH.
I’m in northern Canada. Is it ok to start before the first thaw, usually April?
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Heather – Seeds for Primula japonica can be hard to find, but I know that Thompson & Morgan sells them.
Moira – It depends upon what you are planting. I sow all of my perennials and hardy annuals in December, January, and February. Tender annuals and veggies I sow in late winter/early spring. More details here.
Deb Nelson says
Kevin, I am excited about my second endeavor into “winter sowing”, last year did well hoping this year will be even better. I came across this idea while surfing the web. I plan to try and incorporate it into my plan. That’s me, always looking to improve/expand/increase my garden. Check out this link: http://coachhousecraftingonabudget.blogspot.com/2012/01/greenhouse-space-saver-plus-milk-carton.html Good idea for many other applications too!
Lillie Becker says
How / where can I get seeds that are non-Monsanto seeds? Do they have to be organic to be non-Monsanto?
Thank you. This is my first years trying the milk jug idea
Kevin Lee Jacobs says
Deb Nelson – Yes, that is a clever idea!
Lillie Becker – I’ll do my 2013 edition of “favorite seed suppliers” later this week. Meanwhile, organic seeds are never Monsanto. There are lots of good, organic seed-sellers out there — Seed-Savers Exchange and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, to name just two.
I am going to try winter sowing this year, however live in zone 2b. Yup, it is cold! Most of the information I’ve seen if focused on more temperate climates. Has anyone this far north tried this?? From everything I’ve read, I am going to have the best luck with things that would reseed themselves. Any other advice for a novice from the great white north??
I am hoping to grow marigolds which I use to companion plant, zinnas, cosmos all from seed I saved from my garden last year. Anything else people have had good luck with??
I may try some zucchini, cucumbers, and herbs, cilantro, basil.
Heather Schlerf says
I’ve sown 60 milk jugs since the New Year and I am just waiting for some seed to arrive to plant more plus I will wait until March maybe to plant some things. This mild stretch is a little bit of a worry for the things that were sewn earlier ?? But I have to admit I don’t mind the heat wave in January !!! Kevin…..what have you sown so far ?? Also my big thing this winter is the propagation of edible fig trees from dormant wood cuttings from a potted tree I’ve had for years.
I successfully rooted all 15 cuttings and then proceeded to order 30 more varieties online that I have also rooted in no time and now I have a litter of fig trees seedlings to coddle until I can put them outside. I need a greenhouse !!
Angela F. says
Ok, thats it I am officially sold on this!I’m dying to do some gardening and my seeds should be here in a week or so. Ive been saving jugs anyway so ive got a good start. Have you had success with carrots and beets? Im so excited to try this!
Sonnie Croft says
Hey! I just found this article on sowing-in -jugs yesterday. I’m lining up jugs for the last 2 days. Since this winter has been so much colder than usual and we haven’t had the usual 3-4 warm days during the last 2 mos., I’m confident we’ll have the requisite freeze/thaw conditions for several weeks to come. It will freeze every night and warm to mid 30s every day this week, I’m hoping all will go well with this method. I especially want to sow the seeds I gathered from my favorite perennials last year. I love the fact that I won’t have to water and adjust gro-lights for these seeds. I plan to experiment with as many flower and vegetable seeds as I can find jugs for. Thanks Kevin!