Winter Sowing.
Starting your plants outdoors in winter!

Winter Sowing Title

 

 

As a gardener there are very few things I won’t try as a way to extend my growing season.  I’ve tried cold frames (unsuccessfully this year, but that was entirely my fault combined with a particularly pissy Mother Nature this winter), succession planting and pretending I lived in California.  The pretending worked better than succession planting and only slightly worse than the cold frames.

I’ve also grown sprouts and baby greens throughout the winter in order to get my growing fix and I always, always try to start my seeds indoors too early, just because I want to get going.  I’m like the kid sitting at the front door holding my suitcase and wearing my swimming goggles 3 days before the actual vacation starts.

So last year when a reader mentioned winter sowing I made a mental note to remember to try it.  3.4 seconds and a butterfly flying past later I’d forgotten all about it.

Then earlier this winter another reader reminded me about winter sowing.  This time I remembered, I just didn’t have time to get around to it until technically it was too late.

Winter sowing you see, involves sowing your seeds in a translucent plastic container and throwing them outside in January.  JANUARY.  The seeds then fend for themselves, and when conditions are perfect they sprout. The translucent container acts as a mini hot house. No guess work, no grow lights, no need to water because Mother Nature (whose pissiness comes in handy sometimes) takes care of that for you.

Since winter has lasted approximately 17 months longer than it normally would this year, I’ve taken a stab at winter sowing just to get a feel for it. If it works out well, then next year I may switch over from starting my seedlings under grow lights to starting them outdoors.   If I remember.

 

1.  Find some PBA free containers.  I got these at the Dollar Store.  Which means they’re either actually PBA free, or they just have a sticker on them saying  so.

Winter Sowing 1

 

2.  Drill holes into the bottom and lids of your containers.  The easiest way to do this is to stack everything up and drill through everything at the same time.  (all lids at the same time and all bottoms at the same time)

Winter Sowing 2

 

3.  You want containers that allow you to have at least 3-4 inches of soil in them, and another 4″ or so of head space so the plant has somewhere to grow.  Fill the containers with soil then pick the seeds you want to grow.  I’ve chosen to go with plants that are tolerant of cold like lettuces, kale, and even beets.  Yes.  Beets can be started and then transplanted.  I have always had great success transplanting beets even though all seed packets and “authorities” say it can’t be done.  I’m going to try a tray of tomatoes as well, but will also grow another bunch of them under lights.  I’m a bit  nervous about using this technique with plants that prefer warm soil and warm weather like tomatoes and peppers.  But I’ll give it a shot. What the hell.

Winter Sowing 3

 

 

4.  Scatter your seeds over your soil.  I’ve also made partitions out of popsicle sticks so I can plant different varieties of things in one container.

Winter Sowing 4

 

5.  Instead of scattering (although I’ve done that here) you can also just plant a few seeds in each section and then thin them to the one strongest seedling later on.  Scattering works well for growing spring greens or other things you want to plant in a mass.

Winter Sowing 5

 

6.  Winter Sowing and sectioning can also be used on a larger scale, like in this Tupperware bin.

Winter Sowing 9

7. Once your seeds have been planted, make sure you label your container so you know what’s in it. I just used masking tape, then covered it with a layer of packing tape. Hopefully it’ll brave the elements.
Winter Sowing 6

These elements to be precise.

Winter Sowing 7

Like I said earlier Mother Nature has been less than kind this year. In a bit of a snit, if you will. With this being the coldest, longest winter in memory I can tell you I don’t think she’s going through menopause. Bad breakup maybe?

Once your seedlings have grown and the weather has warmed up, just remove the lid from your containers so they plants don’t cook inside. It’ll get pretty warm in there. If a cold snap threatens put the lid back on before the sun goes down.

Winter Sowing 8

Regardless, her anger has allowed me a bit more leeway in my Winter Sowing experiment which is fine by me. And hopefully it’ll be fine by my lettuce. I have a feeling the tomatoes are gonna revolt.
Most people seem to use milk jugs, but milk comes in cartons or bags ’round these parts so I had to use something else.

Winter sowers claim the benefits include not having to water, (the snow lands on the top of the container, melts eventually and waters the seeds inside) not having to pay for electricity to run your grow lights, and healthier, sturdier plants that don’t need to be hardened off since they’re already outside braving the elements.

I’ll keep you updated as to how well this experiment is going. I’ll also be comparing the Winter Sown plants to a control group of seeds sown indoors under grow lights.

Unless I forget. In which case you’ll be getting posts on flying butterflies and shiny objects that attract my attention.

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44 Comments

  1. Mel says:

    Oh, nicely done! Last year I did winter sowing in empty translucent milk jugs. I don’t know about BPAs but if it’s clean enough for milk, I figured it was ok for seeds. And sure enough. I had the biggest, healthiest potted tomato plants ever. Not many tomatoes, but I blame no bees visiting my plants on the third floor balcony. Good luck!

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Mel. It’s working well so far. About your tomatoes, bumble bees do help but, tomatoes are self pollinating. The bees don’t transfer pollen on tomatoes, they just vibrate the flower, causing the pollen to shake around. You can achieve the same thing by just shaking your tomato plant a bit when there are flowers on it, tapping the top of the flower with your finger, or holding an electric toothbrush on the back of the flower causing it to vibrate and the pollen to fall. You’ll be bathing in tomatoes this year! ~ karen

  2. Call Me Patty says:

    Do you think it’s too late for me to try this winter sowing in BC? I think I may give it a whirl and see what happens.

    • ~gloria says:

      Patty, I think you still have plenty of time. They will germinate when they sense that it’s warm enough, and will still have a head start over ones started indoors. I started some several weeks ago (w. NY) and am going to start some of the more tender annuals this week.

  3. ~gloria says:

    So glad to hear you’re giving this a try. Last year was my first year and I had so many, way ahead of the game, precocious plants that I had to give scads of them away. I’m just wondering how you’re going to get them out of the containers easily? Because I only planted one kind in each gal. milk jug (US), I didn’t have to worry about them getting tangled up together. And I just let them grow and grow in the jugs until I needed them, some were a good 12″ tall by the time I got around to getting them in the ground (knee surgery). All I had to do was cut one side of the jug down to the bottom and scoop out whatever number of plants I needed at a time. You will have to reach down into your container. Maybe if you use a long handled spoon? Shouldn’t be any problem with your long flat container. I may try that myself next year. I like the idea of not having to save up milk jugs. But hey, gives me a good way to recycle them. Yeah, yeah, I know, I can put them out in the blue bin for the truck to haul away. But who knows what they do with them once they get round the corner .

    • #gloria: I cut my milk jugs around the middle (in half) and leave a a few inches in tact to create an easy-open hinged lid.

      • ~gloria says:

        Yep, Suzanne, I do the same. I started with a pc. of duct tape to hold the top down, but quickly gave that up and just pushed the hinged top down over the edges of the bottom, stays put pretty well. When I use 2 lit. pop bottles, I cut the top half off completely and wedge it down over the bottom instead of hinging it. When I want to plant the seedlings I just cut down the bottom halves on one side of jug or bottle and slide the babies right out.

  4. Tigersmom says:

    This level of gardening is way beyond me. I find it fascinating how people can coax beautiful foods and flowers from mere seeds. I realize that if I just try it, the seed wants to grow and would probably grow for me, but I’m not up for the level of commitment to tend it these days. Any recommendations for things that thrive on neglect or are those just called “weeds?”

    That being said you can rest easy knowing that all your readers won’t be disappointed with a post about something shiny. Anything shiny.

  5. Hmmm interesting! and reminds me that I need tomato seeds for the greenhouse!

  6. Sandy says:

    This is a great idea and I will be trying it next winter. Thank you.

  7. Karin says:

    OMG! You saved me! I just winter sowed some tomatoes and beets per your suggestion and totally forgot to poke drainage holes! Now I have to figure out how to make the holes without completely trashing everything.

  8. Jody says:

    We get a lot of snow here.(Michigan’s upper peninsula) if I try this next year do I need to dig them out every time we get a few feet of snow overnight so they get the light?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Jody – No you don’t need to worry about brushing off the snow. In the middle of winter the seeds are just dormant anyway. If it happens to snow in the spring chances are the snow on them will just melt (and water the seeds) within a day or so. ~ karen!

  9. Luanne says:

    So… the beets that you start early. How much earlier do you have mature beets than you would otherwise?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Luanne – I get beets MUCH earlier by starting and transplanting them. A good month and a half earlier. Part of the reason is they have a head start and part of the reason is they like to grow in cool weather. So the head start allows them a longer growing period in the cooler weather as opposed to the heat of summer. ~ karen!

  10. karol says:

    You lost me at “sowing” which reminds me of “sewing” and I hate the thought of both of those things. Have a nice day, though.

  11. Sideroad 40 says:

    Hey Karen, we’re on the same wavelength this year. I am also trying winter sowing for the first time….what a winter to pick! I’m about two hours north of you in a colder gardening zone where there is STILL 3 ft of snow on the ground. I’ve used recycled clear rectangle lettuce containers and some bonus ‘butterfly’ shaped recycled fruit trays – great cuz they are already divided into small sections. I ALSO have backup grow lights in the house. (cuz I’m afraid….very afraid….)

  12. Cred says:

    Any tips on keeping them from blowing away? I tried winter sowing one year and the wicked winter wind destroyed my experiment. If I try it at this point, I may have better luck- less crazy storms at this stage- although, who knows this year!

  13. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    Thanks for the tip on helping the tomatoes to self pollinate..I want lots this year cause I want to make and can some sauces..but then..I tend to be distracted by shiny objects too..and butterflys..

  14. Auntiepatch says:

    I’ve never heard of shaking the tomato plants before! I will have to try that! Although, now that I think of it, the squirrels do a lot of shaking of my tomato plants……

  15. “combined with a particularly pissy Mother…” is what came up on my email feed, and I was wondering why you were pissed with your Mother, given that she brought you on a holiday to Thailand!!! So, I came over here, and I discover it’s Mother Nature!
    Now gotta go back to the beginning to read your post!

  16. Jenn says:

    What kind of soil are you using for your seed planting? Soil always confuses me, too many choices!

  17. Arianne says:

    I’m sorry… but… bags of milk? BAGS?? How does that even work??

  18. Tanya H. says:

    I put out a few containers late last month. No movement yet, but I’m anxious now that temps are slooowly rising.

  19. Ellen says:

    I found out about winter sowing also and went out and begged, borrowed and stole empty milk cartoons. AND THEN I went to a seed starting meeting, told the speaker that I was trying winter sowing and she said her talk would show me that it will not work. Let me tell you, I almost attacked her with my pen. So this better work because I need want to prove to her that it does. I’ll take pictures and tack them up all over town. So There………. (several people told me that something I was attempting would never work and that got me pretty damn riled up)!!! Oh, and I get distracted by EVERYTHING!!!

    • Karen says:

      Well, I have seeds growing like crazy outside right now that says otherwise, lol. Granted they aren’t plants yet. They don’t even have their first set of true leaves, but I’m 100 percent sure this will work. The tomatoes and peppers are the only thing that frighten me a bit. Maybe she was just afraid to not look like she was “in the know”. ~ karen!

  20. Alice Hinther says:

    Ok, I’m trying this! Great idea. And thanks for the tip about shaking the tomato plants!

  21. Robin says:

    Sounds like a great idea, but living on the “wet coast” I think my seeds would drown! So I’ll stick to buying small tomato plants or getting them gifted to me by my green-thumb of a mom!!!
    The only thing I have good luck with sowing inside is cat grass for my two beautiful Siberian Forest Cats! Lucky for them I can grow that inside….or more to the point, lucky me, as they are indoor cats and it usually means less hairball shaped presents left for me on the stairs when I have bare feet!

  22. caarin says:

    I’d be inconsolable without winter sowing. This year has been stupidly cold here in MN, so I’ve had everything inside until now. Babies sprouting everywhere! I raid and stockpile the recycling and use every clear plastic jug I can find, and milk jugs. Works great! Greens will get leggy without enough light though so I pop the lids off when it’s warm enough and keep them watered. Good luck!

  23. Susan Croteau says:

    I was very excited to find your site.. I was wondering about just using a tote and planting directly into it.. You wouldn’t believe how many sites I went to before finding yours. Can you tell me how well they did in the tote? I am super excited about this winter sowing. Thanks!

  24. Michiel says:

    I was just wondering how this turned out… Since I don’t think I really saw a follow up post, or I might have overlooked it. Any tips after trying it? What failed and what worked? 🙂

    • Karen says:

      Hi Michiel – It worked out great. I thought I did a follow up post, but maybe not! All the seeds started outdoors did well. The beets and lettuces were all ready to pick much earlier than the ones I sowed directly outside later. ~ karen!

  25. Nicole says:

    I have been reading this post about winter sowing. I am so interested in trying this!! I have been gardening for over 20yrs and have a large veggie/fruit garden that produces enough to can/freeze or dehydrate to last the winter months. But, I have never tried this! However, I was wondering when do I plant and place outside? I live in your area. I noticed you posted it in April but was not sure if that is when you actually put the containers outside. Thanks!!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Nicole! You can actually put the containers outside whenever you want. The freezing won’t harm the seeds and as soon as the temperature / sun level gets to the point that the seeds can germinate, they will. Keeping the lid on the container ensures the seedlings stay warm inside by creating a microclimate. I think most people who do winter sowing put their seeds out around February. It’s a weird little trick isn’t it?! ~ karen

  26. Luanne says:

    I’m going kookoo loco bananapuffs for spring. I think I’m going to start some Shasta daisies and moon flowers using this method. And I think I’ll do it this weekend, just so that I can feel like I’m being spring-y.

  27. Stefanie says:

    I am fairly new to gardening in general, but I am itching to get going (even though the ground is blanketed with snow – or maybe especially so!). I want to try winter sowing some of my vegetables. When transplanting the winter sown seedlings, how do you separate them without damaging the roots? Do you need to plant them, then thin them, as one would for indoor plantings?

  28. joani says:

    would like to know about doing winter sowing in northern ca. one minute its snowing then its up to 60/65 degrees this is so crazy. Will it work

    • Karen says:

      You have 60/65 degrees in Northern Canada?! I’m in Southern Ontario and we haven’t seen anything above freezer for 2 months, lol. 28 of the past 30 days have had extreme cold warnings. The method should still work no matter the fluctuating weather. Have fun! It’s a great way to get started early on seeds. I’ll also be giving a seed starting live video course in a few weeks if you’re interested. ~ karen!

  29. joani says:

    Karen I meant northern californiaLOL also would I have to water during these warm spells

    • Karen says:

      Oh! LOL!! Big difference there. 🙂 It should work fine for you too, but you have to worry more about cooking the seedlings than other people. (make sure they have lots of holes for ventilation and as soon as the temps are regularly over 50 degrees take the lids off. 🙂 ~ karen!

  30. joani says:

    thanks Karen will let you know IF I’VE COOKED THEM ALREADY HAHA

  31. Carol McDonald says:

    Thanks!I love to experiment in the garden. I have been growing in hay bales this year. Very interesting. Think I will try this this year. Will it work with cabbage and broccoli?

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