A few years back, my dear neighbor mentioned the concept of winter sowing to me. He said I could start seeds in old plastic jugs, leave them outside in the dead of winter, and they would take care of themselves. What?? I was a bit incredulous. I mean, up until then I had allowed my entire dining room table to be overtaken by growing lights and trays of seedlings – which, for all my efforts, would often get spindly. And somewhere along the way, I would overwater my precious scores of tomato plants, and they would turn yellow and wilt. And then most of the leaves would drop. And then the remaining leaves would get kind of gray and yucky looking – zombie plants we called them. They looked the part and did indeed crawl back from near death. At which point I planted these gray-green, spindly creatures in the garden because I couldn’t waste all that effort! And these plants, although courageous, were weakened from the start, and their yields were low. Sob. Ok, that only happened once. Well, twice I think. Regardless, I was intrigued by this method that takes no indoor space and barely requires watering! What’s more, supposedly these plants would be robust, not spindly! That was about four years ago, and I have been completely won over by the winter-sowing method ever since. It’s like the good news of the [gardening] year to hear that you can start seeds with no equipment and very little attention given until it’s nearly time to transplant.
Also, there are no timetables to worry about – you can plant a few seeds here and there at any time throughout the winter. The seeds will sit and wait patiently – through freezing temperatures and snow storms, under layers of ice and snow. When the time is right, they will sprout, and all that came before will not phase them in the least. These little seedlings will grow into strong, stocky plants accustomed to outdoor living, ready at a moment’s notice to move to their garden home. What’s more, we can get our hands in the dirt in February, or any other winter month, when we can totally use the therapy – planting those humble seeds with a prayer and dreaming of the warmth and green that is almost, kind of, hopefully *right* around the corner. So, with well wishes to your coming year of growth, here are my no-fuss instructions for winter sowing those seeds of promise!
- Containers – Save any clear plastic jugs or bottles from milk, juice, soda, etc. The semi-opaque milk jugs will also work, as long as some light can filter through the plastic. Opaque milk and juice containers like the white plastic ones will not work. Rinse the bottles out with hot water and a bit of soap. You do not need to save the caps. For planning purposes, a 2-liter pop bottle holds one to two plants, and a gallon milk jug will hold 3-4 plants.
- Dirt – The simplest solution is to get a bag of potting soil such as Miracle Grow – it will have the needed nutrients and moisture control. I like to use organic methods as much as possible, but beware – just because a bagged soil says “organic” doesn’t mean it will work well. I’ve been majorly disappointed by very woody organic “potting soil” that did not support the growth of the seedlings at all. If you want to go organic, consider a 1:3 mix of vermiculite to an organic compost including manure. If the bag looks woody when you open it, return it to the store. “Seed starting” soil will not work well because it isn’t intended for supporting growth much beyond small seedlings.
- Seeds – I have had success with all types of plants – tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, herbs, squash, melons, okra, etc. Some sources say to look for seeds that do well in cool weather, but in my experience, the field is wide open. I haven’t bothered with peas and beans because they do so well with direct-seeding into the garden. I also haven’t done root vegetables like carrots, radishes and onions because they are delicate and would be difficult to transplant. But whatever you are inclined to try – I say go for it! If you are looking for a source for seeds, I am literally a giddy fan of Seed Savers Exchange – a nonprofit that propagates over 20,000 heirloom, organic varieties of seed on their Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, protecting the biodiversity of our world’s food! You can order online or request a free catalog – seedsavers.org.
- Cut your bottles and jugs around the middle, about 4-5 inches from the bottom. Leave a one-inch “hinge” so that you can open and close the jug. A good place to do this with milk jugs is at the handle.
- Poke four holes in the bottom of the jug for drainage.
- Fill the container with 3-4 inches of soil (deeper the soil will allow the plants to grow slightly larger before outgrowing their space, so if you want a little more leeway as to transplanting time, plan for deeper soil).
- Soak the soil, allowing the excess water to drain out the bottom.
- Place seeds on top of the soil – up to four per gallon milk jug, and two per 2-liter pop bottle (as with the soil depth, fewer seeds will leave more space and resources for the plants to grow slightly larger before needing to transplant).
- Cover the seeds with soil according to the planting depth indicated on the seed’s packaging. So a melon seed that is supposed to be planted 1/2 inch deep should be covered with 1/2 inch of soil. Pat down the soil to ensure good contact with the seeds.
- Close and secure the container with duct tape, and place outside in a sunny spot open to precipitation. Here in the northern hemisphere, a south-facing side of the house just out from under the eaves works great. The south side of the house will heat up with the sun and offer a slightly warmer environment than other equally sunny spots.
- At this point, you can completely forget about your plants until early spring. As the weather warms up, you will have fun peeking in to check for those first emerging sprouts. Once the seedlings have sprouted, check them every so often for moisture. A good sign that they have enough water is if you see condensation on the containers. If they look dry, either open the containers up to water them (and the re-close), or gently water through the openings in the top of the containers.
- Once the plants grow tall enough to touch the top of the container, open the containers up. At this point, you will have to pay closer attention to watering, as they will dry out more quickly. Also, without their protective dome, they will be less protected from cold nights, so if there happens to be a spring frost in the overnight forecast, carefully cover them with a sheet, towels or a blanket.
- Transplant your plants to the garden according to planting timetables – cool-weather crops will be ready to go earlier than their heat-loving comrades.
If you’ve toyed with starting a garden, this is a great first step! And let me just say, I am *so* excited for the upcoming growing season and to share an increasing number of garden-related information as we go. Starting this blog last fall meant that there wasn’t much opportunity to share about growing, but now we are coming up on a new year, so it is the perfect time for you to jump in. I believe growing a garden, however small it may be, connects us with our food and the land in meaningful ways – improving everything from our nutrition to our attitudes toward our food (children especially open up to new foods when they grow and pick them on their own). So stay tuned for more tutorials, ideas and seasonal recipes – it’s going to be a great year!
Don’t have a garden space yet? I recommend checking out lasagna gardening – it’s a great way to control weeds, maintain nutrient-dense soil, and get started without having to rototill your lawn!