Winter Sowing for the First Time

>> Sunday, February 1, 2009

This year will be the first time I do the winter sowing thing. I first learned of it last year from Kylee of Our Little Acre and have been itching to try it ever since.

I was in the process of picking up some pointers and stumbled upon the iVillage Garden Web Forums on Winter Sowing when I was reminded how important it is to thoroughly wet your soil before putting it into containers.

When I first began starting seeds indoors I learned this lesson after seeing all of my seeds and soil go floating off without any regard as to where it was all supposed to stay. If you have had the same problem you know what a complete mess you can end up with. Plus, it makes you feel like a total rookie.

Anyway, to prevent any future embarrassing moments I quickly realized that wetting the soil before I put it into the peat pots or starting trays is the way to go. And winter sowing is no different. I used any container large enough to hold most if not all of the soil I needed. I now use one of those Homer’s 5-gallon buckets from Home Depot. These are very versatile and easy to use. Start by pouring about an inch of water in it and then pour about 6-8” of potting mix. Thoroughly mix the stuff together with a trowel, or by hand if you feel like being a real gardening geek like me, You know you’re going to make a mess anyway, so why not enjoy it.

Then I pour in a little more potting mix and add a little more water, mix thoroughly and repeat until I have enough very damp mix for my containers. About the consistency of mud pies works great. Not those lame watery, runny pies, but something you would be proud to serve at a tea party. What can I say, I grew up with four sisters, so I know mud pies.

This method works so much better than my first experience.

The thing about winter sowing that so intrigues me is that the containers you use can be anything that was once used for something else. This so perfectly matches my philosophy of recycle and re-use. Milk jugs, two-liter soda bottles, salad take-out containers, and big plastic jars (the kind pretzels come in at warehouse clubs) are all popular winter sowing containers. The only real requirement is that the container be large enough to hold at least three inches of soil and it must have head room for the growing plants. Drainage holes should be cut into the bottom, and air transpiration holes or slits should be cut into the top of the container.

In order to get the plants in the containers you have to cut the containers to about half way making a top and a bottom. You can make them deeper but you really don’t need that much soil. The one thing I am not completely set on is the hinge. Some people say they cut the container completely through while others leave top and bottom attached to create a hinge. Why do you need to hinge? Maybe it’s because it would be easier to tape it all together if they are not two separate parts. I really haven’t discovered any other reason.

Just like when starting trays of plants, you can either place peat pots or other small containers within each larger container or you can just fill the container with soil and set your seeds. I found these square peat pots fits four perfectly in a gallon milk jugs. However you want to do it, once you have the soil and seeds or containers and seeds in place, tape the top portion to the bottom to make the container whole again. Save the lids in case you want to prevent rain or snow melt from getting inside, you don’t want to over-water everything.

When setting the containers outside, don’t place them under awnings or overhangs where melting snow might over-water them. When spring rains arrive you will want to again protect them from being over-watered. Condensation build-up inside is a good thing. If there is no condensation, it either means that you have too many transpiration holes (tape over some of them if this is the case) or your soil is drying out. If the soil is drying out, use a spray bottle to gently mist the inside of the container through the top opening, you don’t want to disturb seed placement. As spring arrives, and the air warms up, your transpiration holes should be made bigger and bigger, until you remove the top of your container entirely. This is the winter sowing way to “harden off” your plants. After they are hardened off, simply plant your transplants out in the garden.

The whole thing makes sense when you realize that mother nature sprouts seeds outdoors without the help of fluorescent tubes and heating mats and seedling trays. The seeds will sprout when all the conditions are just right.

If the jugs start drying out, set them in a larger container of water and wait until the soil surface begins to get wet, a bit time consuming, especially if you have a lot of containers. I have seen suggestions of using a kiddie pool, but who fills one these with water in the winter? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’m betting on using the kitchen sink or bath tub. If you have a garden hose attachment with a mister nozzle, smooth gentle spray, then you can use that as long as it fits into the top of the container. Of course, I’m picturing a milk jug here.

In this first experiment I started Thunbergia White-eyed Susie, Sweet Pea Winter flowering Navy Blue and Mammoth Mix, Rosemary, and Marigold Cracker Jack Mix. I will add more later as I find more containers, I have already put the word out to neighbors and friends. If they don’t start their own seeds this way I should have more soon.

I found listings of plants that can be winter sown and honestly the list of seeds that are NOT good candidates is much shorter. The seeds that would probably not work as well would be those seeds that start easily by direct sowing, such as beans and peas, and those that don’t transplant well, such as root crops.

Some of the seeds I am using this year are leftover from last year but over my years of gardening experience I have seen many plant seedlings that I would have bet would never re-sprout or volunteer themselves in the strangest places, some far away from where they grew the previous year. So not much surprises me any more. My advice is to experiment. If you aren't sure something will winter sow well, just put a few seeds in a container and see what happens. What do you have to lose?

In reading about how others are doing this I found that some people set their containers outside a couple of weeks ago, in zone 5! Yikes! I really need to get this thing going.

I also started some other seedlings the conventional way because we want these for eating sooner. Radishes Helios Yellow and Purple Plum, Lettuce Little Gem, Chives Garlic, and Basil.

Next on my checklist of things to do before spring is to buy more seeds, get more containers, widen my current plots, build trellises. You see, it’s always something.


Petunia's Gardener February 1, 2009 at 7:12 PM  

I'll have to see if I have some square pots that will fit in the milk jugs. I've geen just putting the soil directly in the milk jug (w/a few drainage holes), but then end up with tangled roots to separate. For some plants, it isn't so bad, but for others, I think the pots would work well. I'll be winter sowing soon.

found you from Maton's site.

Greg W February 1, 2009 at 8:26 PM  

Welcome petunia, I used to start seeds without pots and got tired of fighting the tangle and sometimes destroyed some plants, I am such a klutz.

Peat pots have worked well for me and I'm intrigued by pots made from newspaper so I might try some of those too.

Thanks for stopping by.

graceandkate February 9, 2009 at 9:26 PM  

I am happy you exist. I am attempting for the ohh 8th time to garden my little plot. I have my seeds, milk jugs, DHs old 44oz refill cups full of dirt, an sitting in a tray. Hopefully following you, this time around, will help my bed of weeds produce FOOD! :)

Greg W February 11, 2009 at 7:30 PM  

Welcome, so far everything looks good. I had to put the lids back for the last two days as it has been raining/snowing and I don't want the pots to get too filled up with water.

Nothing popping up just yet but if keeping my fingers crossed helps, maybe they will soon.

Hope you have better luck this time. Keep me up to date as to how you are doing. Would love to know.


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