Gardening is about continually learning. Learning from the garden, learning from other gardeners, learning from Mother Nature. You never want to stop trying new things or shaking things up a bit to see if there is a better way to do something. With this in mind I decided to give winter sowing a try for the first time this year.
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So what is winter sowing? It is basically the process of stuffing your seeds outdoors in some makeshift little “greenhouses” before it seems civilized to do so. I tend to take a survival of the fittest approach to gardening so this was right up my alley. There are some definite benefits to winter sowing so let’s take a quick look at what they are.
6 Benefits of winter sowing seeds
1 – It’s easy
This is like set it and forget it level of easy. Once the seeds are nestled in their new homes you just pop them outside and wait for spring when you can gloriously open them up and see your new plant babies.
2 – You can do it in winter when you are dying to plant something
This is seriously a problem for gardeners. Right around the end of January I start to lose my mind and a lot of money due to extravagant seed purchases. So what better time than to get your hands in the dirt again and start planting some seeds. It also distracted me from said seed purchases for a little bit too. If your curious how bad my seed buying was (80+ new seed packages) you can check out my seed haul video here.
3 – You don’t need any special gear
This is probably one of the BIGGEST benefits of winter sowing seeds. In order to start your seeds indoors you are going to need seed trays (or solo cups), seed starting mix, grow lights, heat maps to name a few. All of that can get expensive, you also need space to house all this stuff. The amount of space needed increases as the seedlings grow and may need to be potted up. If you don’t have space then that may heat meant that starting your own seeds was never an option.
If this is the case for you, then winter sowing could be a great option to allow you to start your own seeds even with the lack of space. Growing from seed opens up so many more varieties to you than you could get at even the best nursery. I would strongly recommend heirloom seeds, if you want to know why you can check out my post on 5 reasons to grow heirloom seeds.
4 – You don’t need to harden off
I hate hardening off. Seriously. Having to drag a gazillion plants outside and inside for about a week is a pain in the butt. That said, I do it every year as it is a necessity when you start plants indoors. With winter sowing you get to skip this step as the plants have germinated outside exposed to the sun and fluctuating temperatures.
5 – Less seedling starting issues
Normally when you start seedlings you have to ensure that your trays are all sterilized and you live in fear of the dreaded damping off. With winter sowing these two concerns drift into the background. Anything that takes damping off down a notch is worth a try in my books.
6 – Hardier plants
According to my research the general consensus is that winer sown plants are hardier than their coddled indoor equivalents. I will be better able to weigh in on this later in the spring/summer when I see the differences between the onions, tomatoes and peppers started indoors vs outdoors.
Now that we have looked at some of the reasons you may want to give winter sowing a try. let’s jump right into how to do it. I have broken it down into 9 steps, but it’s super easy. I just like to make sure I’m not glossing over ay of the details.
Step 1 – Choose your seeds
So what seeds are good for winter sowing? There are definitely seeds that are better suited to winter sowing than others. The best way to identify good candidates are to look for seeds where the seed packet contains words such as:
- Frost hardy
- Cold hardy
- Cold stratify
Some of the things I am trying this year are:
- Brussels sprouts
- “Wild” blueberries
That said even if you have seeds that do NOT say frost hardy, cold hardy, perennial or needing cold stratification give it a try! There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to gardening. I had tomatoes reseed from the previous year and they are definitely frost tender. I am actually planning to try some “winter” sowing of tomato seeds in the early spring. I just want to see if they end up being hardier than the seedlings I start inside.
Step 2 – Choose and prepare your container
Typically in the USA people use milk jugs, but as I am in Canada and my milk comes in bags (weird right?) those were not an option for me. So I opted for the most Canadian thing ever (other than maple syrup) and went with some Clamato containers as well as some other plastic containers otherwise destined for the recycling bin.
Basically as long as it is a clear and sturdy container that has enough room for your seedlings to grow in you should be good. I am trying out different thicknesses of containers as I am always game for an experiment. I was just curious if it will make any noticeable difference, so we will have to wait and see.
DRILL YOU HOLES BEFORE YOU CUT THE CONTAINERS!!!!
Once you have selected your containers the next step is to drill some holes. I opted for a 7/32 drill bit, but I’m not sure it matters too much. You will need to drill holes around the top of the container, on the bottom and in the lid (more about the lids in step 8).
When your holes are all drilled you can go head and cut around the container BUT not all the way around. I left about 2/3 of the container at the bottom and then made my cut to separate the top 1/3. You don’t want the top to detach so make sure you leave at least 1″ on the back to keep the two parts together.
Step 3 – Add soil
Next you will need some soil. When it comes to winter sowing, word on the street is that it is better to use potting soil than seed starting mix. So that is what I opted for, once I play around with the method of seed starting more I will do some experimentation with other growing mediums.
You are going to want to pre-moisten your potting soil in a bowl or bucket. You want it to be wet enough so that if you squeeze a bunch of it in your hand that not much liquid is squeezed out. Also that it holds it’s shape when you open your hand. This is really the ONLY time you are going to add water so you want to make sure to get it wet enough.
Then you will need to add 3-5 inches of soil into the bottom of the container and don’t be afraid to really pack it in there. This is all the nutrients the seeds are going to have so you want to make sure there is enough in there. Additionally, packing the soil in helps to ensure there are no air pockets that could lead to air trimming of the roots.
Step 4 – Plant your seeds
Plant your seeds as you normally would according to their preferred seed depth. Just about every seed packet will tell you the best depth to plant them and if not a quick google search should return that information. A general rule of thumb is that you want to plant them twice as deep as the seed is wide. So basically bigger seeds go deeper than smaller seeds. Once you have them nestled I their new home you can go ahead and sprinkle a light layer of soil on top. Unless of course the seeds should be surface sown, but again the seed package should call this out if it is the case.
Step 5 – Don’t forget to label!
This step is key. Don’t go into this assuming you will remember what is in what container and in what location. Chances are you won’t, unless you are blessed with a photographic memory, which I am not. Also do NOT go and label them with sharpies, the sun will bleach that out faster than you would think. Trust me, I learned this lesson the hard way! I would suggest you pick up a UV resistant garden marker like this one. That is the one I got and I am loving it as well as the fact that it came in a two pack. Garden makers are the unsung heroes of the gardening world.
Step 6 – Water your seeds
Before you seal them in Step 7, we want to give them one last drink. It will help settle them in place and moisten the additional soil you put on top. The water will also help move the added soil into any crevices around the seed.
Step 7 – Seal them up
Once that is all done you can grab some trusted duct tape and go ahead and seal up the cut you made around most of the container. Some people tape it up like duct tape grows on tress. I opted for a more conservative approach and put one piece of tape on each of the cut sides. As I mentioned this is my first year and maybe this is an epic mistake, time will tell. Maybe the idea is to completely seal the cut and restore the container to being whole? But considering we already drilled holes in the container it’s not like it’s a sealed environment anyway.
Step 8 – Lids on (or off)
I opted for lids on with holes drilled in it. I also know that many people are on #teamnolid. My intention is to remove the lids to allow in more rain or snow as we get closer to spring and the seeds start to germinate. All I can suggest is to do some additional research yourself to determine if you are #teamlid or #teamnolid. I am planning a second round of winter sowing closer to spring where I am going to try out tomatoes and peppers which are definitely not normal winter sowing candidates. At that time I will most likely extend the experiment to include tomatoes with lids and tomatoes without lids to see if there is a difference. Damn I love a good experiment!
Remember, there are very few hard and fast rules in the garden. What works for one person may not work for another. Take in information from a variety of sources and try things out in your own garden to determine what best works for you and YOUR garden.
Step 9 – Pop them outside to fend for themselves
At this point you just need to carry out all your containers and place them in a safe space of the garden and wait until spring!