Get a Jump Start on Gardening with Winter Sowing

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Winter sowing may be the perfect solution for gardeners who want to get a head start on the growing season! It’s too early to start seeds indoors in my growing zone 5b, but it is not too late to get a jump start on gardening by winter sowing.

snow covered garden and garden shed

Get a Jump Start on Gardening with Winter Sowing

Winter sowing is a method of planting seeds outdoors during the winter months. If you’re desperate to garden, here’s what you can do during the winter to still be productive!

The term “winter sowing” was coined by Trudi Davidoff, who discovered how well the method works when she planted seeds in takeout containers and moved them outside during the winter.

The seeds germinated quite easily, sparking a growing movement of winter sowing gardeners! While the method is likely much older, Davidoff is credited with spreading awareness about the technique. In 2006, the USDA added the term to the National Agricultural Library Thesaurus.

Once you try it for yourself, you’ll see why this gardening method has become so popular.

volunteer plants in the garden (2) (1)

How Winter Sowing Works

Winter sowing is very simple. I like to call it the lazy person’s way to start garden seeds! It’s also very frugal – you don’t need a lot of supplies – it really just takes a little bit of time.

You’re basically taking advantage of the seeds’ natural characteristics – in this case, winter dormancy and cold stratification. Seeds respond to cold by going dormant. In fact, some seeds need the cold stratification to go dormant before they’ll germinate.

The freezing process weakens the seeds’ hard outer shell, so it’s easier for them to germinate. Winter sowing is simply planting seeds outdoors in the winter, even in temperatures below freezing.

You can plant seeds in containers to transplant into beds later or directly in the ground. Using containers is a good idea, because you essentially build little warming greenhouses, are able to label everything, and keep your plants more organized.

After winter has passed, the weather warms up, and the ground starts to thaw, the seeds begin sprouting. Voila – you have seedlings started with minimal effort! You’ve probably noticed this process in your garden already!

If you have plants (even weeds, unfortunately) that are self-seeding, they tend to come back the next year as volunteer plants without any work on your part. Every year, I have sunflowers self-seed every year, as well as radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and more! I love volunteers in my garden because it’s less work for me!

seedlings in plastic container (1)

When Should You Start Seeds Outdoors in Winter

Winter sowing can happen anytime after the Winter Solstice. Some seeds, mostly flowers, need cold stratification to germinate. That means, they have to spend a several months in cold, moist temperatures to germinate. Many flowers, shrubs, trees, and perennials require cold stratification to grow well.

Plants that require cold stratification can be put outside in cold weather, or they can be stored in the fridge too. American Meadows can walk you through the cold stratification process for many native wildflowers, if you’re curious.

Most cold weather vegetables that will benefit from winter sowing don’t need cold stratification though, so you can use this winter sowing guide right up until a few weeks before your last average frost date if you want! That means you can get started right now!!

Benefits of Sowing Seeds Outdoors in the Winter

Winter sowing offers several benefits to gardeners, such as:

  • You can get a head start on your garden without taking up a bunch of space in your home. Starting seeds indoors is another way to get ahead, but you need a lot of room for seeds trays.
  • Seeds planted in winter will germinate easily.
  • You can winter sow seeds in containers to keep things organized and to be able to move them around as needed.
  • You don’t need to purchase a lot of equipment for winter sowing.
  • You save on energy that you might have to use for supplemental lighting when starting seeds indoors.

Supplies for Starting Seeds Outdoors in the Winter

If you’re going to sow your seeds in containers, you want to be sure to only use containers that will hold up over the cold winter months.  You can winter sow seeds in almost anything, but the key is what you do with them over winter.

  • Containers for planting. Recycled cans, plastic milk containers or water jugs, take out containers, and plastic soda bottles work well.
  • Potting starting mix
  • Labels
  • Seeds

You might also want to have a table or stand outside to keep your containers in, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

How to Make Miniature Greenhouses

Some gardeners make mini greenhouses for their winter sowing. This project is very easy and costs very little money. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Cut a plastic gallon milk jug in half so that it has a top and a bottom.
  2. Remove the cap.
  3. Punch drainage holes in the bottom half using a hammer and punch. Also punch a few holes in the top so that rain and snow can water your greenhouse for you.
  4. Fill the bottom with potting mix and plant your seeds!
  5. Label the top half with the type of seeds you planted and any other info you want to have.
  6. Tape the milk jug back together and place it outside.
  7. In the spring, monitor your greenhouses for growth and keep the soil moist.

Kevin Lee Jacobs from A Garden For The House shared this tutorial on his website. In the spring, he also recommends uncovering the seedlings to give them more light during the day. When the seedlings are mature enough, you can transplant them into your garden beds.

transplanting seedlings

Transplanting Winter Sown Seedlings into Containers

When it’s time to  transplant winter seedlings from containers to outside raised beds, here’s what you should do.

  1. In your prepared garden beds, dig out the right sized holes for planting.
  2. Be sure to include plenty of space between each hole so your plants won’t be crowded as they grow. Yes, your garden might look a bit “sparse” at first but it will be well worth it in the long run when your plants don’t have to compete for light and nutrients.
  3. Use a spoon to carefully “dig” out a seedling. Be careful not to disturb the other seedlings around it.
  4. Place one seedling in each hole and gently secure it in place with soil.
  5. Water carefully.

Tips for a Successful Winter Seed Sowing Experience

If you want your winter sowing to be successful, these are some things you should keep in mind:

  • Use fresh, high quality potting soil.
  • Label your containers so you know what’s germinating in the spring. Here are 20 cute and easy diy garden markers you can make easily at home!
  • Place your greenhouses or containers somewhere they’ll get rain water in the spring.
  • Use hardy seeds and follow planting directions on the seed packets.
  • Don’t transplant your winter sown seedlings too early. Wait until they’re mature enough to survive the move.

Winter Sowing Vegetables

Not all plants will succeed when sown in winter. For example, tropical seeds won’t survive freezing temperatures, but cold hardy vegetables and greens are perfect for starting outdoors in winter.  Here are just some of the winter sowing vegetables you can try that have a good chance of success:

  • Carrots
  • Swiss chard
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Radishes
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Lettuce
  • Beets
  • Parsley
marigold seedlings

Winter Sowing Flowers

You’re not limited to vegetables when it comes to sowing seeds in the winter, either. Many flowers do well with this method, including alyssum, sweet peas, milkweed, poppies, calendula, and petunias.

If you’re going to have just one gardening trick up your sleeve, winter sowing should be it. There’s no easier or more inexpensive way to start a lot of plants for your garden. For just a few dollars worth of soil and seeds, plus some recycled containers, you can have literally hundreds of plants if you want to!

The savings go even further if you’re planting your own heirloom seeds. If you end up with more plants than you need, you can sell them, give them away, or trade with other gardeners. Give it a try this winter and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.Have you ever tried winter sowing?

What plants have you successfully grown with this method? Share your tips in the comments below!

About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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