by Connie Oswald Stofko
Winter sowing is great because it gives us gardeners in Western New York something to do when it’s cold and snowy out. You plant hardy seeds in old milk jugs or other containers and set the containers outside now. The seeds will know when they should sprout in the spring.
This is also great if you want to start lots of seeds, but don’t have as much room inside on your window sills as you would like.
Note: It’s too early to start seeds inside now. The seeds will germinate, but the sprouts will get leggy and weak before you are able to transplant them outside.
Will opaque milk jugs work for winter sowing?
I had first tried winter sowing a few years ago with the translucent milk jugs that we used to get in stores around here. Find the directions for the milk jug greenhouse here.
I had good results, but wasn’t sure if it would work with the newer opaque milk jugs, so I tried it last winter.
This does work with opaque milk jugs!
I tried it last winter and by spring I had tomato seedlings. I worried that they were coming up later than they should, but our spring was cold, so they were probably on time.
I’m not sure why it worked with the opaque milk jug, but it did. When the top and bottom halves of the opaque jug were closed, they didn’t fit together as neatly as they did on the translucent milk jug. Maybe that let in enough light for the sprouts.
Other containers for winter sowing
If you don’t trust the idea of using containers that are opaque, there are lots of other options.
From a neighbor, I got a transparent jug that had contained some kind of juice. That container that would work well for winter sowing. (You can see it here cut in a different way to form a mini greenhouse to protect a seedling in an early spring garden.)
Reader Phyllis Lobbins uses the containers that come with baby spinach leaves, spring mix or other lettuce mixes. She also uses the larger strawberry containers and some take-out containers. Other people use two-liter pop bottles, water jugs and the containers for leftovers with the colored translucent lids. As long as the container holds two to three inches of soil and has a transparent or semi-translucent top, it can be used, she said.
“After a while you start looking at all these bottles and storage containers and think, ‘Hmm, I can use that for winter sowing,’ Lobbins said. “Then you know you’re hooked! Some people online even talk about raiding their neighbor’s recycling bins!”
You might want to think about adding holes for air ventilation to some of these containers. With the milk jugs, I left the cap off, which provided plenty of air circulation. However, if you’re using a container with a tight-fitting lid, I would suggest poking holes in it to allow air to circulate.
Many people suggest poking holes in the bottom of your container for water drainage. I didn’t do that when I used milk jugs and it worked fine.
What kind of seeds can you use for winter sowing?
Anything that will sprout from your compost pile is a good contender. I’ve had tomato plants and cantaloupe plants show up in my garden where I didn’t plant them– The seeds had been tossed on the compost pile and the seeds germinated where I had spread the compost.
Another group of plants that are good for this technique are self sowers. If you have a plant that drops seeds onto your flower bed, and the next year you get more plants growing from those seeds, you should be able to use that kind of seed in winter sowing.
Some seeds that are good for winter sowing include:
- Squash, including zucchini
That’s just a short list; there are many seeds that can be used in winter sowing. When you’re looking at your seed packet, there are certain words or phrases that indicate it would be a good candidate.
Some of these phrases are:
- Self-sown, reseeds
- Will colonize
- Can be direct sown early
- Seedlings can withstand frost
- Sow outdoors in late autumn, early winter or late winter
- Sow outdoors in early spring while nights are still cold or cool
- Needs pre-chilling, freeze seeds, refrigerate seeds, stratify for x number of days or needs stratification
Have you tried winter sowing? What was your experience like? Please leave a comment.