2021 Winter Sowing (A start!)

Gorgeous, but I won’t be gardening anytime soon…

I didn’t wintersow anything last winter. Just didn’t have the energy or organization to do it, but we had a successful gardening season nonetheless, adding lots of new gardening space and getting our unheated hoop house rebuilt.

Now that I have some successes to build on, I’m ready to jump into gardening again as soon as I can.

Except… my last frost date isn’t until June 1st. Some years, the weather is kind to us, and I can start planting in mid to late May. Last year, we had frost on May 30th…

…After I’d already planted over 40 tomato plants. Thanks to row covers and cloches and cardboard boxes that we popped over them just for the night, we managed to not lose a single one.

Cold climate gardening: not for the faint of heart.

So I’m still a bit away from planting time. And it’s even too early here to start seeds indoors. What I can do now, though, is winter sow.

The basics of winter sowing are that you plant up recycled containers like milk jugs or juice bottles by sowing seeds of everything from herbs to vegetables (tender plants shouldn’t be started until you get closer to your frost-free date) and set your winter sown jugs out in your yard, in a sunny spot, relying on the fact that your seeds know when to germinate, and will do so when the time is right.

It’s a godsend for people who don’t have a lot of room indoors to start all of their seedlings. And for those of us who have long winters and a desperate need to play with seeds and soil in January.

What I Winter Sow

I do have lights set up inside, and I start a good number of my seedlings indoors. All of my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squashes, basils, and many annuals get their start in my kitchen or in the hallway/workroom off of the kitchen under lights.

But, I have a whole bunch of gardening space, and high expectations. I need more space to start more plants.

This is where winter sowing comes in for me. And there are two specific things I start via winter sowing: herbs and perennials.

I’m working toward turning the area around our house into a wildlife garden, mostly planted with drought-tolerant perennials. I also have a nice-sized (and ever-expanding) herb garden and a cut flower garden.

Perennials often take a LONG time to germinate, and even if they do, they can sometimes be a bit difficult to start indoors, especially those that need a period of cold stratification. The beauty of winter sowing is that it takes care of that for you. Think of a seed falling to the ground from a plant that self-sows. It goes through its cold strat during the winter, and when the time is right, it germinates in your garden.

Winter sowing just gives you some control over where those plants are going to go after they germinate. Veggies are easy for me and because I am an obsessed veggie gardener, that’s what gets babies under the lights in my house.

Herbs and flowers? Winter sown.

My Setup, and Why I Do It This Way

Experienced winter sowers will take one look at the way I do it and say “that’s not winter sowing!”

No milk jugs in my yard, sitting under a blanket of snow.

My jugs (really, half-jugs, since I only use the bottoms) are stacked on a shelf in my unheated hoop house. There are a few reasons I do it this way.

A green wire mesh shelf in an unheated polytunnel holds several recycled containers holding soil and seeds.
One shelf of my containers. These are mostly flowers, though a few herbs are mixed in.

First of all, I have the hoop house and I will make any excuse to go sit in there in the middle of winter when I can’t be in my garden.

Secondly, by this time of year, my garden is usually under a couple feet of snow. I’d be setting my jugs on snow banks and hoping for the best, especially anywhere where it’s sunny enough to keep them happy.

Thirdly, I have all manner of wild animals around here. Coyotes, foxes, bears, skunks, rabbits, deer… curious twelve year olds… You name it, I have it here. It’s likely they’d leave my jugs alone, but why risk it if I don’t have to?

More recycled containers, filled with seeds and soil.
The rest of my current winter sown containers. There will be at least 10 more out there before I’m finished.

Finally, I can give them the same thing they’re getting sitting out in the snow. Yeah, they won’t actually get snowed or rained on. But it’s cold in the unheated hoop house, so they’re going through their cold strat. I’m in there every day or two checking on the kale and mache I’m growing (and knocking snow off of the plastic of the hoophouse…) so they’re not going to dry out. They’ll germinate when they’re ready, and I can baby them a little when they do. This makes me feel better about the process, and it just feels less chaotic than regular wintersowing.

I have four kids. I don’t need chaos from my seed sowing, you feel me?

What I’ve Planted So Far

  • Purple Coneflower
  • Motherwort
  • Stinging Nettle
  • Hollyhock
  • Chamomile
  • Bells of Ireland
  • Daylily
  • Lavatera
  • Calendula

Do you wintersow using this method? If so, what do you sow?

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