FEBRUARY 10, 2021WINTER SOWING

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GROW YOUR OWN CUTTING GARDEN: SUCCESS FROM SEED TO VASE

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[Note: This post was originally created on January 22, 2019]
When I woke up on Monday morning, it was -9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Yup. -9.

And guess what? I planted seeds on Sunday. In the middle of the winter. No, we don’t have a heated greenhouse and no, I’m not growing the seeds indoors with grow lights.

Instead, I’m using a seed starting method called “Winter Sowing”.

What is Winter Sowing?

Winter Sowing is a method of starting seeds in the winter that does not involve a greenhouse, heat mats or grow lights. This is a fantastic method for people who are tight on space and don’t have room to start seeds indoors.

Winter Sowing is just like it sounds – sowing seeds in the winter! As a general rule, you can begin Winter Sowing around the Winter Solstice (Dec 21) up until early March, depending on where you live.

Here is the basic concept:


1. Choose seeds from plants that are “cold hardy” (I’ll provide a list below).

2. Find a plastic container, such as milk jugs, soda bottles, lettuce “clamshell” containers, vinegar jugs, deep foil pans with clear lids, etc. Tall containers will need to be cut into 2 pieces, so you can access the bottom.

3. Poke drainage holes in the bottom of the container.

4. Fill the container with potting soil and sprinkle seeds on the potting soil.

5. Put the lid/top back on and secure with duct tape. Make sure there are vents for air to escape and rain/snow to enter.

6. Place the containers in your backyard… and wait until spring!


Why Winter Sow?

Depending on where you live, cold hardy annuals are planted either in the fall (climates with mild winters) or the spring (climates with harsh winters).

Hardy annuals best grown as spring or fall flowers. They do NOT like heat and start to decline and die when temperatures rise in the summer.

In my climate (Zone 5b), it’s too cold to plant most hardy annuals in the fall.

If I wait until spring to plant the seeds, there isn’t enough time for the plants to grow and bloom before the heat of summer is upon them! Here in Michigan, it’s not unusual for the weather to fluctuate 60 degrees in a matter of weeks (or days!).

By Winter Sowing the hardy annuals, it means I have sturdy seedlings ready to go in the ground in early spring… which means I can get the plants to bloom before the sweltering heat of summer.

Winter Sowing is also a great way to use up “questionable seeds”, the ones you’ve had laying around for a few year and wonder if they are still good. You really don’t have much to lose… and lots to gain if they DO germinate!

IMPORTANT NOTE: Many people contact me in the middle of winter and ask why their winter sown seeds are not germinating yet. Please note that winter sowing allows the seed to germinate, on their own, at the RIGHT TIME. The main point of winter sowing is tapping into the freeze/thaw cycles that help to break open the casing on the seeds.

Trust the process. The seeds know when conditions are right. You’ll likely notice the seeds begin to germinate when spring bulbs (daffodils, crocus, tulips, etc) begin to emerge.

Orlaya, with Bells of Ireland in the background
Orlaya, with Bells of Ireland in the background

“Cold Hardy” Plants

Not all flowers are a good candidate for Winter Sowing. Generally, it’s best to skip the heat loving plants, like Sunflowers, Zinnias, Celosia, etc. and start those from seed when the weather warms up.

Be sure to look for clues on the seed pack, words like:

  • “hardy”
  • “direct sown as soon as the soil can be worked”
  • “direct sow in early spring”
  • “chill seeds before sowing”
  • “can withstand frost”
Foxglove
Foxglove

Here is a list of “cold hardy annuals” that are good candidates for Winter Sowing. This list is by no means exhaustive!

If you notice certain flowers in your garden tend to “reseed” themselves or “self-sow” year after year, that is a clue that they might be good for Winter Sowing.

Hardy Flowers for Winter Sowing.jpg
Iceland Poppies and Shirley Double Poppies
Iceland Poppies and Shirley Double Poppies

Keys to Success

Basically, the containers are “mini-greenhouses” that will provide your seeds with the right conditions for germination.

There are a few keys to success here:

  • Drainage holes in the bottom
  • Clear or opaque plastic that allows light to enter
  • Vented top/lid to allow HOT air to escape and allow rain/snow inside. On a sunny day, your “greenhouses” will heat up quickly. Overheating/lack of adequate venting is the #1 reason why winter sown plants die – they can fry in hours, unless properly vented. Use a knife to poke holes or cut out vents. If using milk jugs, vinegar jugs, soda bottles, etc., simply remove the cap.
  • Adequate potting soil to retain moisture. You’ll need about 3-4” of soil in each container. Too little soil, and you risk the seedlings drying out quickly on a hot day.
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella)
Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella)
Snapdragons
Snapdragons

Preparing for Winter Sowing

Here is what you need to get started:

  • Cold hardy annual seeds
  • Winter Sowing Containers (milk jugs, vinegar jugs, soda bottles, salad clamshell containers, etc.)
  • Potting Soil (You should be able to find “Seed Starting Mix” at your hardware store)
  • Scissors or X-acto Knife
  • Screwdriver or nail for poking holes in bottom
  • Sharpie marker or labeling marker
  • Labels (Popsicle sticks, plastic plant markers, etc.)
  • Duct Tape
20200115_100517[1].jpg

Here is how to prepare a milk jug Winter Sowing Container:


1. Poke holes in the bottom of the jug for drainage.

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2. Cut the container open, leaving a small section intact, so the two halves are still attached, but you can open up the jug.

20200115_100731%5B1%5D.jpg

3. Fill the bottom half of the jug with 2-4 inches of damp potting soil. Gently tamp it in place.

20200115_111446%5B1%5D.jpg

4. Sprinkle your cold hardy seeds on top of the potting soil. For small seeds, simply press the seeds into the potting soil to ensure good contact. For larger seeds (like sweet peas), sprinkle some additional soil on top of the seeds and press gently.

5. Put the two halves of the milk jug back together and duct tape the halves in place.

6. REMOVE THE CAP from the milk jug. This is the vent that allows hot air to escape and rain/snow to enter.

WANT TO SEE HOW IT’S DONE? WATCH THE SHORT TUTORIAL BELOW.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=zBpvJXq_bJc%3Ffeature%3Dyoutu.be%26wmode%3Dopaque%26enablejsapi%3D1

Use the same method for others jugs/bottles. For clam shell containers (pictured below), simply poke drainage holes in the bottom and cut vents in the lid.

Getting ready to Winter Sow some Bells of Ireland seeds!
Getting ready to Winter Sow some Bells of Ireland seeds!

Put Those Babies Outside!

Once you’ve planted your seeds in your Winter Sowing containers, now comes the easy part!

1. Place the milk jug outside in a place sheltered from the wind (so the jug doesn’t blow away) that receives sunlight.

2. Avoid placing the containers next to the house or under eaves, where rain could pour down and damage or flood the containers.

3. Check on your containers periodically. You want to make sure the containers do not dry out. If the soil is dry, drip a bit of water in the container or heap some snow on it.

Bells of Ireland seeds outside
Bells of Ireland seeds outside

4. Waiting is the hardest part! You may think your experiment has failed, but trust that those seedlings will emerge at just the right time. The constant “freeze/thaw” activity helps the seed casing to break down and allows the seed to germinate. You may find seedlings popping up around the same time you notice tulips and daffodils coming to life.

20180420_182515_HDR.jpg

5. As the seedlings grow and temperatures rise, you may need to add more ventilation. Frying your seedlings is the biggest threat at this point. They need to stay cool. Those mini greenhouses get hot!

5. Once your seedlings are sturdy and have 2-3 sets of leaves, AND your soil is thawed enough to work with, you can begin transplanting your babies out into the big wide world! By this point, they should be properly “hardened off” (acclimated to outdoor conditions) and ready to go!

6. If you sowed your seeds thin, you can “prick” out the individual plants and transplant them. If you sowed your seeds thick, you may end up with a “clump” of seedlings (often happens with tiny seeds, like these poppy seedlings). No worries. I use a clippers to cut the clump into “hunks o’ seedlings” and plant an entire hunk.

20190509_124658.jpg

I cut this clump into small hunks and planted a hunk in each hole.

20190509_124707.jpg

Within a month or two, the seedling grow and look like this!

82202538_1013698268986989_4786712253636280320_n.jpg


Hope this was helpful! Happy Winter Sowing!

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If you’re serious about growing the garden of your dreams this year, register for my online course, “Backyard Cutting Garden 101”. You’ll find everything you need to plan, grow, harvest and arrange your stunning blooms. I can’t WAIT to help you grow! Click on the button below for all the details.I’M READY TO GROW!18 Likes Share

COMMENTS (30)

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Morgan 5 months ago · 0 Likes  

Thanks so much for this. Unfortunately, I was late to realize I needed to plant poppy seeds in winter. The snow is all starting to melt now(I’m also in michigan)! Do you think it’s too late to winter sow? I’m thinking I will use both your method and direct-sow now.

Lori Hernandez 5 months ago · 0 Likes  

Morgan, that is exactly what I was going to recommend! Try both methods and see what happens. You’ve got the right idea – gardening is just one big experiment and it’s always helpful to try things a few different ways to compare results. Best wishes and happy sowing!

Janet Bryan 6 months ago · 0 Likes  

So glad I found you. I am trying winter sowing and a cut garden for the first time in 2020. Have you tried gomphrena in your jugs?

Lori Hernandez 6 months ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Janet,
Glad these resources have been helpful! I have not tried Winter Sowing gomphrena. I suspect they are somewhat cold hardy, but don’t have any evidence to support that. Perhaps you could try Winter Sowing them closer to your Last Spring Frost date, maybe 6-8 weeks ahead of that date.

Lisa 6 months ago · 0 Likes  

Thanks for sharing! This was super helpful. Especially the list of winter-appropriate seeds for sowing.

Lori Hernandez 6 months ago · 0 Likes  

Lisa,
You’re welcome! Happy seed sowing!

Natalie H A year ago · 0 Likes  

is it too late to start these this month? 😅 i think i’d still be ahead of the game if i tried this rather than direct sow!

Lori Hernandez A year ago · 0 Likes  

Natalie,
Go for it! I just finished up last weekend…. oh, who am I kidding, I will probably do more 😉
Yes, as long as there is still some good freeze/thaw activity, you can still Winter Sow!

Meagan H A year ago · 0 Likes  

How do you get the drainage holes in the bottom?
I’m going to try a few flowers from your list, and also Shasta Daisies and some spinach for our veggie garden. Hoping it will still work even with our warmer winter this year!

Lori Hernandez A year ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Meagan! If you scroll down on the blog post under the heading “Preparing for Winter Sowing”, you’ll see a photo of how I use a little screwdriver to make the holes!

As long as there is still some good freeze/thaw activity, it should work! If it gets warm, be sure to check on the jugs and make sure they are not drying out or overheating.

LindaQ 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Lori,
Have you ever tried penstemon for winter sowing?
LindaQ

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Linda,
No, I have not tried it… but I suspect most perennial plant seeds would be a good candidate for Winter Sowing. Only one way to find out 😉 Good luck!

Tina Lewis 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Lori, You’ve peaked my interest in planting poppies but I’ve hesitated because I’ve read that they are sensitive to root disturbance. Some seed vendors recommend direct seeding. Do you get around this by planting in “hunks” as described in your earlier response? I’m wondering if I would be successful if I plant the poppy seeds in a milk jug, then plant the entire “hunk”? Thanks for your insights.

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Tina,

Yes, they are not a fan of root disturbance, but I have not noticed real problems. You can absolutely just plant the entire jug worth of seeds in one spot… or you can cut it into smaller pieces and plant those, spaced about 9-12″ apart.

They DO respond best to direct sowing, so maybe you try both methods! Winter Sow some now, then direct sow some too, as soon as the soil can be worked.

It would be interesting to compare results!

Karla 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Great info – thank you! After transplanting the hunk of seedlings into the ground do you have to thin them? Or do you just leave them in a hunk?

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Karla,

I usually do not thin them. I know this seems kind of odd, but to me it mimics the way the plants would grow in nature. When plants drop their seeds in the fall, they come up in clumps the following spring. Winter Sowing does the same thing, just in a slightly more controlled manner.

So for example, I space my poppies 9-12″ apart. I would plant a hunk of poppy seedling every 9-12″ and allow them to grow just like that.

I couldn’t hurt to thin them out…. I simply don’t have time to mess around with that 🙂

Hope this helps!

elizabeth 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

thank you so much!! now I just have to come up with the containers and I’m off and running

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Elizabeth,

You’re welcome! Have fun with it!

Shelly 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Love this! Thank you! Last winter/spring I tried early sowing in a southern facing window of our house and everything was leggy and pretty much a hot mess. I am not giving up though and I am going to try your method.
I am a couple of hours north of you and love that you have tips for our short growing season!

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Shelly,

You’re welcome!

Yeah…. seedlings need at least 16 hours of good light to thrive and here in Michigan, it’s REALLY tough to give them what they need without grow lights and heat.

Thankfully, hardy annuals seem to do really well with the Winter Sowing technique.

Best wishes and have fun! Keep dreaming of spring!

Deanna 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Lori. I am in zone 3/4. Our snow is usually around for a while yet. Just wondering if the seedlings are getting quite big do you just put them in bigger pots trying not to disturb the roots?

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Deanna,

I feel you! So, the beauty of Winter Sowing is the seeds will not germinate until the time is right. They will follow nature’s cues, since they are outside exposed to the elements.

I would not recommend repotting them, unless they are huge… but by that time, it’s likely safe to plant them in the ground.

Think of winter sowing as scattering seeds on the ground and letting the plants grow…. but you’re just making it easier for you to dig them up and transplant them where you want them.

Hope this helps!

Kate 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Just curious, are these difficult to separate in the spring to plant out? Wondering why you don’t use 72 cell trays? Great info, thanks! I’ve referenced it a few times now.

Lori Hernandez 2 years ago · 0 Likes  

Kate,
That is a great question! I’ve asked around about using 72 cell trays and haven’t received a good answer. My guess is that the cells dry out too quickly and they would require “babysitting” and watering, which kind of defeats the whole idea behind Winter Sowing.

I’m actually doing an experiment right now with a 128 cell tray. I’ll let you know how it works. 😉

In the past, I’ve either: 1. Planted them in “chunks” (for small seedlings like Nigella) or 2. Carefully pulled each plant apart (for larger seedlings like Bells of Ireland).

It all depends on how thick you sow the seeds.

Howard 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

What about snow?

Lori Hernandez 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Howard,

Snow is no issue for cold hardy annuals and most perennials. In fact, the snow insulates the “mini greenhouses” and provides much needed moisture.

My Winter Sowing “greenhouses” are currently buried under 2 feet of snow. 🙂

Best wishes and happy planting!

Laurel Smitter 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

Lori,
This is AMAZING! I have been looking for a resource that offers more information on starting seeds in my area, and wouldn’t you know it, I only live down and around the corner from you, so this is PERFECT! I have been planning for about a month now, but this year is the first time I will be planting a designated cutting garden and not just adding cut flowers into my normal landscaping. I have a plan laid out, but I would love your opinion on it if you would be willing to take a look at it.
I am going to give the jug method a try and see if that saves my husband from having a heart attack about all the space I was planning on taking up in our tiny basement and the investment I was getting ready to make in grow lights and heat mats! 🙂
One quick question…Do you think it would be wise to switch the seedlings to individual cell trays in April, once they are larger? I am concerned about them crowding before I can get them into the ground.
Can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt!

Lori Hernandez 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

Hi Laurel,

I’m so glad to hear this information was helpful! Yes, with our short growing season, we have some major limitations for growing cut flowers, but we can make up for that by being creative. 😉

Right now, I’m in the process of creating an online course that helps backyard gardeners plan and plant their own cut flower garden. Perhaps that can help you with your planning! But really, the VERY BEST WAY to learn is to just dive in and make about a million mistakes… and then learn from those mistakes.

Yes, give winter sowing a shot! It only works for cold hardy annuals and some perennials, but it will save you a little bit of space. Your annuals will still need to be started indoors on heat mats/grow lights.

You CAN try bumping up the seedlings to larger cell trays… but know that most plants dislike root disturbance. By the time they are larger in April, you could probably start planting them outdoors! No need to move them twice. If it’s really cold, you can always cover the seedlings at night with a sheet or some frost cloth… but they should be ok.

Hope this helps and happy planting!

-Lori

Patty Forster 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

HI Lori,
Glad to read about your husband’s recovery; think about him when I read your blog/site. My son had a severe Brain Injury when he was twelve, now 27.
Very informative blog on winter sowing. I have used the milk jug sowing technique for a couple of decades now but have recently switched over to soil blocking. I follow Lisa Zeigler’s instructions and am seeing the benefit of them. One is, I can sow more seeds in a foam meet tray, seed flat tray or cafeteria food tray if needed more of one variety, that allows water monitoring and viewing of their progress. Two, i don’t have to separate the seedlings and possibly damage any roots. Of course these soil blocks are monitored in inside quarters such as a room in house, garage, shed, cold frame, etc.
A hard part for new gardeners getting into cut flowers would be the planning of the beds. It so different than having a landscape garden filled with beds of perennials, shrubs, annuals, etc. It would prove valuable to share how you plan your beds; how they are divided up if possible.
Congratulation on working on your new online. Would love to see some videos incorporated if so.
Patty

Lori Hernandez 3 years ago · 0 Likes  

Patty,

Thanks for this wonderful comment and great feedback!

Yes, I also do soil blocks, but only for the plants I’m growing indoors. Unfortunately, soil blocks would dry out too quickly to use them for winter sowing. But I’m trying hard to figure out a way to do Winter Sowing in a more methodical way, so I can divide and plant the seedling more easily.

Planning!!!! Yes, that is one of the absolute hardest part about growing cut flowers. I’m working on that lesson right now and offering a few different ways to do it.

Video! I’m working on that too! There are some concepts that are so much easier to teach with video, so there will be several of them.

Thanks for this feedback and have a great day :)Newer PostHow to Grow: Bells of IrelandOlder PostHow to Grow: Snapdragons

Rajib Mridha

Rajib Mridha

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