Winter Sowing – A Complete Guide

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Using a genius method called winter sowing, I will teach you how to start seeds without the use of grow lights or a pricey greenhouse. Sounds too good to be true, right? I assure you, it’s true and incredibly cheap and easy.

What Is Winter Sowing?

Winter sowing is an outdoor method of starting seeds and it requires plastic containers(like milk or juice cartons), soil, seeds and Mother Nature.

By growing your own plants from seeds, you can save hundreds of dollars each year and with this winter sowing method, seed germination has never been easier.

This will be my fourth year with a large garden where I grow vegetables for my family and beautiful cut flowers. Fortunately, I came across this method called winter sowing, right before I started my garden 4 years ago.

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inside view of winter sowing bottles

Benefits of Growing From Seed

Starting seeds indoors is a great way to get a jump start on the season. However, growing seeds indoors takes a ton of work.

Not only do you need a dedicated space to place your seedlings, but you will also need grow lights and heat mats.

Even if you do everything right, I have found that seedlings started indoors are usually weak and spindly and that doesn’t make for healthy, sturdy plants come spring.

Winter sowing is a great way to take all the work out of starting seeds early. The seedlings are sturdy and healthy and you will save loads of money by purchasing seeds rather than plant starts at your local nursery.

How To Winter Sow

First, you need to make a miniature greenhouse. For that, you can use clear or translucent plastic containers like juice bottles, soda bottles or milk cartons.

Second, we need to create drainage holes in the  bottoms  of the greenhouse. My preferred method is using a drill bit to drill the holes. I like to drill 4-6 holes in the container depending on the size of it.

The last step to prepping our “greenhouse” is cutting it in half. Using a serrated knife, cut the container in half, leaving a small bit of the container intact to act as a hinge.

winter sowing 101

Choosing Soil For Winter Sowing

Selecting the right soil is crucial to your winter sowing success. You will want a light, well-draining potting soil. I typically use organic seed starting mix and have had great success with it. But any type of potting soil with peat-moss and perlite should work fine.

I like to moisten my potting soil in a large bowl before adding it to the containers. I just pour a generous amount of soil into a large bowl and add enough water to where the soil starts to clump together and mix it with my hands.

You don’t want the soil to be dripping wet, but you want a good amount of moisture in it.

Fill your containers with the soil, to a depth of about 2 to 3 inches. Then you are ready for the seeds.

Sowing The Seeds For Winter Sowing

The hard part is done and now the fun part begins, sowing the seeds!

Plant the seeds according to the depth noted on the seed packet. You can use a pencil to poke holes in the soil and plant the seeds or sprinkles the seeds on the surface and then cover with soil.

Next, let’s talk about the best varieties to winter sow.

What About Watering?

In my experience, the only time I have needed to water my seedlings, is when it’s close to planting time.

Mother Nature pretty well takes care of the seedlings, from providing light to watering with rain and snow.

When the temperatures start to rise, if you notice the soil drying out, mist the plants gently, as not to disturb their tender root systems.

winter sowing garden

What To Winter Sow and When

Not all plants do well with being planted in the freezing temps of winter. But a surprisingly large amount of plants do! Let’s talk about those.

Perennials and Hardy Annuals For Winter Sowing

Regardless of the temperature outside, if a plant is hardy in your zone, you can plant the seeds any time in the winter. You won’t need to worry about the temperature because the seeds won’t sprout until the warmth of spring arrives.

Occasionally, you may get a random warm spell in the middle of the freezing winter, but that won’t affect the perennials and hardy annuals. They are used to those temperature fluctuations and they wont be bothered by it.

Tender Annuals

Tender annuals do very well with winter sowing as well, but they need a little more babysitting than perennials and hardy annuals.

Let’s say you sow your tender seeds in the winter sowing containers in February where your normal temps are between 30* and 45* Fahrenheit. Then out of nowhere, you get a couple of 55* days(Keeping in mind it’s warmer in the “greenhouse” container than outside of it) and the tender annuals decide it’s time to sprout. This is okay, you will just need to cover the containers with a blanket at night to protect them from the frost.

If you don’t want to bother with covering your tender annuals if they sprout too soon, you can avoid that by waiting to sow your tender annuals closer to spring when the risk of frost is significantly reduced.

For a great list of suggested seeds to winter sow by zone, check out The 104 Homestead.

how to start seeds

Which Seeds Can Be Used For Winter Sowing?

This depends on your growing zone, but this question can often be answered by reading the seed packet.

If the packet shows that the plant is hardy in your growing zone, then you can be pretty confident that it would make a good candidate for being winter sown.

If the seed packet mentions that the seeds need to be scarified or stratified, that’s another indication that those seeds should do well being planted using the winter sowing method.

Other terms to look for in seed varieties to be winter sown:

  • sown when cool
  • cold-hardy
  • direct-sowing
  • self-sowing
  • pre-chill

Remember, even if the seed packets don’t mention the phrases above, it’s likely you can still winter sow them, you may just want to wait until you are closer to spring in your zone.

If you already have an established garden and notice things like cosmos, sweet peas or zinnias coming back on their own, then that is another indication that those seeds will also do well being winter sown in your  zone.

how to grow healthy seedlings outside

Where Do I Put The Containers?

Because the seeds will be relying on water/snow for watering and sun for light and warmth, you will need to place them out in the open where they can get plenty of both.

I highly suggest not placing them on tables or benches, because if the wind knocks them down, that would be such a bummer(ask me how I know).

I also learned from experience to keep them out of the toddler’s reach…oh and the puppy’s!

Labeling Your Containers

This is a crucial step for winter sowing. You may think that you will remember which seeds you planted in which containers, but I can speak from experience that you won’t.

I have found that using a nice thick sharpie on popsicle sticks works the best.

To be extra cautious, I write the variety on a popsicle stick that goes IN the container and I also write it on the container. So if either of those methods fail me(usually from sun fading), I have a back up.

A Guide To Winter Sowing

You don’t need many supplies for winter sowing and often, this method can be accomplished for just pennies! Compare that to $50 grow lights, $30 heat mats or a $1,000 greenhouse!

Supplies For Winter Sowing

  1. clear or translucent plastic containers or cartons(think milk jugs, juice bottles, Soda bottles, water jugs etc)
  2. potting or seed starting soil. I like organic seed starting mix, but any mix with peat moss and perlite should work well.
  3. serrated knife or sharp scissors for cutting the containers in half
  4. drill with drill bit for drilling drainage holes
  5. duct tape
  6. seeds
  7. water

Learn how to winter sow with this easy, step-by-step guide.

  1. drill 4-6 drainage holes in the bottoms of containers
  2. using a serrated knife or sharp scissors, cut the container in half, leaving about a half inch in tact, that will serve as a hinge for the container
  3. mix your soil. Add soil to a large bowl and add enough water to moisten it
  4. add 3 to 4 inches of soil to your containers, pressing down gently
  5. poke holes in the soil with a pencil and place your seeds and cover gently. Or scatter seeds on soil surface and cover with more dirt.  Pay attention to planting depth on the seed packets.
  6. label the container and a popsicle stick with the plant and specific variety, ie “zinnia purple prince”
  7. Use duct tape to close up sides of the container
  8. **leave the cap OFF the container, you will not be needing it at all
  9. place containers in your yard where they will be protected from dogs, children and wind from knocking them down. Make sure they will get plenty of sunshine and rain/snow as well
  10. Wait for Mother Nature to do her thing and you should start seeing sprouts as the days warm up.
how to start seeds
how to start seeds outside
how to winter sow
how to winter sow
starting seeds

What About Hardening Off?

Hardening off is a method used to slowly introduce fragile seedlings that have been grown indoors, to the outdoors. Usually you start by taking your seedlings outside during the warmer weather for a couple hours at a time, over a period of a couple weeks – yet another reason that starting seeds indoors is more difficult that winter sowing.

For winter sowing, I find that the plants don’t need to be hardened off, but they will need a little more babysitting as the days warm up.

You see, because the whole premise behind this winter sowing method involves creating tiny greenhouses, that means that the air inside the container is much warmer than the air outside of the container.

So as the temperatures rise and the sun is shining into the tiny greenhouse, you will want to remove the duct tape and use the hinge to open your containers on warm days – otherwise your tiny seedlings could get too hot.

So by doing this, the seedlings are getting acclimated to the wind and direct sunshine, so intentional hardening off isn’t necessary.

winter sowing guide

What If It Snows?

Snow covering your containers is perfectly fine! In fact, you want that for stratification and watering your seedlings. As long as you follow the suggestions of which seeds to sows, you shouldn’t be worried about snow.

My Tender Annuals Sprouted and Now It’s Going To Frost

I have had this happen, but it’s not a huge concern. If your tender annuals sprouted because of the temperatures warming up and then suddenly a frost is coming, just toss an old blanket over your containers to protect them from the frosty nights.

If you planted perennials or hardy annuals, then you don’t need to cover them with a blanket, those seedlings are used to temperature fluctuations and it should not be an issue.

How To Plant The Seedlings

After your chance of last frost date has passed, it’s time to take those seedlings out of the containers that they have been growing in for the past few months and plant them in the garden.

Hopefully, while the seedlings were growing, you were prepping your garden beds with loads of fresh compost. If not, you may want to do that before you move your plants in. The success of a garden relies heavily on the quality of the soil. It’s easy to find great composted manure at local horse farms near you, or if you have chickens, you can compost their waste for use in the garden.

If you are brand new to gardening or have never had a soil test done, I would highly suggest doing so. You can get a test done for cheap or sometimes free, from your local agricultural extension office. A soil test is very helpful because it will tell you exactly what your soil needs to grow healthy plants.

My first year of gardening we needed to add nitrogen and lime to our soil, as well as tons of composted horse manure. My garden flourished that year and I know it was because I was so careful about amending the soil before I began planting.

winter sowing for healthy seedlings

Happy Winter Sowing!

Other Homestead Posts You May Enjoy:

How To Raise Chickens For Eggs

Homemade Whole Wheat Bread Recipe

I hope you learned a lot about winter sowing and I hope I have inspired you to give it a try this year. Starting seeds without grow lights is really quite simple with this method, I hope you have great success with it!

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